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How did Didi Gregorius become a weapon in the Yankees’ lineup?

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The Yankees shortstop turned himself into an above-average hitter without walking, swinging at better pitches, or making hard contact.

MLB: Baltimore Orioles at New York Yankees Adam Hunger-USA TODAY Sports

We always knew that Didi Gregorius could field. The question was, would he hit? The results on that front look better year after year. In 2015, Gregorius overcame a slow start to finish the season with a 89 wRC+. Not great, but perfectly adequate for a shortstop with a glove of his caliber.

In 2016, he cracked the 20 home run threshold for the first time in his career en route to a 97 wRC+ season. This year, he's taken yet another step forward. With a slash line of .292/.324/.491, a wRC+ of 112 and 24 home runs to boot, he's put together one of the best offensive campaigns in the postwar era among Yankee shortstops not named Derek Jeter. Sir Mariekson Julius “Didi” Gregorius, everybody.

The story behind his offensive improvement, however, is anything but straightforward. Most breakouts can be explained by three interrelated factors: becoming more patient, swinging at better pitches, and making harder contact. Gregorius hasn't done any of these. It’s rather interesting once you dive into it.

He hasn’t learned to take free passes, as he's walking at a measly 4.6% clip. He isn’t swinging at better pitches, either. He's swung at 40.6% pitches outside of the strike zone, over ten points more than the league average. He’s also certainly not making harder contact; his 84.1 mph average exit velocity on batted balls ranks 49th-worst out of all players with a minimum of 100 batted balls. His exit velocity heatmap looks like the cover art for Joni Mitchell's Blue:

Baseball Savant

If Gregorius isn't walking, swinging more selectively, or hitting balls harder, then what explains his breakout? There appears to be two main causes. First, he's cut down on his strikeouts. He trimmed his strikeout rate from an already modest 17.4% in 2014 to a svelte 11.8% this year. This raised his offensive floor, which is especially notable when comparing his yearly strikeout rate to his wRC+.

FanGraphs

The relationship is as clear as day. As his strikeouts have gone down, his production has gone up. This is because more batted balls in play equals more potential hits. Instead of muscling up and improving quality of contact, Gregorius has gone for quantity of contact by striking out even less than he used to.

In this sense, his modus operandi is the inverse of Aaron Judge, his large teammate. Judge can thrive even with a 30 percent-plus strikeout rate by hitting the crap out of the ball whenever he does make contact. Gregorius, on the other hand, has compensated for his relatively weak contact by generating lots of it. So far it's worked out pretty well for him.

If that's the case, though, why is Gregorius sitting on 24 homers with two weeks left to play? That’s reason number two. He has taken advantage of Yankee Stadium’s right field porch. Gregorius’ power has always been to his pull side; all of his career home runs have been to right field.

FanGraphs

With an offensive profile like that, the friendly confines of Yankee Stadium were always bound to boost his home run total. This season, though, there's evidence that he is making a conscious decision to play to his strengths. After posting pull rates of 38.5% and 37.6% in his first two years in the Bronx, this year it's up to a career-high 40.6%. That change in approach, aided by a juiced ball, has allowed Gregorius to set a new career high in home runs.

Gregorius has upped his offensive production by striking out even less and taking advantage of the short porch in right field. Will this continue? The bad news is, the home runs probably won't. Judging from the fact that his overall quality of contact hasn't really changed, it's reasonable to expect that his power output will decrease going forward as MLB tries to rectify the juiced ball issue.

The good news, however, is that there's no reason to think he can't maintain his low strikeout rate. He's been pretty good about making contact throughout his career. My conservative estimate is that he'll be able to hit around league average for a few more years before his contact skills begin to deteriorate. That may be a bummer considering what he's done this year, but for a shortstop with his defense, I'll take that any day. Plus, Gregorius has always exceeded our expectations. Let's see how much more magic our beloved shortstop/GOAT tweeter/knight/artist can muster.