Didi Gregorius has been heating up in the dog days of August. Gregorius took off while the Yankees’ offense was slumping, recording a hit in 11 of his first 14 games this month. He enjoyed seven multi-hit games over that span. Despite missing the first month of the season, the shortstop is just two home runs away from his career-high of 20. Simply put, Gregorius has consistently improved as a hitter since coming to the Bronx.
The only knock on his approach at the plate is the inability to lay off pitches out of the zone. The free-swinging Gregorius drew a walk in Monday’s Subway Series opener, but that was his first base on balls since July 22nd. He is swinging at 41.9 percent of pitches out of the strike zone this season, his highest mark since breaking into the majors. It is also considerably higher than the league average of 29.9 percent. He could become a perennial All-Star by laying off pitches out of the zone.
Gregorius’ evolution follows a trend similar to another Yankees infielder with immense hitting talent despite free-swinging tendencies. Robinson Cano was one of the best bats in the league by the time he signed with the Mariners, but was a raw hitting talent as a youngster. He especially had trouble laying off pitches out of the zone. For example, in 2008 Cano saw 702 balls compared to 1422 strikes.
He hit .271 that season with 14 home runs and a .715 OPS. Cano established himself as a promising youngster, but one who sat near the bottom of the league in pitches per plate appearance. Plate discipline became a focal point by 2010, when he watched 897 balls go by instead of chasing. That resulted in a .319 batting average, 29 home runs and a .914 OPS. He went from a talented hitter to consistent All-Star by improving his eye at the plate. He also anchored the middle of the Yankees’ lineup from 2010-2013.
What does this mean for Gregorius? It’s hard to say that he can match Cano’s power, but his slugging has steadily improved since his arriving to Yankee Stadium. Plus, his swing percentages since coming to the Bronx are almost identical to Cano’s early years in pinstripes. Could Gregorius follow Cano’s path to stardom?
Joe Girardi has been batting Gregorius in the cleanup spot in between Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez of late, so an improved eye at the plate would make him even more valuable. Judge already draws a lot of walks, and given the way Sanchez has been hitting, it would be huge for Gregorius to take an extra pitch. Force pitchers to give him something good to hit with the Kraken lingering on deck.
Make no mistake, Gregorius has been a gift for the Yankees. His defense is great, his offense improves every season, and he was acquired for next to nothing. If he is able to improve his eye in the batter’s box, however, he has the ability to become one of the best shortstops in the league. That’s not so different than what Cano did at second base, after all.