Five years ago, the Yankees traded (literally) Shane Greene for Didi Gregorius. Gregorius, a glove-first 25-year-old shortstop at the time, had an unenviable task in front of him; replace Derek Jeter. Gregorius had played about 200 relatively anonymous games in Cincinnati and Arizona to that point, but suddenly, he was the successor to one of the most revered players in Yankees history.
Of course, we all know now that Gregorius rose to the challenge. He developed a power stroke, continued to play strong defense up the middle, and cemented himself as both a top-flight shortstop and a fan favorite in his own right.
Which makes it all the more disappointing that what was potentially his final season in the Bronx may have been doomed even before it began.
2019 Statistics: 82 games, 341 plate appearances, .238/.276/.441, 16 home runs, 61 RBI, 47 runs, 84 wRC+, 0.9 fWAR
2020 Contract Status: Free agent
After the 2018 season ended, we were treated to the bombshell that Gregorius would need Tommy John surgery. While the operation takes less of a toll on position players than pitchers, the surgery still wiped out Gregorius’ offseason, and the Yankees tentatively placed his return date sometime in the summer.
Gregorius beat that timeline, starting a rehab assignment on May 25th, and ultimately returning to the majors on June 7th. That day, Gregorius started at short, batted fifth, and stroked a couple of hits. His first few games actually went swimmingly, as he was batting .389 with a .611 slugging by the end of his first week back. Unfortunately, that would signify the high-water mark for his season.
His OPS figure dwindled from there, occasionally dropping below .700. He never quite found the plus power that helped make him such a dynamic shortstop in years prior, and his walk rate dipped as well compared to 2018. It all added up to the worst offensive campaign he’s submitted as a member of the Yankees. His .238 batting average was his lowest since 2014 with the Diamondbacks, and his paltry .276 OBP the lowest of his entire career.
For what it’s worth, small-sample defensive statistics also soured on Gregorius in 2019. After rating as almost exactly average by DRS across 2017 and 2018, Gregorius came in six runs below average in half a season in 2019. UZR pegged him as about average in 2019, after providing mostly glowing estimates of his defense during his time in New York. Below average offense combined with fringy defense at shortstop is still playable, but it’s demonstrably second-division starter stuff, rather than the All-Star caliber play we’d grown accustomed to from Gregorius.
It’s hard to say exactly why Gregorius struggled as he did in 2019. Can we lay most of the blame at the feet of Tommy John surgery, which could have left him rusty and a bit weaker entering an abbreviated season? Is he past his prime now? Or did he simply suffer from regression to the mean that was coming for a player whose offensive success always felt a little shaky, given how surprising it was and how reliant it seemed to be on Yankee Stadium's dimensions?
I think we can find pretty equal evidence for all those theories. Gregorius’ declining defensive numbers, combined with sprint speed that Statcast rated as 68th percentile, down from the 78th percentile two years ago, paint a picture of a player that’s lost a step as he nears 30. His chase rate and swinging strike rate spiked this year, especially at the outset of his season, which could indicate that Gregorius was a bit out of sorts tracking pitches after missing a chunk of time.
Meanwhile, projection systems (and some foolishly pessimistic observers) have long been at least a little skeptical of Gregorius’ offensive breakout. Before 2019, Steamer projected Gregorius for a .760 OPS, coming off a two-season stretch in which he ran an .812 OPS. Before 2018, ZiPS pegged him for a .730 OPS after he had set career highs in nearly offensive category the year before. The projections never forecasted him to sink as low as he did this year, but they’ve consistently thought he was flying just a bit over his station.
Regardless of whether Gregorius has regressed because of injury, age, or happenstance, it’s undeniable 2019 would be an unfortunate way for his Bronx tenure to close. He is a free agent right now, with the Yankees having decided against tendering him a qualifying offer. He can sign with any team. Gregorius and the Yankees still could come terms, perhaps on a short-term deal to re-establish his value, but what’s been a fruitful pairing of player and team is in danger of coming to an end. One can only hope it doesn’t close on a sour note.