Didi Gregorius Returns to the Phillies’ Fold

The past week’s game of free-agent infielder musical chairs — which sent Marcus Semien to Toronto, Andrelton Simmons to Minnesota, Tommy La Stella to San Francisco, Enrique Hernández to Boston, and Freddy Galvis to Baltimore — did find a couple of contestants staying in place. Cleveland re-signed Cesar Hernandez, while most notably, Philadelphia retained Didi Gregorius, signing the soon-to-be 31-year-old shortstop to a two-year, $28 million deal. In this nearly stagnant market, that rates as the second-largest contract of any free-agent infielder after DJ LeMahieu’s six-year, $90 million pact.

Gregorius initially landed with the Phillies via a one-year, $14 million pillow contract in December 2019, reuniting with former Yankees manager Joe Girardi, under whom he’d played during the transformative 2015–17 stretch of his career. His comparatively quick return from October 2018 Tommy John surgery had yielded a subpar half-season with the Yankees, as he hit .238/.276/.441 with a 69 wRC+ over the final two months of the ’19 season. Not only did that injury scuttle talks of a long-term extension with the Yankees, but his struggles upon returning also meant no $17.8 million qualifying offer on the way out the door.

Gregorius bounced back in rather impressive fashion in 2020, playing all 60 games and hitting .284/.339/.488 with 10 home runs and a 117 wRC+, an excellent approximation of his 2017–18 production. His defense rebounded as well, to something in the vicinity of average:

Didi Gregorius’ Fielding Metrics, 2017-20
Year Innings DRS UZR OAA
2017 1174.2 8 7.0 -5
2018 1149.1 1 3.9 -7
2019 688.1 -10 0.1 -14
2020 470.0 -3 0.4 -1
OAA = Outs Above Average (plays, not runs), via Statcast

In all, Gregorius’ 1.4 WAR not only outdid his modest 0.9 from 2019, but it was also tied for 11th among all shortstops; the rankings were clustered so tightly that he was 0.2 from being eighth or 13th, depending on direction.

For as solid as Gregorius’ 2020 performance was, a few areas stand out, and not in particularly flattering ways. His 83.8 mph average exit velocity placed him in just the second percentile, and his 4.4 mph drop was the majors’ second-largest among players with at least 300 plate appearances in 2019 and 200 in ’20. His 27.9% hard-hit rate similarly placed in just the eighth percentile, with the majors’ sixth-largest drop, and his 4.2% barrel placed in the 19th percentile, with a notable drop as well. He also hit an MLB-high 13 infield fly balls.

Given that grim profile, it rates as something of a headscratcher that Gregorius’ .285 BABIP was his highest since 2017, that he outdid his xSLG (.396) by 92 points (97th percentile), and that he outdid his xwOBA (.298) by 44 points (93rd percentile). Good speed and a hitter-friendly ballpark can help a player do that, and indeed, Gregorius has both in his favor, if not to extremes. The more likely explanation is that the ups and downs of his 2019–20 StatCast numbers are the product of smaller sample sizes, and a quick check suggests that’s true. His combined ’19–20 numbers — 86.2 mph average exit velocity, .339 wOBA, .322 xwOBA, 4.8% barrel rate, 32% hard-hit rate — don’t look out of place when next to his ’15–18 numbers. The only major difference is his .460 slugging percentage, well above his .403 xSLG. That’s the payoff from a pull-heavy approach that has played well in both Yankee Stadium and Citizens Bank Park; his 385-foot average home run distance puts him in the 10th percentile among qualifiers.

