When the Yankees decided not to extend the $17.8 million qualifying offer to shortstop Didi Gregorius, they put the ball in the court of 29 other MLB teams, choosing to allow Gregorius to explore the open market. The Yankees’ front office clearly doesn’t believe Gregorius is worth $17.8 million for one season, not exactly a revelation after he posted a disappointing line of .238/.276/.441 in 2019. That doesn’t mean they won’t pursue the veteran shortstop in free agency, and there’s plenty of reason to believe they’ll look past his mediocre 2019 numbers and extend an offer more reflective of his production from 2015 to 2018.
The Yankees are not going to overlook the fact that Gregorius fought his way back from offseason Tommy John surgery to play 82 games last season, helping the Yankees defensively and dismantling the Twins in the ALDS. Players that miss out on a full spring training — not to mention the first half of the regular season — can struggle with their rhythm and timing at the plate.
That was an issue for Gregorius, who saw both his walk rate and strikeout rate regress by more than three percentage points after a career year in 2018. His whiff rates against fastballs, breaking balls, and offspeed pitches were all his worst in four years, indicating that he just wasn’t seeing the ball like he has in previous seasons. It would be more concerning if there was a huge regression against any one pitch, a sign that opponents have found a weakness to exploit, but it was a consistent drop off across the board.
A look at Gregorius’ underlying Statcast metrics provides more optimism for a bounce back 2020 season. In fact, the 29-year-old shortstop posted some of the best batted ball results of his career.
Didi Gregorius’ Batted Ball Profile
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His average exit velocity and expected slugging percentage were both career highs in 2019 as well, so it seems that none of Gregorius’ offensive struggles came from a slow bat or sapped raw power stemming from the elbow injury. Rather, his poor plate discipline and failure to hit the ball to the opposite field limited his production. According to Statcast, Gregorius chased 37.6% of pitches outside the zone in 2019, compared to only 32.7 in 2018. The Yankees’ level of belief that his increased discipline in 2018 was not an outlier should play a big role in their willingness to bring back Gregorius, but it seems like a safe bet that his mid-season return in 2019 played a large role in his step backwards.
Gregorius has never been an opposite field machine like his predecessor Derek Jeter, or his double play partner DJ LeMahieu, but only 18.3% of his batted balls went the other way last season, compared to his career average of 24.5% and MLB average of 25.4%. Opposing teams took advantage of his propensity to pull the ball by shifting against him at a much higher rate. Per Statcast, Gregorius saw the shift in 60.5% of his at-bats, a huge increase from 21.2% in 2018, and his wOBA against the shift was .263, compared to .339 without the shift. If Gregorius can get back to league average at generating opposite field contact, he should become one of the league’s best offensive shortstops again.
Despite his plate discipline issues last season, Gregorius has actually improved his barrel rate and expected slugging percentage every year since Statcast began recording in 2015. His track record of tireless work and improvement over time is just another reason to believe Gregorius has a good chance to return to form in 2020 and age well over the course of a multi-year contract. Consequently, Gregorius’ sub-standard 2019 season might have given pause to some teams around the league and increased the odds of a Bronx return. That, of course, will all depend on the perception of his ability to bounce back and extend his prime at least a few more years.