The baseball sizzles through the air, caught in the back of the net.
“That looks really good!” Casey Smith says.
“I feel a lot better this week,” says DJ LeMahieu, the Colorado Rockies second baseman and reigning National League batting champion, who came back home to Michigan to prepare for the upcoming season.
On an icy winter morning, inside a long-slung brick building on Stephenson Highway in Madison Heights, LeMahieu stands in a mesh batting cage, adjusting his crisp, white gloves. He goes through his pre-pitch routine. He taps the ground, shuffles his feet and wiggles his bat in the air, ready to attack.
Smith is positioned behind a protective L-screen. He digs a baseball out of a red bucket and tosses it underhanded toward the plate.
Whack! LeMahieu crushes another one into the back of the net.
“There it is,” Smith says.
Thump, thump, thump – music blares through speakers in 2SP (an acronym for Speed Strength and Power), a training facility with batting cages, enough artificial turf to take grounders and an area with weights and agility equipment.
LeMahieu, whose 28 and entering his seventh major league season, started using this facility Oct. 31, about a month after he won the 2016 N.L. batting title with a .348 average.
For a couple of years, LeMahieu spent the off-season in Atlanta. But after getting married, he wanted to return to Michigan to be closer to friends and family.
It’s a Pure Michigan commercial come to life.
A local All-Star using a local facility, working with a team of local coaches to get ready for spring training.
Brian Kalczynski, who started coaching LeMahieu when he was a freshman at Birmingham Brother Rice, stands to the side of the batting cage, holding an iPad, videotaping LeMahieu’s swings.
Joe Neal, a trainer who owns 2SP, is in charge of LeMahieu’s strength and agility training.
And then there’s Smith, the hitting coach, who moved to Michigan because his wife is working on her residency as an emergency room physician at St. John Macomb-Oakland Hospital in Madison Heights.
You think it takes a village to raise a child?
It takes an entire team of coaches to get a professional baseball player ready for spring training.
“Your forward move is really better,” Smith says, using body language and key phrases, making tiny tweaks and adjustments to LeMahieu’s swing.
After a couple hours of working out, LeMahieu’s grey T-shirt is drenched with sweat.
“Go inside on me,” LeMahieu says, wanting to work on a specific pitch.
“I’ll try to stay on the inner third,” Smith says.
Whack. Another ball screams to the back of the cage.
“That’s beautiful,” Smith said.
But baseball is a game of failure. On the next pitch, LeMahieu swings and doesn’t hit the ball square, which is rare during these workouts. He grimaces.
“One more good one,” he says.
He whistles one to the back of the cage.
“That a boy,” Smith says.
A friendship is born
LeMahieu and Smith started working together after the 2014 season, which has coincided with LeMahieu’s dramatic offensive improvement. At the time, LeMahieu was living in Atlanta and looking for a place to hit during the off-season. A friend of a friend suggested using Smith, a former minor leaguer who owns a large baseball facility in northwest Atlanta.
“It was crazy how that connection was made,” LeMahieu said. “The first thing he said was, ‘Hey, here are the keys to my place. Come in any time. I’ll be there to hit with you.’
“That’s how he is. He genuinely wants people to get better, no matter where they are in their career. That’s what I love about him. His hitting knowledge is unbelievable. He’s a big league hitting coach, no doubt.”
Smith, 32, has an easy-going personality, with a dark beard and a deep voice with a southern accent. He grew up in Georgia, was drafted in the ninth round by the San Diego Padres, spent two years in the minors and two years playing independent ball before getting into coaching.
He started throwing batting practice to LeMahieu and a friendship was born.
“It just worked out perfectly,” Smith said. “They lived in the neighborhood directly behind the facility. From there, we just developed a really good relationship and became really good friends.”
LeMahieu made it to the major leagues on his defense, not his offense. He earned a Gold Glove after the 2014 season, but wasn’t much of a factor at the plate, hitting.267 with little power. He was viewed as a permanent eight-hole guy, somebody to stick at the bottom of the order in the N.L.
But LeMehieu made a significant improvement in 2015, hitting .301. He started in the All-Star Game.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what caused the improvement. Was it the off-season work with Smith? Or was LeMahieu realizing his potential? Or was it his insatiable desire to get better? Or was it an improved training regimen? Or was LeMahieu learning how to use a consistent approach?
To be fair, it was probably some combination of all of it.
“Basically, we just bounce ideas off each other,” Smith said. “He’s such an unbelievable athlete. He knows what he wants. He’s constantly wanting to get better and improve. It’s been a blessing for me to have the opportunity to work with a guy at that level. I’ve learned so much from him.”
They continued working together after the 2015 season and the results were remarkable. In 2016, LeMahieu had a magical, career season. His batting average soared 47 points (from .301 to .348). He increased his home runs from six to 11 and his doubles from 21 to 32, while walking more and reducing his strikeouts.
