Overlooked in free agency, DJ LeMahieu has been a godsend for the Yankees – and perhaps the AL MVP

LONDON — Just six months ago, DJ LeMahieu arrived in New York with the fanfare of an Uber driver with a 4.85 rating.

LeMahieu may have been a two-time All-Star, a three-time Gold Glove winner and a batting champion in Colorado, but outside of the 303 area code, he wasn’t a household name – certainly not to fans in New York.

They just knew his name wasn’t Manny Machado or Bryce Harper, the brightest stars on the free agent market.

Besides, if LeMahieu was really that valuable, then how come the Rockies and 28 other teams passed on him, leaving him to sign a two-year, $24 million contract as a super-utility player with the Yankees?

“I don’t think most people in New York had any idea what they were getting,’’ Rockies catcher Chris Ianetta said. “He was great all of those years here in Colorado, but it’s like no one paid attention. Now that he’s with the Yankees, it’s like, ‘Oh, man, he’s the greatest.’

“The only shocking thing to us is that he had to accept a deal like that, and didn’t get the kind of offers that he deserved. He should have had a long-term deal at a very high dollar value.’’

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He was Colorado’s best-kept secret for seven years, but now he’s the talk of the league  on two continents, putting on an absolute hitting clinic at London Stadium during the Yankee-Boston Red Sox series. 

At this point, he may be American League’s Most Valuable Player.

LeMahieu, 30, is having one of the greatest first halves in Yankee history, hitting a league-leading .345 with a major-league leading 108 hits and 62 runs and 61 RBI, to go along with a .486 batting average with runners in scoring position. He’s bidding to become the first player in baseball history to win a batting title in both leagues

He was a one-man wrecking crew in London, going 7-for-12 with three doubles, seven RBI and four runs in the Yankees’ 29-run onslaught. The two teams combined for 50 runs – the most ever in consecutive games in the storied Yankee-Red Sox history.

LeMahieu is hitting .547 with 18 runs and 20 RBI in his last 11 games, the first Yankee player since Mickey Mantle in 1955 to accomplish the feat, according to the Elias Sports Bureau. He already has 36 multi-hit games this year, including in each of the last six games.

You want to know the real reason the Yankees are 54-28, homering in a major-league record 31 games, averaging 8.1 runs a game over their past 14, and possess the most lethal offense in the game?

Listen to Red Sox manager Alex Cora.

“It starts with DJ,’’ Cora said. “He puts up quality at-bats from the get-go. He stays within himself, goes the other way, hits with runners in scoring position, and doesn’t strike out. We knew he’d be a plus for them when they got him, but he’s been amazing.’’

LeMahieu signed a two-year, $24 million contract with the Yankees in January. (Photo: Noah K. Murray, USA TODAY Sports)

Certainly, LeMahieu has proven to be the biggest prize of the free-agent winter. While Harper and Machado will be sitting home during the All-Star Game, LeMahieu, who signed for $606 million less than the two of them combined, is the American League’s starting second baseman.

“I can’t tell you how much fun I’ve been having here,’’ LeMahieu told USA TODAY Sports. “It’s just so much great being part of a team like, this, and having this kind of talent.

“They do things a little different here. They win at all costs, and put us in position to win all of the time.

“It’s really better than I imagined. I love it here.’’

And, oh, are the Yankees loving him, with LeMahieu falling into their lap and perhaps saving their season as one of only three position players who have been healthy throughout the first half.

“They screwed up big time by not keeping him,’’ Yankees veteran outfielder Brett Gardner said. “I don’t know what the deal was, but a whole lot of teams missed the boat on him. He signed a well-below market deal for a player as good as he is.

“I don’t know where we’d be without him.’’

The Yankees were baffled, too, watching the Rockies and others ignore him during the winter, but always keeping an eye on him. Yankees special assistant Jim Hendry, who knew LeMahieu when he played at LSU and drafted him in 2009 as GM of the Chicago Cubs, lobbied all winter to sign him.

The Yankees’ analytics team believed he could even be a better hitter than he was at Coors, particularly after hitting .276 with a .321 on-base percentage last season, with three stints on the injured list for the first time in his career.

