Didi Gregorius Steals the Spotlight

It’s fair to say that the Yankees’ 2018 home opener didn’t go quite as planned. New York City’s heaviest April snowfall since 1982 forced the postponement of Monday’s scheduled 1 pm game against the Rays, and it was made up on Tuesday afternoon under soggy, frigid conditions. In his first official game in pinstripes, Giancarlo Stanton recorded a platinum sombrero — 0-for-5 with five strikeouts — and was booed by moronic ingrates, and the vaunted Yankees bullpen blew a three-run lead. Then Didi Gregorius, who had already hit a three-run homer that created the short-lived lead, broke the game open with his second three-run blast, and later tacked on a two-run single that turned the game to an 11-4 laugher. It was an impressive, two-curtain call day for a player who often flies beneath the radar amid the Bronx Bombers’ bigger names.

Not that anyone should worry about Stanton (who launched a 458-foot homer in his first plate appearance on Wednesday), but Gregorius can relate. Tasked with replacing the iconic, Cooperstown-bound Derek Jeter as the Yankees’ shortstop, he was burdened with the weight of massive expectations and heard the Bronx boo birds and chants of “Der-ek Je-ter!” frequently in early 2015. Gradually, Gregorius has settled into the job, to the point that he’s almost overlooked, whether the point of comparison is the Yankees’ modern-day Murderer’s Row (with Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez and now Stanton), a work-in-progress infield brimming with young talent and versatility, or an incredible shortstop cohort featuring Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Corey Seager, Xander Bogaerts, Trea Turner and now Manny Machado, all in their age-25 seasons or younger.

The 28-year-old Gregorius doesn’t quite belong at their level, but over the past three seasons, he’s a solid seventh in WAR at the position, including a career-high 3.9 WAR in 2017 (also seventh):

MLB Shortstop WAR 2015-2017
# Name Team Batting Base Running Fielding WAR
1 Francisco Lindor Indians 35.8 5.0 37.2 16.2
2 Corey Seager Dodgers 65.6 6.8 15.7 14.8
3 Carlos Correa Astros 66.4 7.6 -10.1 13.6
4 Xander Bogaerts Red Sox 17.5 18.0 -3.5 12.4
5 Brandon Crawford Giants 3.9 0.4 39.3 12.2
6 Andrelton Simmons Braves/Angels -15.9 1.1 48.3 11.2
7 Didi Gregorius Yankees -4.1 10.5 9.8 9.6
8 Zack Cozart Reds 23.4 -1.5 15.5 8.9
9 Elvis Andrus Rangers -1.0 9.9 -17.9 7.8
10 Addison Russell Cubs -12.1 2.9 25.9 6.9

By WAR, Gregorius has been the most valuable Yankees position player in that span, though to be fair, that’s only because of his head start on Judge and Sanchez, who arrived for good in late 2016.

Born in Amsterdam in 1990, the grandson of Juan Gregorius, a star hurler in Curaçao in the 1950s and the son of Honkbal Hoofdklasse pitcher Johannes (Didi) Gregorius Sr. of the Amsterdam Pirates, Mariekson Julius Gregorius was raised in Curaçao from age 5, and signed by the Reds as an amateur free agent in 2007. He debuted in the majors in September 2012, but with his position blocked by Zack Cozart, he was dealt to the Diamondbacks in December of that year as part of a three-way, nine-player blockbuster involving Cleveland-bound Trevor Bauer and Cincinnati-bound Shin-Soo Choo. At the time, Diamondbacks general manager Kevin Towers audaciously compared Gregorius to the man he would eventually replace:

When I saw him, he reminded me of a young Derek Jeter. I was fortunate enough to see Jeter when he was in high school in Michigan. He’s got that type of range, he’s got speed, more of a line-drive-type hitter, and I think he’s got the type of approach at the plate and separation to where I think there’s going to be power there as well.”

After cracking the Baseball America Top 100 Prospects list in the spring of 2013, Gregorius scuffled over the course of two seasons as the Diamondbacks’ regular shortstop, hitting a combined .241/.314/.368 for an 85 wRC+ with a meager 1.8 WAR. He even spent two months back in Triple A early in 2014. After Towers was fired in September 2014, it was hardly a coincidence that Yankees GM Brian Cashman, under whom Towers had worked as a special assignment scout between GM stints in San Diego and Arizona, dealt for Gregorius in another three-team deal in December of that year.

Despite the impossible task of filling Jeter’s shoes in a figurative sense, Gregorius quickly illustrated that he could cover far more ground at shortstop than the aging superstar, whose glovework was generally notoriously overrated. While he’s had his own ups and downs in his three seasons at the position, he’s been a massive improvement upon the Captain and fill-ins such as Eduardo Nunez and Jayson Nix, who got the bulk of the work during Jeter’s injury-shortened 2013 season:

Over the last four years of the Jeter era, Yankees shortstops (all of ’em) averaged a godawful -19 DRS and -15 UZR. Over the first three years of the Gregorius era, those averages have been boosted to -3 DRS and +3 UZR. I’ve dispensed with the rounding here, but that’s a 17- or 18-run per year improvement, or nearly two wins per year. Excluding 2013, Jeter averaged 1.6 WAR over his final three full seasons, with Gregorius doubling that average during his tenure.

Indeed, though he’ll never be the on-base machine that even the latter-day Jeter was prior to his October 2012 broken ankle, Gregorius has advanced markedly as a hitter during his pinstriped tenure, from an 89 wRC+ in 2015 to 98 the next year and 107 last year. The power that Towers envisioned has indeed emerged, as his ISOs have increased from .105 to .171 to .191 in those three years, with his homer totals climbing from nine to 20 to 25. And no, that’s not just Yankee Stadium at work; while 29 of his 54 homers during that span came at home, he’s got an 86 wRC+ there (.251/.292/.415) compared to 110 on the road (.300/.335/.448). That split is driven by groundball and flyball rates that are basically reversed (38%/42% at home, 42%/37% away), a 51-point BABIP gap (.265 versus .316) and a substantial strikeout split (15.4% versus 11.8%).

Gregorius’s game has its dings, most notably an anemic walk rate (4.4% from 2015-17, 13th-lowest among the 232 hitters with at least 1,000 PA) borne of a tendency to chase (39.1% O-Zone rate, also 13th) en route to a .313 on-base percentage (56th lowest in that same set). Even so, the overall package — which includes a few extra runs per year on the bases — has developed into such a solid one that he’s become the cornerstone of a Yankees’ infield that’s otherwise unsettled. Heading into 2017, Gleyber Torres, Jorge Mateo and Tyler Wade all ranked among the team’s top prospects after spending a substantial portion of 2016 playing shortstop for either their High A or Double A affiliates. Mateo is now an Oakland Athletic via last July’s Sonny Gray trade, Wade is a utilityman whom Cashman envisions as the team’s Ben Zobrist, and Torres is the heir apparent at second base.

Gregorius, in his first year of arbitration eligibility, is making $8.25 million and has two more years under club control. And while he may not get the attention of Judge, Sanchez or Stanton, he’s probably not going anywhere anytime soon — except, perhaps, out of Jeter’s shadow, one step and one season at a time.

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... and Mastodon @jay_jaffe.

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4 years ago

i’m just here to voice support for the anti-anti-anti-booing position. the fans who booed stanton were indeed feral ingrates and it is important to call them out on it.