Didi Gregorius didn’t need to get better at hitting. He had already improved in each of the three previous years with the Yankees. In his first year, he merely needed to prove that his offense was passable to play him everyday. In his second season in pinstripes, he began showing unexpected power. Last year, he added even more power and was an above average threat with the bat. Maintaining his 2017 level of performance would have been more than adequate, and yet, the shortstop has taken a giant leap forward in 2018. It’s still early in the season, but what we’ve seen to date is promising.
Since joining the Yankees, Didi has had the reputation of being an aggressive and high contact hitter. He maintained respectable batting averages but low on-base percentages, and until he added power, he was a below average performer at the dish. His home run surge helped Gregorius become an above average hitter, which was a huge step in his development. Now, Gregorius is taking perhaps an even greater step by adding plate discipline. Maybe the power wasn’t a total shock given the ability for lefties to take advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch, but his newfound discerning eye has come out of nowhere.
Since joining the Yankees, the shortstop’s swing percentage has increased every year: from 51.5 percent in 2015, to 55.4 percent in 2016, and to 58.2 percent last year. Gregorius has ended that trend in 2018, offering at only 45.9 percent of pitches he’s seen to date. This patience has led to Gregorius drawing 15 walks already after he walked only 25 times all of last season. He’s rarely chasing pitches out of the zone (29.4 percent, down from 40.8 percent last year) and is not as jumpy for pitches in the zone (70.4 percent, down from 81.3 percent last year). This doesn’t seem like a coincidence or early season small sample size: Aaron Boone has pushed for Gregorius to be more patient at the plate.
This change in approach makes plenty of sense. After all, since Didi has never struggled to put the bat on the ball, why not be more patient? He can wait for his proverbial pitch to hit, and if he doesn’t get it, then he can use his contact skills to at least put the ball in play or draw a walk. Is his 15.8 percent walk rate sustainable? Almost certainly not, but his new tact at the plate apparently is here to stay, and for the better.
Oh, and that power he’s discovered over the past couple of seasons? That seems here to stay too. He leads the team with eight home runs and appears destined to beat his career-high of 25 that he set last season. This doesn’t seem to be a fluke, either, as Gregorius is stinging the ball. Compared to last year, Gregorius’s average exit velocity is up nearly three miles per hour and his fly ball percentage up almost seven percentage points. He’s sporting an xwOBA of .410 to boot, so his performance has been earned.
Per wRC+, Gregorius has been the sport’s best hitter thus far. Better than Manny Machado, Aaron Judge, and Mookie Betts among others. That’s pretty good company. Will Gregorius regress as the season plays out? Of course. However, he’s improved once again and has established himself and as one of the top hitters at his position. For a guy who was supposed to be a glove-first shortstop, he’s now looking like an all-around star. Adding discipline was the next logical step in Didi’s development with the bat, but of course, doing so is easier said than done. Yet, like how Didi has wowed us with improvements in recent seasons, he’s made it look like a sinch once again.