“I always had the confidence I was a pretty good hitter wherever I played,’’ LeMahieu said, “but I think people try to dismiss what you do at Coors Field. it’s a good place to hit, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t hit anywhere else.’’

The Yankees didn’t have an everyday job for him, but promised him enough regular at-bats throughout the infield. Their scouts and analysts believing he could play third base and first base, even though he had played only 49 games in his career at any position but second base.

“He just got stuck under the radar as far as the sport itself,’’ Cashman said, “and his free agency didn’t go as well as he hoped. It’s not like he took a discount to come to New York. He signed the best deal offered to him.

“I don’t have an answer to why it happened, but he got hurt his walk year and his numbers were down, so maybe that affected the assessments of him. We just liked him for the player he is, but I think when we signed him, the whole world was like, ‘What?'”

Said Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge: “I was confused too. We already had a pretty good infield, but anytime you can add a guy who won a batting title and Gold Gloves, we’ll find a spot for you. And even without the injuries we had, he was going to find a way to work himself in that lineup.’’

LeMahieu won three Gold Gloves in Colorado. (Photo: Jay Biggerstaff, USA TODAY Sports)

LeMahieu concedes he was startled, too, knowing there was no opening in the Yankees infield, but when they discussed that super-utility role, he embraced it, saying he felt flattered they wanted him.

“I wasn’t surprised by that,’’ Cashman said. “This is not said with arrogance, but we’re the New York Yankees. I know playing in New York comes with great pressure, but our ownership takes care of players better than any ownership group in the world.

“So, if I were a player, this is a place I’d want to play, no question.’’

Really, the only concern LeMahieu’s closest friends and former teammates was wondering how his quiet but fiery demeanor would play in New York. He is the antithesis of self-promotion. You want to talk to him about his talent, he talks about his teammates. You want to discuss his performance, he talks abut the team’s record. His personality is more suited for guys who played in 1940s or 1950s.

“In the ‘Let the kids play’ era,’’ agent and close friend Joel Wolfe says, “he’s a throwback. He’s quiet, he’s a gentleman, but between the lines, he will rip your heart out.

“No flash. All substance.’’

LeMahieu has only been with the Yankees for a half-season, but already, he’s one of the most popular players in the clubhouse. Judge says he has never seen such a consistent work ethic, refusing to take a day off, acting as if he’s just trying to make the team. Starter J.A. Happ calls him a hitting machine without flair.

“He’s all business, man,’’ Gardner said. “I remember the first week of spring training, just getting to know him. He and I were on the back fields doing our conditioning on the big hill, and I was asking him why he chose to come to New York because he didn’t necessarily know he’d be playing every day.

“He looked at me, and said, ‘I want to win. This is where I want to be.'”

Well, LeMahieu is winning on the field, raking at the plate, and loving life in the Upper East side of New York. He misses his old teammates, but takes great delight in proving that he’s better now than ever been in his career.

“I think everyone was kind of assuming I would be back in Colorado,’’ LeMahieu said, “but they never offered me anything. They never had any interest even though we had shown them a lot over the years.

“Once the Yankees showed a lot of interest, this is the place I wanted to be.’’

LeMahieu will be reunited with a couple of his closest friends in a week in Cleveland, with Nolan Arenado, Charlie Blackmon and Trevor Story all making the All-Star team for the Rockies. It’ll be a time they can formally thank him, with LeMahieu proving Rockies hitters are not simply byproducts of playing 81 home games at Coors Field.

“It’s cool to see what he’s doing because everyone likes to knock Colorado players a little bit,’’ Arenado said. “People are just starting to realize how good he is now. I knew he would do this in New York. He’s just the ultimate competitor. He wasn’t going to be scared by anything. He loves that energy there.’’

Said Rockies first baseman Mark Reynolds: “No one in here is surprised by what he’s doing in New York. We saw it every day here. It’s just that no one else was paying attention. If anyone is a product of Coors Field, it was definitely not him.’’

The whole world knows now, and will be reminded again in a week when LeMahieu steps on center stage at the All-Star Game.

“We all know it in here, but now everyone will realize just what he means to us,’’ Judge said. “He came here without a true position. But look at him now.

“He’s our MVP.’’

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