The Yankees weren’t quite sure who they were getting when they acquired Didi Gregroius from the Diamondbacks prior to the 2015 season. The intention was, of course, to find the long-term replacement for Derek Jeter, though expectations were understandably lower. Gregorius was a plus defender, but what good was that if he could never hit? A 76 wRC+ in 2014 didn’t instill much confidence, nor did an uninspiring .265/.324/.393 slash line in his final tour of the minor leagues as a prospect in 2012. Given that lack of positive track record, Gregorius’s bat was a wild card going into last season. Now, despite spending a full season with the team, his value is once again uncertain.
The difference between this season and last are expectations. Nobody was sure if Gregorius could even stick as a starter last season, but now we’re confident in that. He had a fine first season in pinstripes, producing 2.2 WARP, but Gregorius’s numbers were split between two starkly different halves, bringing up the question of whether that 2015 performance was his floor or his ceiling. He’ll have plus defense which should make him at least a starter for the team, but the offense could be the difference between a fringe-average regular and an above-average one.
Back to those two halves—Gregorius hit a mere .238/.293/.326 in the first half, but turned it around in the latter part of the year to the tune of a .294/.345/.417 line with a 109 wRC+. What’s ultimately important is if that second half performance is sustainable. The first thing to look at is luck, and Didi did see his luck take a turn for the better with a BABIP rise from .271 to .325. That said, neither mark pops out as egregious, so it doesn’t shed much light on how he’ll do next season.
To figure out if Gregorius can sustain the second half performance, let’s look at what he did differently to hit so much better. Firstly, Gregorius managed to steadily drop his strikeout rate. He went from a 17.4% K-rate in 2014 to 15.4% and then 13.9% over the first and second halves of last season, respectively. Combine that with a slight improvement in plate discipline, and Gregorius was a much better hitter as the season went on.
Gregorius also saw an interesting evolution in his batted ball profile. As a player with a fairly light bat, he looked to hit more ground balls last season. It’s not very useful for a non-power hitter to be hitting as many fly balls as Gregorius did in 2014. He succeeded in that regard, significantly increasing his ground ball rate from 37.4% in 2014 to 47.6% in the first half of last season.
This move may have been beneficial for Gregorius, but the fruits of his labor didn’t show immediately. That’s because Gregorius struggled to make hard contact even more than in the past. Considering that he already made a below-average rate of quality contact, this was detrimental to his performance. Gregorius’ hard-hit rate plummeted from a below-average 27.9% in 2014 to a downright awful 20% mark in the first half of 2015. While he had likely done something beneficial in decreasing his fly ball rate, it didn’t do him any good with so few hard-hit grounders. Things got better in the second half, though, once he upped his hard-hit rate a bit. This, along with a few more fly balls (to find a medium between 2014 and early 2015), could partly be the key to his success. Gregorius should be able to repeat, if not improve upon, those second half quality of contact rates which is great news for his 2016 stock.
The final improvement that Gregorius saw is undoubtedly the weirdest and most obscure of them all. The Yankees knew that he was a platoon risk, given his struggle to hit left handed pitchers. Things took a turn for the worst in the first half of last season, though, and Gregorius was almost an automatic out against lefties—a .156 batting average against proves that point pretty clearly. In the second half, Gregorius did something downright ridiculous: he hit .344 against left-handed pitchers’ fastballs. How? For starters, he cut down on his swing rate against the fastball, also managing to swing and miss significantly less. That doesn’t explain everything—more had to happen for Gregorius to see this dramatic transformation. But what’s important is that Gregorius was no longer inept against left-handed pitchers, improving his numbers overall.
A lot of what Gregorius did in the second half of last season is repeatable. More experience in the big leagues and an improved approach could have led to the better plate discipline and strikeout rates, so expecting a similar performance there is sensible. The evolution in Didi’s batted ball profile, while significant, is also a sustainable aspect of his game. The main unknown now for Gregorius will be whether he can carry over his relative success against lefties. Although we know why Gregorius was able to hit LHP in the second half, it’s unclear if he’ll be able to keep it up. He’ll never be great against southpaws, but being at least serviceable will be a big part of his 2016. Gregorius will be hard pressed to surpass 10 home runs and reach double digit steals, so he’ll have to find a way to make consistent contact against all pitchers. Luckily, he’s shown the ability to do just that, and it wouldn’t be shocking to see him carry over some of last year’s second half performance into 2016.
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