By the time Didi Gregorius had played eight innings in pinstripes, fans were already longing for Derek Jeter. It wasn't going to take much for that to happen, and they had enough reason to jeer Jeter's replacement just one game into the season. The Yankees were down five runs to Toronto in the bottom of the eighth inning, and Gregorius was caught stealing third to end the inning. It left many, myself included, absolutely puzzled and furious.
Even the most positive optimists couldn't have predicted that just months later, Gregorius would have endeared himself to the fan base and become such an exciting young talent. By season's end, chants of "Di-di! Di-di! Di-di!" were not uncommon, and Gregorius was playing impressive baseball.
The 25-year-old finished last season as the fourth best shortstop in all of baseball, per fWAR. He put together a fairly impressive offensive season from a traditionally light-hitting position, and he showed Gold Glove caliber defense at shortstop. It was easy to understand why the Yankees' front office coveted him, and there are plenty of reason to believe things are only going to get better. Personally, I believe a breakout, All-Star caliber season is on the horizon for Gregorius.
Some important statistics from last season, split before and after the All-Star break:
Clearly, Gregorius greatly improved as the season went along. He went from being a feeble, bottom of the order bat, to a legitimate near-.300 hitter with some pop. From the traditional statistics (AVG, HR, OPS) to the more advanced ones (wOBA, wRC+), Gregorius saw across the board improvement. More importantly, the peripherals suggest that the progress was real, too.
Part of Gregorius' improvement was due to his better plate discipline. While he held a 5.7 BB% in each half, there were other signs of improvement. He saw a decrease in K%, due largely to being more selective at the plate. Through April, he was swinging at 39.2% of pitches outside the strike zone, which is quite high. However, in September/October, he cut that to 36.1%. While still not at Joey Votto levels, the progress does exist and is encouraging.
This helped Gregorius make better contact, as well. In the first half, he had a 47.6 GB%; ground balls are typically viewed as the weakest form of contact. In the second half, though, he cut that down to 41.7%. Instead, he was hitting more fly balls and slightly more line drives, better forms of contact. As a result, he went from making hard contact 20% of the time in the first half, up to 25.1% in the second half, a noticeable increase.
As he continues to mature and work more and more on his swing, these trends should continue. Gregorius will be just 26 years old on Opening Day and has had 1,302 plate appearances, mostly over just three years. He has plenty of time to continue to grow and this season could be the start of it. The age-26 season is usually viewed as the beginning of the front-end of a player's prime, though it's no exact science, of course. Opinions vary on what exactly the prime age is, but nonetheless, Gregorius is certainly at the age where he's improving each season.
Entering last season, Gregorius also had a ton of pressure on him. There was certainly added attention surrounding him in replacing one of the greatest Yankees ever. It definitely showed early on. Whether it was the aforementioned caught stealing, or other questionable plays in the field, it just felt like Gregorius was trying to do much, which is understandable. However, as the season progressed and he realized he needed to just be Didi, he became more comfortable and the results showed at the plate and in the field. Now with a full season as a Yankee under his belt, and another year removed from Jeter, Gregorius should be fully acclimated to New York and the pinstripes. That's huge for a player's mindset and can only help his play on the field.
Gregorius' bat is improving and will continue to do so, and his defensive skill is already apparent. Coming into last season, his glove was highly touted, and he showed why. FanGraphs ranked him as the fifth best defensive shortstop in baseball last season, and the eye test backed up the numbers; Yankee fans saw him make a number of great plays all year. He's got a lot of range and a cannon of an arm; it isn't hard to envision him winning a Gold Glove as he continues to perfect his craft.
So sure, he's not Jeter, and he never will be. That's more than fine, though. Didi Gregorius is Didi Gregorius, and he's a really impressive ballplayer. Between his great glove, improving bat, and more comfortable mindset, Gregorius seems primed for a big year.