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Didi Gregorius just got a lot more important for the Yankees

With all the team’s injuries, Gregorius’s role has increased significantly

MLB: Boston Red Sox at New York Yankees Andy Marlin-USA TODAY Sports

At the beginning of the year, when Didi Gregorius was on the injured list, Gleyber Torres came into his own as an offensive star. Elevated from the bottom of the order and thrust into a regular spot as the third, fourth, or fifth hitter, Torres evolved into a bona fide power threat in a thin Yankees lineup.

Now, the tables have turned. Gregorius is back to full health and hitting reasonably well, but now his double play partner, Torres, is day-to-day with a core issue. Factor in Luke Voit and Edwin Encarnacion’s injuries, and suddenly the Yankees’ infield just lost more than 50 home runs.

Who’s left? DJ LeMahieu will continue to play all over the diamond and Gio Urshela will remain the starting third baseman, but both guys are performing admirably as is. Not much more could realistically be expected from these two. Gregorius, however, is a player that the Yankees will need to see take on a larger role in the offense.

Didi won’t be able to sneak up on pitchers as the fifth or sixth batter anymore—he’ll be batting third or fourth as a central component to the team’s offensive attack. He’ll also have to do it with little support behind him in the order. Cameron Maybin, Brett Gardner and Mike Tauchman have been awesome this year, but they’re not exactly who you had penciled in as 5-6-7 hitters to protect the middle of the order.

Think about Gregorius’ performance so far this season. After a predictably slow start following Tommy John surgery, Gregorius has mostly settled back into his career norms. Almost all of Didi’s batted-ball profile in 2019 is the same as it’s been the last two or three years, from his spray percentages to his distribution of groundballs, fly balls and line drives. It’s encouraging that Gregorius is back on track after such a serious injury.

The most interesting things with Gregorius’s offense are his plate discipline and how he’s adapting to the changing state of baseball in 2019. Although Gregorius has never been known as a patient hitter, he showed signs of improving his batter’s eye in 2018, posting the highest walk rate and on-base percentage of his career. Gregorius’s power also increased, which was likely a result of getting himself in better hitter’s counts.

Gregorius, however, has had a hard time staying patient this year. He’s swinging at the first pitch 40.4% of the time, which is five percent more than his career norm and eight percent more than last season.

Of course, developing good plate discipline is more than just taking a few pitches. You have to swing at the right pitches. Gregorius improved his chase rate from 37.8%in 2017 to 32.7% in 2018, but it’s gone back up to 38.5% this year. In kind, his walk rate and on-base percentage have dropped.

Didi’s too good a hitter to have a .298 OBP. A hitter with his batted-ball skills and power, combined with a more patient approach, would be almost unstoppable. He showed signs of working on his plate discipline last year, and continuing to refine that approach this year would go a long way in helping the shorthanded lineup. It’ll also be imperative for him to only swing at good pitches given the general lack of thump behind him in the order.

Although Gregorius isn’t as patient in the box this season as he was last year, he has made a different adjustment this season that may help him continue to grow as a power hitter. His exit velocity and launch angle have climbed, which makes him a perfect candidate for improvement with today’s emphasis on hitting the ball hard in the air—and the potential presence of juiced baseballs. That approach to hitting is also the best way to beat the shift, a tactic defenses are using more frequently on Gregorius in 2019 than in past years.

As of now, Torres is not going on the injured list, but his status is definitely worth monitoring. Regardless of how long the Yankees play without him, they’ll need Gregorius to continue to improve. He’s already shown that he’s paying attention to the trends around hitting in baseball, and a little extra plate discipline could help him take that next step into an elite hitter.