Here’s a hot take: last year’s Yankees offense wasn’t quite as good as their predecessors the season before. This isn’t hard to prove, as the lineup which scored the second most runs in baseball in 2015 nosedived the following year, managing half a run less per game and finishing 22nd in baseball in runs. Picking a single cause for this scoring depression is impossible, though one significant reason for the offensive stagnancy is a team-wide struggle to take a walk. Previously one of baseball’s most patient teams, New York saw their walk rate fall by a full percentage point last season.
Perhaps the biggest culprit in the Yankees’ lack of base on balls was Didi Gregorius, who walked a meager 3.2% of the time last season, third worst in baseball among qualified hitters. While he excelled in other parts of the game and put together the best season of his four-year career, Gregorius isn’t yet mentioned in the same breath as some of baseball’s best young shortstops because of his shoddy plate discipline. The 26-year-old has 20 home run power, elite defense, solid speed, and the ability to hit for a decent average, yet his overall offensive output has been brought down by the lack of walks.
Luckily, there’s hope for Gregorius. The former Diamondback has shown better patience in the past, and even had a 9.2% walk rate in 2013—a mark that would have been tied for third best among shortstops this season. The eye is, theoretically, there for Gregorius to begin taking the free pass on a more regular basis, so what has caused that walk rate to steadily slide since his rookie season?
Let’s start with the obvious: Mariekson Julius Gregorius swings at pitches outside the strike zone way too much. No, really. From what I’ve heard, the best way to get walked is to…not swing at balls. Unfortunately, Gregorius isn’t so good at that. He chased pitches at a higher rate than all but nine other players in baseball last season, a painful 40% of the time (for reference, 30% is the average).
The good news is this hacking approach didn’t wreck Didi’s game because of his excellent bat-to-ball skills, which allowed him to make contact on plenty of those prospective balls. Gregorius proved to be a very good ‘bad-ball’ hitter last season, batting .235 on those pitches—well above the league average—but, still, a .235 average is a .235 average. Maybe Gregorius’ wild-swinging ways hasn’t proven lethal to production, but his potential has certainly been capped as a result.
For Gregorius to up that walk rate, he’ll need to, believe it or not, swing less at pitches out of the strike zone. He has been much better at this skill in the past, but, like his walk rate, it has slowly been trending in the wrong direction since his rookie season. Considering Gregorius is a much better player now than he was as a rookie, this may be a byproduct of an overall positive change in approach at the plate. It’s impossible to prove this, but it’s the best explanation we’ve got right now.
If that’s the case, and Gregorius’ improved plan at the plate is closely intertwined with an aggressive strategy, he may have no reason to change in 2017. Didi knows he can walk, but seems to have moved away from that patience over the years—very possibly intentionally. So this may not be a question of if Gregorius can walk more, but, instead, should he? That’s only something he knows, but we’ll find out the answer next season.