In a stronger market — particularly one not flooded with shortstops — Gregorius might have cashed in to a greater degree, but comparatively speaking, he did all right, and so did the Phillies. At two years and $28 million, he isn’t exactly a steal, but his power and average-ish defense give him a solid floor value-wise, and he projects to be a bit of a bargain over the course of the deal, at least according to ZiPS. Via Dan Szymborski, here’s his two-year projection:

ZiPS Projection – Didi Gregorius
2021 .275 .321 .473 480 73 132 23 3 22 91 30 68 5 106 1 2.6
2022 .275 .321 .478 448 68 123 22 3 21 87 28 62 5 108 0 2.4

And here’s his percentile projection:

ZiPS Projection Percentiles – Didi Gregorius
90% .295 .347 .565 474 81 140 28 5 30 108 36 56 8 136 4.6
80% .286 .336 .527 476 77 136 26 4 27 100 34 59 7 124 3.8
70% .281 .330 .507 477 75 134 25 4 25 96 33 63 6 117 3.4
60% .278 .324 .484 479 74 133 24 3 23 93 31 66 5 110 2.9
50% .275 .321 .473 480 73 132 23 3 22 91 30 68 5 106 2.6
40% .271 .317 .463 480 72 130 23 3 21 88 30 70 4 103 2.4
30% .268 .313 .451 481 71 129 22 3 20 86 29 72 4 99 2.2
20% .266 .309 .436 482 69 128 21 2 19 83 28 77 3 94 1.9
10% .263 .305 .418 483 68 127 20 2 17 79 27 83 3 89 1.5

That’s less than $6 million per win if Gregorius lives up to his two-year projection. It may have been more than the Phillies wanted to invest given their interest in Simmons (who signed for one year and $10.5 million), but it’s less annually than what Semien received ($18 million from Toronto). The two-year commitment also buys time for 2019 first-round pick Bryson Stott, a lefty-swinging shortstop with power who last ranked third overall as a 45+ Future Value prospect on our Phillies list last year, to develop.

Lineup-wise, Gregorius is the second Phillies free agent to re-sign this winter, that after J.T. Realmuto inked a five-year, $115.5 million deal last week. His return means that the lineup — which ranked fourth in scoring (5.10 runs per game) and sixth in wRC+ (109) — will look largely as it did late last year. Jean Segura, who spent 2017–19 as a shortstop (the last of those seasons with the Phillies) before splitting last year between second and third base, will be the regular at the keystone. Alec Bohm, who debuted on August 13 last year and swung a hot bat in his 44-game rookie season (.338/.400/.481, 139 wRC+), will man the hot corner, though his defense (-5 DRS and -1.6 UZR in 300.1 innings) rates as cause for concern.

Scott Kingery, who had a miserable showing last year (.159/.228/.283 in 124 PA) after a breakout in 2019, figured to play second if the team hadn’t added another middle infielder. Now, he’ll either return to a multi-position backup role or be part of the center field mix, competing for playing time with Roman Quinn, Adam Haseley, and possibly Odúbel Herrera. He’s still under contract but no longer on the major league roster, having been outrighted to Triple-A last January after serving an 85-game suspension for violating the league’s domestic violence policy in 2019. First baseman Rhys Hoskins, left fielder Andrew McCutchen, and right fielder Bryce Harper round out the lineup.

All of which means that new president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski’s changes to a team that finished outside the playoff picture at 28–32 last year have basically been confined to the pitching staff, and in total, they’re underwhelming. Free agents Iván Nova and Matt Moore will compete for spots at the back of the rotation, while Archie Bradley has been added to fortify a bullpen that was an utter dumpster fire, with a collective 7.06 ERA and 5.56 FIP. As with Realmuto but to a lesser degree, retaining Gregorius will help to keep the Phillies competitive, but if they’re to surpass the Braves and significantly fortified Mets in the NL East, they’ll either need a lot of luck or some more impactful moves.

Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.

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1 year ago

I like that the Phillies are spending money. It’ll take a lot of luck for them to win the division and, in all likelihood, Didi only adds a handful of wins to a 500 team. They could have gone with Kingery and saved some money. Instead they made a sensible move to compete. This is good for Phillies’ fans and for baseball.

1 year ago
Reply to  bglick4

Yes, it is. But the division is too tough for Didi to do too much. Dombrowski is spending.

1 year ago
Reply to  bglick4

Agreed. He’s not going to block anyone, and its an upgrade from Kingery, who projects to be replacement. So, 2 or 3 wins. The kind of thing teams used to do but now make more sense with expanded (or semi-expanded) playoffs.

But, the hidden downside is it would basically take them out of the running for any of the Seager/Story SS class of next year (which cynics in Philly say was the point).