There are a few players in every sport who seem irreplaceable, and thus — by virtue of this irreplaceability — put a ridiculous burden of expectations on their successors. This is more or less the situation that Didi Gregorius found himself in when the New York Yankees traded for him to start the 2015 season. He was never billed as a “true” successor to Derek Jeter (even the diminished version of Jeter that finished the 2014 season), but he still had to face the inevitable comparisons from being the next player to play shortstop for the Yankees.
Gregorius was seen as a defensive specialist at his position, someone who could be counted on to provide solid play from the field along with light hitting. His age — he was entering his age-25 season at the time — made him a nice fit for a team that desperately needed to get younger, and he was seen as a perfectly “nice” player who could be slotted in at a key position. However, Gregorius has blown past these expectations. After two seasons, he is a key contributor to this team, and has solidified himself as one of the most exciting players on this Yankees roster.
His career with the Yankees hasn’t always been smooth. Gregorius struggled for much of the 2015 season, posting a .238 batting average and .619 OPS for the first half of the year. While he put up better numbers during the second half of the campaign, many observers doubted whether he was a viable, long-term option for New York.
In 2016, though, Gregorius began to hit for both power and average, becoming a clear offensive force. Anyone who watched the Yankees last year probably remembers a team with an extremely inconsistent offense, but Gregorius was both consistent and excellent. With a batting average of .276 and an OPS of .751 (both career highs), he emerged as one of the best hitters on the team.
Perhaps most impressively, Gregorious hit 20 home runs, more than doubling his previous season-high of 9. He also hit .324 against left-handed pitchers, blowing past a career average of .249 against such players. Through these two areas, Gregorius turned two of the weakest parts of his statistical profile into strengths.
Much of these improvements can be attributed to overall maturation as a hitter, but Gregorius has also been able to focus his aggression. Gregorius’ walk rate has gone down significantly from 2014 to 2016 (over one season with the Arizona Diamondbacks and two with the Yankees). While it would be nice to see more patience in some areas, he has also lowered his strikeout rate as well, showing that his increased swing rate has translated to more contact and home runs.
By WAR, Gregorius ranked second among Yankees hitters, only falling behind Gary Sanchez. While the fact that Sanchez ranked first in WAR on a decent team after playing in only 53 games is impressive enough on its own, it’s also noteworthy that Gregorius was able to race up this leaderboard so quickly as well. Finishing ahead of veterans such as Brett Gardner and Chase Headley, Gregorius became an unlikely source of offensive firepower last season.
Compared to shortstops across the league, Gregorius still looks impressive. He ranked 12th at his position in WAR, and his 98 wRC+ put him 14th. These numbers still leave some room for improvement, but the fact that Gregorius is an above-average offensive shortstop is impressive given the expectations upon his arrival and his early struggles in New York.
For most players, this type of offensive renaissance would guarantee a spot in the starting lineup for years, and it may well have for Gregorius as well. However, his situation is complicated by the fact that the Yankees have several highly ranked shortstops in their farm system. Prospects such as Gleybar Torres and Jorge Mateo should reach the majors before too long, which may create a logjam at a premium position.
This, of course, is a good problem for the Yankees to have, even if it makes Gregorius’ long-term future a bit unclear. He’s still the clear starter for opening day, and his position isn’t in any immediate danger. Even if he does get overtaken by a prospect in the future, his talent ensures that he should land a starting spot on some major league team. He has definitely earned that, at least.
Gregorius’ talent isn’t a secret in baseball at this point, but the story of how he got to this point bears repeating. His emergence as a power hitter who can play competent defense is great for the Yankees, and fits perfectly with his likable personality (he boasts one of the most interesting Twitter accounts in baseball). If the Yankees are able to slide into one of the Wild Card spots at the end of the 2017 season, it will probably be based in part on his contributions.
Thomas Jenkins is a writer for Beyond the Box Score and Peachtree Hoops. You can also follow him on Twitter for tweets about sports.