In the winter of 2014, the New York Yankees were searching for someone to replace Derek Jeter. Okay, maybe “replace” is not quite the right word, but with the future Hall-of-Famer retiring, the Yankees had no clear internal options to fill the void Jeter was leaving behind. Brian Cashman was left with the daunting task of finding someone who the team believed could not only play shortstop at a high level, but would also not shy away from the challenge of replacing a Yankee legend.
The Yankees decided that the right man for the job was Arizona Diamondbacks shortstop Didi Gregorius. They acquired him in in a three-team deal, trading right-hander Shane Greene to the Tigers. At the time of the deal, Gregorius was a relatively unknown 24-year-old that had just been traded for the second time in his young career. He came with solid defensive abilities, but fans, among others, were skeptical that his bat would allow him to become the next everyday shortstop for the Yankees.
After a miserable first half in 2015, which saw Gregorius hit .238 in 81 games, Yankee fans had already given up on him and were reminiscing about the the days that Derek Jeter occupied shortstop.
But everything changed in July 2015. Maybe Gregorius struggled because he felt the pressure of replacing a legend. Maybe it was Gregorius making significant adjustments over the All-Star break. Whatever it was, Gregorius has been a completely different hitter at the plate since then.
In the second half of last season, Gregorius posted a .294 batting average with five home runs and 37 RBIs in 72 games. Gregorius’s run to end the season helped him finish fourth among American League shortstops with a 3.1 fWAR. He trailed only Francisco Lindor, Xander Bogaerts, and Carlos Correa. The question still remained: was his performance in the second half an aberration or was it a sign of things to come?
Gregorius has emphatically answered this question with a breakout 2016 campaign. He is slashing .289/.318/.468 this season, which would set a career high with the exception of his on-base percentage. He also has homered 15 times (already a career high) to go along with 52 RBIs (nearing a career high). He has been a top five shortstop in the AL, according to fWAR, over the past two seasons, but will the 26-year-old be able to sustain this success for years to come? Some might be skeptical, but the numbers say yes.
One notable adjustment that Gregorius has made over the past year is improving the percentage of balls hit to the opposite field to a career-best 28.9%, three percentage points above the league average. He’s also increased his line-drive rate each season he has been in the majors and his current 21.6% mark is nearly a full percentage point above the league average.
Gregorius has cut his swinging-strike rate to a career low 9.1% in 2016, which has helped increase his contact rate to yet another career high. And, although he does not walk nearly enough, his current 12.9 strikeout rate certainly helps make up for it.
One might assume that his increase in average this season is an anomaly. However, these improvements help explain why it’s sustainable. Even his batting average on balls in play, which is currently .302 on the season, is nearly identical to his 2015 mark and on-par with the league average.
Gregorius’s power looks legit, too. Although his HR/FB% has significantly increased to 12.1%, it’s still 0.7% lower than the league average. And even though Yankee Stadium can certainly help with the power numbers, too, he’s just the fifth Yankee shortstop in history to crack 15 homers in a season. The last to do this before Gregorius? Well, of course, it was Jeter.
Gregorius has worked hard to help Yankee fans move on from Jeter. And, although Jeter will never be forgotten, Gregorius has certainly made the transition a lot smoother than first imagined.
Photo: Noah K. Murray / USA Today Sports