Assuming the Yankees are who their .500 record says they are, the post-All-Star break schedule could prove to be a slog for players and fans alike. Outside of the back end of the bullpen, the 2016 Yankees have been mediocre in seemingly every phase of the game, making this year’s team average-at-best both in terms of performance and watchability.
There has been one clear exception to this rule though, and that has been the ascension of Didi Gregorius as the team’s best player. Anyone who has tuned in to a Yankees’ broadcast over the past few weeks is familiar with the rise of Gregorius. After a slow start to the season in March and April, Gregorius had a much improved .287/.316/.394 slash line in May. June (.337/.368/.535) and July (.351/.385/.703) have been a completely different story, with Gregorius earning a promotion to the fifth spot in the lineup, and the title of the team’s “most exciting player” according to CC Sabathia.
Sabathia’s complement is high praise indeed, but understates Gregorius’ role as the best overall player on the Yankees. Not only does he carry a .796 OPS into the season’s second half, but his defense continues to improve alongside a penchant for spectacular plays. Sure Carlos Beltran has been the Yankees’ most consistent run producer, however, he is in the final year of his contract and at age 39 has become a defensive liability when he plays right field.
Key to Gregorius’ rise has been his ability to hit left-handed pitching, as well as his performance at the plate with runners on base. Against southpaws in 2016, Gregorius has an OPS of .840 in 82 plate appearances, and reaches base 40% of the time. This success can be at least partially attributed to his willingness to hit to the entire field, making him one of the few players in the lineup that opposing teams do not shift against. With runners on base Gregorius has a slash line of .319/.350/.489, and is second on the team in RBI although he has spent the vast majority of 2016 hitting in the bottom third of the lineup. His production has been timely, and ultimately earned him a bump up to the fifth spot in the lineup just prior to the All-Star break.
Since Derek Jeter’s retirement at the end of the 2014 season the Yankees have lacked a dynamic talent who can not only be productive on the field, but also draw the interest of the more casual fan with the way that he plays the game. Robinson Cano seemed poised to take that mantle from Jeter, but instead opted to sign for nearly a quarter of a billion dollars with the Seattle Mariners prior to the 2014 season. Gregorius appears ready to lead the team into this next phase of the franchise’s history.
Rebuilds are not fun, nor is watching aging stars struggle to rekindle their former glory night in and night out. It is no surprise that the Yankees currently trail the crosstown rival Mets in TV ratings, whose appearance in the 2015 World Series makes them the New York baseball team of the moment.
Didi Gregorius is fun. He is the team’s best and most exciting player, he plays with a smile on his face, his commercials with Starlin Castro bring levity to a franchise that tends to take itself too seriously (it is just baseball after all), and his twitter feed make him relatable to Yankees’ fans of tomorrow.
I will watch most all of the games from here on out because I watch most all of the games. In the end I root for the pinstripes, even if the players wearing them haven’t gone first to third since George W. Bush occupied the Oval Office. To the extent that games 89 to 162 are watchable, I would bet that much of that entertainment value can be attributed to Gregorius. I would pay to watch that guy play, pinstripes or not, and hope to do so for many years to come.