“He’s really starting to understand himself, as a big league hitter, understanding the game now that he’s a veteran,” Smith says. “He’s understanding his body. It’s just a natural progression of a guy, once they really start to figure it out and get a consistent approach. The power is going to be there, especially when you are as big and strong as he is. He’s a special guy. You love seeing guys like that have that much success. When you work that hard and you are that good of a person, you are that driven and the results show on the field.”
Still, some baseball critics don’t know what to make of LeMahieu. They still have questions: Is he the middling .276 hitter from his first three-plus seasons? Or has he truly transformed into the guy who has hit .324 over the last two? Is he just enjoying the fruits of playing at offensive-friendly Coors Field? After all, he hit .391 at home and .303 on the road in 2016.
Will his numbers drop this season, or will he continue to scorch the ball?
Smith has no doubts.
“He’s extremely intelligent,” Smith said. “I feel that his body awareness, to feel everything he is doing and repeat it, is on a different level. Plus, another thing that I see with him that is on a completely different level, even a big league level, is his hand-eye coordination. He can find the barrel, even on a pitch that he is beat on or early on better than anybody I’ve ever seen.”
Attention to detail
Inside 2SP, on a wall above the weight area, hang the jerseys of several NHL players who have trained at this facility, including Detroit Red Wings such as Jimmy Howard, Danny DeKeyser and Jonathan Ericsson.
But there is no mention of LeMahieu.
LeMahieu, who is 6 feet 4 and 215 pounds, is a humble, quiet, unassuming All-Star. He’s the kind of guy who will talk at length about others, but doesn’t like to say much about himself.
He walks quietly to the back corner of the facility to stretch.
Neal follows him.
“I’m impressed with his attention to detail,” Neal says. “He’s a giant. When you look at DJ and you watch him, he moves like a smaller person. He has the finesse of a 6-footer.”
Neal puts LeMahieu through a series of stretches and core exercises designed to increase his strength, power and explosion, while maintaining agility, rhythm and athleticism.
They don’t do bench press or curls.
LeMahieu works out using rubber bands and hurdles and boxes and weighted vests.
“It’s not your typical football workout,” Smith says. “That’s the difference between understanding what a baseball player needs to be strong and a football player. It’s totally different. The muscles you use in the game are not your beach muscles.”
LeMahieu steps up on a wood box. He jumps to the ground and lands on both feet, about shoulder width apart, simulating the position he needs to be in on defense, in the ready position, right before the ball is hit.
Neal crouches in front of him, balancing on a knee. Neal owns three 2SP training facilities in Bloomfield Hills, Madison Heights and Shelby Township. But this is the part he loves, working with professional athletes. Ideally, he would love to expand his business and have this place become a mecca for pro baseball players. He is already training a handful of local minor leaguers along with LeMahieu.
As LeMahieu lands, Neal quickly points to his right and LeMahieu sprints in that direction, running hard down the green artificial turf, as if he were about to track down a ground ball.
Kalczynski videotapes it on an iPad.
They replay the video and study LeMahieu’s footwork, focusing on the angle of his shins on his first step, making sure he doesn’t take a false step and waste time.
A tenth of a second of reaction time could make all the difference in a baseball game.
They are trying to improve every aspect of his game. His range. His agility. His strength. His athleticism.
“His passion for the game of baseball is like nothing I have ever seen from anybody I have ever coached,” Kalczynski said. “His passion, in my opinion, has allowed him not to have a ceiling. People plateau. He continues to get better every year. In everything, that’s a unique quality, that somebody can get better every single year. I think it’s the passion and his desperation or sense of urgency that he has within himself. Those two things combined make DJ who he is.”
How this team of coaches came together is a story on its own.
A year ago, LeMahieu was working out in Atlanta under a different trainer and using Smith as his hitting coach.
But LeMahieu wanted to return in Michigan.
LeMahieu flew Kalczynski to Atlanta to watch what he was doing and see if he could create a similar situation in Michigan.
“He had a great trainer down in Georgia,” Kalczynski said. “He wanted me to come and look at what they were doing there. We were going to try to put a team together to make the workouts similar, comparable or better, hopefully. He flew me down there. I watched him work out two or three days, and got a feel for what they were doing.”
After interviewing several trainers, Kalczynski found Neal and 2SP.
But what would LeMahieu do about his hitting?
At the time, Smith was living in Atlanta.
Smith’s wife, Amanda, had interviewed at several hospitals around the country, looking for an E.R. residency.
“DJ had told me there was a possibility that he may be moving back to Detroit,” Smith said. “Then, she came to an interview at St. John right after that. I called him and I was like, ‘Hey bro, there’s a possibility that we may be going to Michigan.’
“Both of us figured out that we might be there, we were like, ‘All right, let’s do this.’ ”
So they all moved to Michigan, all based on that universal langue: “Hey, bro.”
“It’s perfect timing for him, perfect timing for me,” Smith said. “It couldn’t have worked out better.”
Driven to be better
Kalczynski kneels on the green artificial turf, throwing grounders to LeMahieu. His expertise is teaching infield defense.
“Infield wise, there is no one better to work with than him,” LeMahieu says.
