(Photo via the Flickr Creative Commons, thanks to Arturo Pardavilla III)
How do you replace a legend? Can you? After the retirement of Derek Jeter, these were questions the Yankees faced in the winter of 2014. Many fans and pundits expected them to make a move typical of the franchise, acquiring an All-Star or an up-and-coming player. Instead, they traded for a shortstop that began 2014 in the minors and platooned when he was in the big leagues. Although they were initially frustrated, fans quickly came to realize that maybe, just maybe, the Bronx Bombers had plucked a new franchise shortstop from obscurity.
When the Cincinnati Reds signed Mariekson Julius “Didi” Gregorius out of Curaçao in 2007, he was seen as a potential glove-first bench player, at best, an organization filler, at worst. After hitting .155 in 31 Rookie-Level games to start the 2008 season, he was trending towards the worst case scenario.
While Gregorius was always seen as a glove-first player, more was expected from his bat. He soon fulfilled those expectations, producing a .708 OPS between Rookie and High-A leagues in 2008. This improvement led to a promotion to Double-A in 2011, where he produced .753 OPS, and eventually arrived at Triple-A in 2012.
It was in this 2012 season that Gregorius made his MLB debut for the Reds. He hit a deceiving .300 over eight games, drawing zero walks, producing zero extra-base hits, and not stealing any bases. Still, optimism abounded for Gregorious as he had made large strides from his initial disappointment in 2008. With that said, there’s nothing like a sudden trade to get a young player questioning his value in the majors, and that’s exactly what happened to Gregorius during the winter of 2012.
With Zack Cozart blocking him in Cincinnati, the Reds deemed Gregorious expendable and sent him packing to Cleveland in exchange for Shin-Soo Choo. Gregorius’ time with the Indians was short lived as he was immediately flipped to Arizona for Trevor Bauer.
Gregorius started the 2013 season in the minors but was quickly called up on April 18th due to an injury to Aaron Hill. He wasted no time making his mark, smashing his first career home run in his Diamondbacks debut. He would go on to slash .252/.332/.373 over 103 games for Arizona, although he would start to lose playing time later in the year due to his .200 average and .267 OBP against lefties. He would eventually lose a position battle to Chris Owings in 2014 Spring Training, and once again start a season in the minors.
Gregorius was recalled in June of 2014, but split time with Owings throughout the season, due in large part to his atrocious .226/.290/.363 slash line. While the above-average glove was still there, it became abundantly clear that Gregorius had plateaued, if not regressed, in Arizona.
Due to these inadequacies, Arizona was more than happy to take advantage of a desperate Yankees team that failed to create any sort of plan for when Jeter retired, shipping Gregorious to the hostile Bronx to fill in for perhaps the most popular player of the last 20 years. However, despite going out of the frying pan and into the fire, he would soon endear himself to the Bleacher Creatures.
Gregorius started his Yankees career off, not with a bang, but a whimper, hitting a combined .222 and committing six errors between April and May. He soon righted the ship and went on to have his best year as a pro, finishing the season with a .265/.318/.370 slash line and earning a finalist spot for the Gold Glove award. His 2016 season was even better, as he slashed .276/.304/.447 while setting a career high in homers with 20. Interestingly enough, he actually hit lefties better than righties, a trend that would help him produce what is, to date, his magnum opus. Of course, even the best stories start with a setback.
While playing for his native Netherlands in the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Gregorious suffered a shoulder injury that caused him to start the season on the DL, not debuting until April 28th. As the saying goes, the best things in life are worth waiting for, and Gregorious made sure his 2017 season was worth the wait.
After hitting .291/.321/.458 in the first half he was named a Final Vote Candidate for the 2017 All-Star Game, following that up with a .283/.316/.495 slash line in the second half. Gregorius finished the regular season with career highs across the board, slashing .287/.318/.478 and adding 25 home runs. Not quite finished, slashing .250/.345/.500 in the postseason. So how did this maligned, glove-first player suddenly become one of the toughest outs in baseball? Simply put, he did what he’s always done.
Typically when a player shows sudden improvement, it’s due to a combination of three things: walking more, hitting the ball harder, or being more selective with his swings. He certainly wasn’t walking more, boasting an embarrassing 4.6% base-on-balls clip. He definitely didn’t hit the ball harder, with an average 84.1 mph exit velocity. Gregorius also chased balls out of the strike zone at a 40.6% rate.
What the Yankees’ shortstop did was cut his strikeout rate from 17.4% in 2014 to 11.8% during the 2017 season, allowing him to put the ball in play more. When he did put the ball in play, Gregorius pulled the ball at a rate of 40.6%. This is nothing new as all of his career home runs have been to his pull side. The difference between his time in New York and with other teams is this pull rate allowed him to take advantage of the shallow right field in Yankee Stadium.
Combining the dimensions of his home park with his improved strikeout rate has allowed Gregorius to set a career high in homers for three straight years and will allow him to continue doing so as the elder statesman of a team at the ripe old age of 27.
The Baby Bombers shocked many this season when they reached game seven of the ALCS, due in large part to Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, and Luis Severino. With none of those players being older than 25, there is a leadership void that needs to be filled, and Gregorius seems to be the obvious choice.
After being traded three times he has the experience, and who better to lead a team than a man who has literally been knighted by his country? Yes, Sir Didi is still young, but when you’ve been plucked from obscurity like he has, and become this caliber of player, there are few figures a team would rather have leading a young squad into future battles.