Last year at this time, the Yankees were preparing to begin the first season of the post-Derek Jeter era. The Cap’n had been entrenched at shortstop for the better part of two decades, and although Jeter’s game had slipped with age, replacing him was not going to be easy. All eyes were going to be on his replacement and the pressure promised to be intense.
The Yankees acquired Didi Gregorius from the Diamondbacks in a three-team trade following Jeter’s retirement and let him sink or swing at shortstop. Didi struggled the first few weeks of the season, no doubt about it, but he started to settle in around mid-May. He hit .294/.345/.417 (109 wRC+) in the second half and played the hell out of short. The Yankees were patient early in the season and Gregorius rewarded them.
Things figure to be a little more comfortable for Gregorius this season, if for no other reason than because he’s more familiar with his situation. “It’s going to come up anyway, it’s never in the past,” said Didi to reporters last week when asked about no longer having to worry about being the guy who replaced Jeter. That narrative is never going away, unfortunately. Most see this as Year Two of the post-Jeter era. I prefer to look at it is as Year Two of the Gregorius era.
“I started to pick up halfway through and try to keep it going this year,” added Didi. “Getting to know the (American League) a little better, that was the thing in the first couple of months. Hopefully I can stay consistent through the whole year. It’s an improvement year and you have to improve every year. Hopefully try and keep the same thing going and try to get even better.”
Based on everything we saw from mid-May through the end of the season, Gregorius’ defense might be the most predictable aspect of the Yankees going into 2016. I’m more confident saying Didi will be an outstanding gloveman than I am saying pretty much anything else about the team right now. Gregorius has very good range, good hands, and a crazy strong arm. His defense is no question. It’s going to be great.
That all means the 2016 season is going to be about his offense, specifically his ability to take a step forward and contribute a little more. Didi did hit .265/.318/.370 (89 wRC+) overall last season, which is a touch better than the .256/.307/.375 (85 wRC+) batting line authored by shortstops around MLB in 2016. Gregorius hit .272/.321/.391 (94 wRC+) against righties and .247/.311/.315 (73 wRC+) against lefties.
In a perfect world, Gregorius would improve to the point where he is above-average against righties and competent against lefties this season. That seems like a modest goal. Take a nice little step forward and begin punishing righties while making lefties work for their outs. That’s not asking too much, is it? He knows how to make contact (14.7 K% overall and 15.9 K% against lefties), so getting the bat on the ball isn’t a problem.
Didi’s batting ball splits are pretty interesting, because they say he both hit the ball harder in the second half and sprayed it around the field a little better. Check it out:
In the first half of the season Gregorius hit a ton of ground balls and he didn’t make much hard contact. In the second half, he hit the ball in the air way more often and he did a better job making hard contact. The spray data is neat too. Didi actually pulled the ball more in the second half, but he also went to the opposite more as well. He added some more balance to his game.
To me, that’s all good news. More hard contact and putting the ball in the air in a pretty good recipe for success. Didi’s not a speedster. He’s not someone who is going to put the ball on the ground and beat out a bunch of singles. He has the strength to drive the ball, and in the second half last year he did exactly that, drive the ball in the air and all around the field. This year I’d like to see Gregorius do that even more. More hard contract, maybe a few more balls in the air, and some more to left field as well.
Last season was all about getting Gregorius acclimated to his new team and his new situation. It was not his first chance at everyday playing time but it was his first full big league season, and he did it as the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees the year after Derek Jeter retired. That’s a lot to take on. Year One of the Gregorius era was about surviving all of that. Year Two is about improving. We now know Didi is a starting caliber shortstop. There’s also reason to believe he has the potential to contribute even more.