Living in the shadow of New York Yankees’ legend Derek Jeter is no easy task. After Jeter retired at the end of the 2014 season, the Yankees needed to fill a hole that had not been vacant for two decades. That answer was Didi Gregorius. The then-24-year-old, who was ranked 63rd by MLB.com and 80th by Baseball America in the pre-2013 prospect ratings, had just finished his second season in the desert with the Arizona Diamondbacks. During his time with the D-Backs, Gregorius accumulated a 1.8 fWAR in 183 games, with 13 HR and a .682 OPS. He was not much of a hitter, but fielded his position well and was a plus-runner on the base paths. There was certainly upside to his game and Brian Cashman took a gamble on the kid from the Netherlands.
In his two seasons so far in the Bronx, Gregorius has put together a fairly impressive run. He has a 5.8 fWAR since the beginning of the 2015 season, placing him 9th among shortstops in Major League Baseball. Unfortunately for him, guys like Corey Seager, Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa, and Xander Bogaerts have stolen the spotlight. Those four players have been superstars since they entered the league and I still have not included the likes of Brandon Crawford and Addison Russell. Shoot – I even think Gleyber Torres gets more recognition. This circumstance has kept Gregorius under the radar during his early career. With that being said, he has been a very good player and has the opportunity to be even better.
Throughout his career, Gregorius has been very good on the bases, an above-average defender, and a pretty poor hitter. His wRC+ season-by-season since 2013 has been 91, 75, 89, 98 – placing him 161st out of 186 players with at least 1,500 plate appearances. That is not too good.
However, last season was a different story. The 98 wRC+ was the best of his career. He hit 20 HR after never hitting double digit home runs in a single season. His slugging percentage spiked from .369 in his first full seasons to .447 in 2016. The same spike can be said about his OPS and ISO. The soon-to-be 27-year-old shortstop transitioned from a singles hitter to a guy who can put the ball into the gap and over the fence.
In a year where we saw many middle infielders take major strides in their power numbers, Gregorius followed suit and became a much better hitter. He started swinging more and making more contact. The shortstop set career highs in swing percentage (55.4) and contact percentage (82.9). On top of that, we finally saw Gregorius driving pitches up in the zone after changing his approach since his arrival in New York. Prior to donning pinstripes, the former D-Back attacked pitches in the lower half of the zone. But once he made his home out east, his focus shifted to attacking pitches up in the zone.
Not only did the Netherlands-born infielder begin to swing at more pitches up in the zone, he also started swinging more at pitches in the heart of the zone from 2015 to 2016. Unfortunately for Gregorius, the new approach at the plate in 2015 did not transfer to more success on the field. While he did not get any worse, he did not see any significant gains in his production. The main reason behind the lack of production was his major increase in ground balls. In 2014, he hit 37.4% of his balls on the ground. But in 2015, that number jumped to 44.7%.
He started swinging at the right pitches, but could not elevate the ball. 2016 was a much different story. His ground ball percentage dipped back down to 40.1% and his fly ball percentage increased six percent to 40.3%. More fly balls, more extra base hits, and more home runs. If you have followed the recent trend and belief that ground balls are bad and fly balls are good (I agree), these are great signs for Gregorius’ development at the plate. His increase in production had a lot to do with finally taking advantage of his new offensive approach. Less rolling over on pitches and more elevation.
Now that’s more like it! Challenged up in the zone and capitalizing on the opportunity. If you are a lefty at Yankee Stadium, that is what you need to be doing.
If his swing chart and videos aren’t enough of a visual teaching tool, check out these fantastic breakdowns of a player’s launch angle, provided by Baseball Savant and Statcast. You will see in the first photo Gregorius’ launch angle in 2015, where a majority of his batted balls were hit at a five-degree angle. In 2016 you will see his launch angle improved, with a majority of his balls coming off the bat at a 20-degree angle.
The only ugly sight to Gregorius’ game is his walk rate. After walking 9.2% of the time in 2013, his walk rate has crashed down to 3.2% – the 3rd worst walk percentage in the league among qualifying hitters. I am not exactly sure what to make of it, due to the fact his strikeout percentage has also decreased from 16.1% in 2013 to 13.7% in 2016. Obviously walking 3.2% of the time is not a good thing, evident in his .304 OBP. But his new power surge has helped offset those issues as he had the best offensive performance of his career.
However, the strangest thing about his 2016 season was not his improvements at the plate, but his decline in his defense at shortstop. Gregorius was plus 5 defensive runs saved in 2015, but negative 9 DRS in 2016. That was the 4th-worst among Major League shortstops. His UZR dropped from 7.4 to -2.9 as well. For a guy who has been viewed as a strong fielder, his advanced fielding stats took a step back.
That decline in performance on the field led to a decrease in his fWAR as well. Even with his significant improvements with the bat, his fWAR dropped from 3.1 in 2015 to 2.7 in 2016. As I mentioned, a lot of that came from the fact that his defensive numbers declined. I realize that advanced defensive statistics may not be the most accurate tool to gauge a player’s value on the field, but it is the best resource we currently have.
I will be very interested to see how Gregorius performs this upcoming season. He certainly has the upside to be a four-win player, something Derek Jeter only did once in his last eight seasons with the Yankees. Believe me, I am not comparing the two. But the point of this article is Didi Gregorius is a good baseball player. Watch out for a breakout campaign from #18 in 2017.