Murti: John Olerud Can Relate To LeMahieu's Pursuit Of History

Yankee Has Chance To Win Batting Title In Both Leagues

Sweeny Murti
September 18, 2019 - 11:45 am
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It’s been 21 years since a Yankee won the batting title. That was Bernie Williams in 1998.

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Batting average doesn’t mean as much as it used to, but there is still something really cool about being called a “batting champion” and leading your league in hitting.

Even cooler? Nobody has done in over 100 years what DJ LeMahieu is trying to do — win a batting title in each league. LeMahieu won the National League crown in 2016 with Colorado and now has a chance to win the AL title with the Yankees. As of Wednesday, LeMahieu is hitting .329, trailing only Chicago’s Tim Anderson, who is at .336.

Even in the age of free agency, with players switching teams and leagues more often, only Ed Delahanty finished a season leading each league, hitting .410 with the Phillies in the National League in 1899 and batting .376 with the Washington Senators in the American League in 1902*.

[*A 1998 Sports Illustrated article claimed a discrepancy in which the Cleveland Bronchos' Nap Lajoie actually won the 1902 AL crown with a .379 mark. However, research by the Elias Sports Bureau confirms that Lajoie did not have enough plate appearances to qualify, and despite the bold number on Lajoie’s Baseball Reference page, every acknowledged listing of batting champions notes Delahanty as the AL champion that year. Also, the Hall of Fame plaque of Delahanty is cast in bronze crediting him with the 1902 batting title, whereas Lajoie’s Hall of Fame plaque does not list 1902 among his three career batting titles.]

Yankees third baseman DJ LeMahieu hits a game-winning home run against the Oakland Athletics during the eleventh inning on Aug. 31, 2019, at Yankee Stadium.
Andy Marlin/USA TODAY Images

There were some who came close. Tommy Davis won a pair of National League batting titles with the Dodgers in 1962 and 1963. He finished tied for second in the American League in 1973, when his .306 mark was behind only Rod Carew’s .350. 

OK, so maybe not that close.

Texas’ Al Oliver came within nine points of Carew in 1978. Four years later, he won a National League batting crown with the Expos. Miguel Cabrera, then with the Marlins, finished only five points behind Freddy Sanchez in 2006 before he was traded to the Tigers and won four AL batting titles. 

There is one man who knows what LeMahieu is trying to do. John Olerud won the AL batting title in 1993 with the Blue Jays and then, with the Mets in 1998, found himself in a race with the Rockies' Larry Walker for the NL crown, but Olerud’s .354 average fell short of Walker’s .363 mark.

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One thing that made it difficult years ago was that even when great hitters did switch leagues, the difference in styles from the National to American leagues took its toll on hitters who were trying to figure out the adjustment.

“It would be a huge accomplishment (for LeMahieu),” Olerud told me last week from his home in Washington state. “Coming to the Yankees and making that transition from the National League to the American League and having the success he’s having is a huge accomplishment.

“When I played, I thought the American League was a little more challenging to hit in. In the National League, they were more likely to attack the strike zone ... more of a fastball league. In the American League, you get into that 3-2 count, and they would try to trick you with an off-speed pitch, try to get you out with a slider or a split-fingered fastball, that sort of thing. I felt like in the National League you were more likely to get a fastball.”

And seeing a large majority of the pitchers for the first time can be challenging, too, Olerud said.

“You don’t know what the tendencies are of the starting pitchers in the league or what the closers like to do," he said. "You’re kind of learning on the fly, so to put good numbers up when you don’t know how people are going to attack you or how the league works is pretty impressive."

John Olerud in 1998
David Seelig/Getty Images

There's another change in the game that makes what LeMahieu is doing so remarkable. There are so many more relief arms to keep track of and adjust to, so many that often a hitter will face a different pitcher in every turn at bat.

Olerud made a good run at his second batting title in 1998, leading Walker .344 to .342 heading into September. But after Walker had back-to-back three-hit games, he led Olerud .354 to .341 on Sept. 8. 

Olerud got close again with an amazing hot streak, going 12-for-13 over a four-game stretch to pull within two points on Sept. 20, hitting .354 to Walker’s .356.

But another three-hit game on Sept. 23 put Walker in the driver’s seat. Olerud went 4-for-7 over his final two games, while Walker went 5-for-8 and held off Olerud comfortably for the final margin, .363 to .354.

And because Olerud had won one batting title before finishing second in the other league, he is the only player in the last 117 years who had a realistic chance to do what Delahanty did.

“I wasn’t thinking too much about — well, you know, you were thinking about the batting title, you wanted to have good games each time up, and you were hoping to have that type of year,” said Olerud, who played for the Yankees in 2004. “But I think the main focus was on the team making the playoffs.”

The Mets stayed in the wild-card race until the final weekend of the season, losing their last five in a row to finish a game behind the Cubs and Giants. (The Cubs won a Game 163 in what was then a one-wild card format.)

“Towards the end, (Walker) was a fair bit ahead of me, and I needed to have some good games the last week of the season to catch him," Olerud said. "Again, we were right in the middle of a pennant race, and that’s the main focus. But yes, you’re definitely keeping an eye on the race and wanting to have good at-bats.”

And back in 1998, “keeping an eye on the race” meant checking the local paper or the USA Today box scores the next morning to read the up-to-date standings and leaderboards.  Not like in 2019, when anyone can just use the MLB At Bat app and yell out to LeMahieu what Anderson is doing every plate appearance in real time.

“You’re paying attention to what he’s doing,” Olerud said. “But I think for me, having won a batting title before, I knew that the main focus was just having good at-bats and hitting the ball hard somewhere. Really that’s all you can control, really just trying to stay right and have that good timing and good plate coverage, just try to have a good game and make the most out of each at-bat.”

LeMahieu has done a lot of that this year. His run at history is now on with 10 regular season games left on the schedule.

Follow Sweeny on Twitter at @YankeesWFAN.