Didi Gregorius is coming down the home stretch of an overall solid season. Gregorius (“Sir Didi” to common folks) is just two home runs shy of the 20 mark, and has already doubled his inaugural pinstriped season of 2015, when he totaled nine homers.
Gregorius has clearly embraced his new home in the Bronx, particularly the short porch in right field that has helped him find his power stroke. He seems to have also embraced the process of helping fans look past the shadow of his legendary predecessor.
Two years ago today, former Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter said goodbye to Yankee Stadium in unbelievable fashion, albeit in a way almost expected given, the endless supply of incredible moments provided by the Captain. Regardless of his on-field value in 2014, Jeter left the team with a void that not many would be able to fill, especially given the short amount of patience that Yankees fans possess.
Yankees fans are rarely quick to warm up to a newcomer. Some new arrivals seem doomed to fail given who they are replacing. Some find their way and break free from the comparisons of former fan favorites. It wasn’t pretty to start off, but former first baseman Tino Martinez became beloved by fans after constant jeers from the crowd early in the 1996 season while Martinez attempted to fill the shoes of the recently retired Don Mattingly. The same thing happened to Jason Giambi when he replaced Martinez in 2002. Joe Girardi was not warmly welcomed after taking over for Mike Stanley, and poor LaTroy Hawkins was loudly booed before he even threw a pitch for electing to wear number 21, formerly worn by Paul O’Neill.
Playing against history can be tough, especially when that history is likely to never be repeated. It is hard to see another Derek Jeter emerging in the Bronx, but Yankees fans always expect greatness regardless. So when a relatively unknown shortstop came to town on the heels of a season which saw him bat .226 and hit a paltry six home runs, heads were scratched and eyes rolled.
Surprisingly, not much fuss was heard from the stands in 2015, and if there were any rumblings about comparisons to Jeter, they have since been silenced. After a slow start, Gregorius put together a fine campaign and showed off his defensive prowess, which has only improved this season. His glove work in the infield is beautiful to watch, and another sluggish April at the plate in 2016 would not deter him, as he lifted his average to as high as .300 after finishing April batting .224.
To be honest, I expected Gregorius to be smothered with criticism, and to no fault of his own. Fans want what they’re used to seeing, and Gregorius was likely to become a victim of the greatness that came before him.
However, I was proven wrong by the way he was approached his situation. Gregorius clearly goes out and plays hard every day, and has been a staple in the lineup since he was brought to New York. After playing in 155 games last season, he is already up to 145 for this season. Even when he is hurting, he is ready to answer the bell when Joe Girardi needs him. After being plunked in the ribs by Chris Archer, a sore Gregorius pinch-hit for Ronald Torreyes and smacked a solo home run against the Dodgers, giving the Yanks a two-run cushion in a crucial game that they would eventually win 3-0.
Gregorius had been slumping around the time of his clutch pinch-hit home run, but he didn’t hear it from the fans. He seems to have won their respect, and since that home run, Didi has heated up, recording 11 hits in an eight-game stretch, four of those games being multi-hit games.
No, he’s not Jeter, but he has some of his mannerisms. Gregorius says all the right things and backs it up on the field. He has evolved into one of the better defensive shortstops in baseball, and has willingly adapted to whatever one of the many spots in the batting order Girardi sees fit to put him in. The social media presence doesn’t hurt, either.
Still just in his mid-twenties, and with a crop of youngsters around him following the exits of numerous veterans like Alex Rodriguez, Andrew Miller, Carlos Beltran, and soon to be Mark Teixeira, the Baby Bombers may look to Gregorius for leadership. He seems fit for the part, just like the man before him.