They have been working together since high school. When LeMahieu went to his first Brother Rice practice at Drake Park, his talent was obvious.
“After I did the first drill, I thought to myself, ‘Man, DJ looks really good,’ ” Kalczynski said. “Before I got to the fungos, I was like, ‘DJ is the best infielder we have.’ ”
Kalczynski played at Michigan and was the MVP during the 1997 Big Ten championship season. He coached at Central Michigan, U-M and Illinois before becoming an assistant at Brother Rice.
“In baseball, he’s always been that guy to challenge me, athletically and as a person,” LeMahieu said. “He’s someone who has always been there for me, always challenging me.”
LeMahieu turned into a star at Brother Rice, a two-time Gatorade Player of the Year in Michigan. He went to LSU, where he played for two years at shortstop and second base, helping LSU win the 2009 national championship.
“When the game is on the line, when playing the toughest competition, he is playing his best,” Kalczynski said.
LeMahieu and Kalczynski have maintained a strong relationship over the years.
Years ago, before LeMahieu even made it to the big leagues, he would come home and ask Kalczynski to pitch him batting practice or do some infield together.
“I love doing it,” Kalcyznski said.
And that’s how they have come together again.
“It think it’s awesome that he was away for two or three years, to make a call to me, from the past,” Kalcyznski said. “It’s pretty exciting.”
Controversial batting title
LeMahieu’s batting title came with some controversy.
Early in September, he was locked in a battle against Daniel Murphy of the Washington Nationals for the highest average.
But Murphy ended up getting hurt, missing 10 straight games before getting an at-bat in the regular-season finale.
With Murphy’s batting average was frozen in place, LeMahieu took some criticism after sitting out five of the Rockies’ final eight games to win the N.L. title with a .348 average. He beat Murphy by a single point.
Phil Rogers, a baseball columnist for MLB.com, tweeted: “History won’t look kindly on DJ LeMahieu winning a batting title while getting 2 ABs in his last 5 games. Weak tea.”
And Mike Greenberg, from ESPN, tweeted: “This is garbage. Ted Williams is rolling in his grave. Walt Weiss shame on you.”
“It was probably the least fun I’ve had playing baseball,” LeMahieu said. “I was listening to our manager, Walt Weiss. He was like, ‘I’m going to do everything I can to get you this title, so if you don’t play, don’t come to me begging to play, I’m looking out for you.’ ”
The thing is, LeMahieu wanted to play.
“Absolutely, I wanted to play,” he said. “But it was something special there at the end. And we weren’t going to make the playoffs at that point. It was a difficult situation but it all worked out.”
And that doesn’t diminish his pride in winning the title.
“It was obviously pretty special,” LeMahieu said. “It was pretty cool. I just went on a pretty good roll there for a while. It’s something that, I didn’t think it wasn’t possible, but I never imagined that, growing up, that it could happen.”
A Michigan story
Baseball is a small world, especially in this area.
Kalczynski’s roommate at Michigan was Brian Berryman, who is now the executive director of baseball operations for the United Shore Professional Baseball League, the independent baseball league that started last summer in Utica.
This winter, Kalczynski introduced Berryman to Smith.
Berryman was so impressed with Smith that he offered him a job to be the league’s hitting instructor.
And Neal is the league’s strength and conditioning trainer.
Most of the team working with LeMahieu this winter will be working with USPBL players this summer.
Yes, it’s time to cue that Pure Michigan music again.
“That’s what is so cool about this,” Smith said. “We are all working together. It will be my first professional job as a coach, not a player.”
Smith and Kalczynski make an interesting pair.
They are both stay-at-home dads.
During one training session earlier this month, Smith was pitching batting practice to LeMahieu, as Smith’s 10-month-old son rested in a car seat on the other side of the cage.
Smith took a break and changed his son’s diaper, as the N.L. batting champion waited patiently to get back to work. Like I said, this might be the most humble, down-to-earth All-Star I’ve ever seen.
In the mornings, Smith and Kalczynski coach LeMahieu.
Then at night, they have partnered together and give joint hitting lessons to groups of baseball players, softball players and teams. Smith and Kalczynski also train my son once a week.
Potential to be better
The workout is done and LeMahieu walks into the kitchen at 2SP.
LeMahieu warms up his lunch in a microwave and sits down to eat. They offer catered meals to the professional athletes at 2SP. Nothing is left to chance, not even his lunch.
Smith has seen a change in LeMahieu this off-season.
It’s almost as if last season’s success has driven LeMahieu even more.
“Just seeing how he is attacking his workouts and how focused he is,” Smith says. “It’s incredible to watch. When you see a guy who has the talent he has, combined with that work ethic, you get a major league superstar. For me, I feel he has bigger years in front of him.”
LeMahieu is stronger and faster than he was last year; and his swing looks picture perfect.
“You are ahead of where you were last year at this time,” Smith tells LeMahieu.
That’s an intriguing thought, that LeMahieu has the potential to be even better, all because of what has been happening inside a brick building in Madison Heights.
All because he has a drive that’s close to desperation.
Even after winning a batting title.