For many years, Didi Gregorius’ bat was an afterthought. Anything he did offensively was an added bonus to his great defense and clubhouse character. Last season was considered a breakout year, smashing the record for home runs hit by a Yankees shortstop. That mark was previously held by some guy named Derek Jeter. You might have heard of him.
Even with all that, he was still only about an average hitter overall, posting a 107 wRC+. Something was missing. Gregorius wasn’t drawing walks. His owned a 4.4% walk rate, leading to a measly .318 OBP. In many ways, he was playing in a different era.
Lately Gregorius has turned a corner. He survived his roller coaster first half and has finally seemed to even out, especially as of late. He turned on the jets a bit, hitting .294/.351/.471 in the past week.
This season Gregorius has finally found the last piece of his hitting puzzle, increasing his OBP despite a lower batting average. Thanks mostly to almost doubling his walk rate to 8.7%. It might not seem like it at the surface, but Gregorius’ 2018 is already better than his 2017. He’s improved his OBP, and he’s raised his ISO by 15 points. That resulted in an improved wRC+ (111). He’s also done all this while getting a bit unlucky, his .256 BABIP is well below his career mark of .285.
This is no accident; pitchers are approaching Gregorius differently since he proved his power is here to stay. This change hasn’t come in a traditional sense, such as seeing less fastballs and more breaking pitches. To be fair, he has seen a few more changeups in favor of slightly fewer curveballs, but overall that is insignificant.
It’s a simple change, really. Pitchers are just throwing him fewer strikes. His zone% decreased over the course of 2017, and it has decreased again so far in 2018, to a career-low 40.0%. To his credit, though, Gregorius is doing his part by swinging at fewer balls outside of the zone as well. His O-Swing% is down a proportionate 4.4%
It’s not only a recent surge in home runs that warranted this change in approach. All of Gregorius’ batted balls have been improving on average. He’s gone from the bottom 6-8% of the league in average exit velocity (84-85 mph) to right around league average. He also boasts an improved launch angle, which he’s raised to 16.0 degrees — well above the league average of 10.8.
Pitchers respecting Gregorius’ power, and pitching more carefully, has allowed him to be more patient and swing at better pitches. That’s resulted in a better batted ball profile, as well as an improved overall offensive game thanks to increased pitches seen and walks.