I’ve seen some prolific cleanup hitters in my time. Reggie Jackson, Willie Stargell, Mike Schmidt, Harmon Killebrew, and Jim Thome come to mind first. None hit better than .282 lifetime. Each tallied high strikeout and home run totals. Each man was enshrined in baseball’s Hall of Fame following a remarkable career.
Didi Gregorius doesn’t fit the stereotype. He isn’t a stocky power hitter with a gargantuan swing that elicits oohs and aahs from the crowd on strikeouts. Yet, Sir Didi stands as the perfect number-four hitter for this Yankees team.
With a pair of terrifying hitters batting ahead of him in the order, Siri Didi comes to the plate often with men on base. Pitchers may opt to pitch around Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, but once they draw walks, the cleanup hitter is going to see some great pitches. Gregorius has demonstrated that he is capable of handling those pitches to produce runs.
Yesterday, Didi was the only lefty hitter in the starting lineup. His first inning solo home run gave the Yankees a 1-0 lead. On a team loaded with sluggers, Gregorius stands as the only one with a pair of multi-homer games in this young season.
Though we’re still in April, Didi already ranks among the league leaders in just about every offensive category. Through Sunday’s action, Gregorius leads the American League with a .742 slugging average. He ranks second with a 1.184 OPS, mere percentage points behind leader Mookie Betts (1.191). Didi is fifth in on-base percentage (.442), third in RBI with 20, and tied for sixth with six home runs.
Sir Didi also ranks second in the league with four sacrifice flies. (He paced the Yankees with seven last year.) Many of us don’t often think about sac flies. But how many games over the last several years have we watched the Yankees lose by a run while noting the number of times they advanced a runner to third base with less than two outs and failed to score him?
Brett Gardner is an on-base machine leading off. Judge led the league while setting the all-time rookie record with a 127 walks last year. Although Stanton was temporarily dropped in the batting order because of his slump, the reigning NL MVP likely will move back to the number three spot once he gets off the snide. A low-strikeout, high-contact hitter is ideal to hit next with those guys on base. Didi is the perfect man on this team to handle the job.
Don’t forget, Didi co-led the Yankees with 70 runs batted in only two years ago. He also hit 20 homers, two shy of team-leader Carlos Beltran. Gregorius has improved since then.
Gregorius’ development as a hitter actually reminds me of Bernie Williams. When he first came up, Bernie didn’t project as a major power threat. He rose in the batting order, though, as his skills improved. Williams served as New York’s cleanup hitter throughout the 90s dynasty era. The seven-year peak average Bernie produced while hitting in that role compares favorably with a number of Hall of Famers.
Former manager Joe Girardi experimented a few years ago by putting Didi into the cleanup spot. That was mainly due to a lack of better options at the time, but Gregorius has grown into the role and has proved he can handle it. The 28-year-old has since become one of the most consistently productive left-handed hitters in the league.
Among qualifying lefty hitters in 2017, Didi ranked third in the AL with a 3.7 offensive WAR. He was fourth in overall WAR, sixth in RBI (87), and eleventh in home runs (27). This, despite missing over a month. Gregorius also finished ninth in slugging average (.478) and eleventh in OPS (.796).
The Yankees can end their search for the ideal left-handed hitter to break up the three-headed righty-hitting monster of Judge, Stanton, and Gary Sanchez. The club found their man in Didi. Hopefully, Sanchez and Stanton will break out of their slumps soon, so we can see what this team is really capable of doing on offense.