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Are judgements on the acquisition of Didi Gregorius premature?

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A slow start in the shadow of a superstar shortstop. Small sample size or short side of a swap?

Reinhold Matay-USA TODAY Sports

This may be the second week of the season, but evidently it's not too soon to assess the Didi Gregorius for Shane Greene swap. We can see herehere, and here arguments from earlier this week that the Yankees and Brian Cashman might have gotten the short end of the trade. Here is another one from yesterday, for good measure it throws in a couple of blows at Nathan Eovaldi as well.

Of course, it's not Greene's name that's being chanted in the stands at Didi when he is out on the field. We knew coming in that this was never going to be easy for Gregorius to step out of the shadow of the legend who he has replaced in the Bronx, the legend who has owned the shortstop position since Didi was five years old. There then, lies the rub. All year, and likely as long as Gregorius is a Yankee, he will be judged against both Jeter and Greene. When Greene performs at the level that he has to start this season, we will see the conversation on the possibility that Cashman lost a trade. If Greene were to fall off, well then the Jeter headlines are likely to return in full force.

Neither of this excuses Gregorius' early struggles, and certainly the easiest way to bring the media and the fans on board is to perform. However, ideally a young player, known to need further development, coming to a difficult environment, would have been given more than a handful of games before having judgement passed on him. Of course, having to replace two players, one a first ballot Hall of Famer, and another off to one of the best starts of any pitcher in baseball this season, means that pressure was inevitable. I don't think it's a coincidence that by-and-large, Derek Jeter's name comes up in the articles judging the Shane Greene and Didi Gregorius trade. I do believe having to replaced Jeter has shortened the leash on Gregorius in terms of judging this trade in many minds, consciously or not. Unfortunately, there is simply no way around that, Perhaps blocking it out is easier said than done but certainly to succeed in the New York fishbowl he'll need to be able to do exactly what he sets out to do below.

"There’s nothing I can do. That’s in their control. I can’t control what comes out of their mouths. They want to chant, there’s nothing I can do. It doesn’t bother me at all."

We don't need to focus on Jeter when looking for reasons why some in the fanbase and the media might already be turning on Didi though. Certainly the loss of Shane Greene was not painless. Greene has an easy tale to root for, the young prospect never highly rated, thrown into the deep end for a team desperate for innings, first unexpected positive then rotation stalwart now potentially a breakout star. Sadly, a breakout that would now not happen in pinstripes. While no one, well other than Joel Sherman, is touting him as a Cy Young candidate just yet, there is reason to believe that Greene has taken a further step forward this offseason. Owen Wilson at Fangraphs shows us how Greene has continued to improve his changeup, giving him a platoon-neutral secondary pitch that might help him perform much better this season against left-handed hitting which did hurt him last year.

It was never going to be cheap for the Yankees to acquire a shortstop though, there simply aren't enough in the league to go around. There were no in-house options, so Brian Cashman had to go out to the market and find someone who could play the position this season, and the price for a young, cost-controlled Didi Gregorius was the young, cost-controlled Shane Greene. It was never to be painless, but such is the way of it in a league where a prospect like Trea Turner can land a Rookie of the Year like Wil Myers. Gregorius himself had already been traded for a high-upside arm in Trevor Bauer previously.

Admittedly, the Yankees could have simply plugged in Stephen Drew at shortstop, but coming off Drew's 2014 season it's a hardly a surprise that the Yankees didn't feel comfortable having Drew as the only realistic option at the position. Even if that was the route they took, all it might have lead to is rushing Rob Refsnyder to the big leagues and where the articles now would be about Refsnyder's struggles and the failure of Cashman to bring in another competent middle infielder. In any case, it wouldn't have changed the fact that at some point, the team needed to make a move that had a realistic chance of landing a player who could play short for several seasons. That was always going to demand a premium, be it in a mega-contract for an Ian Desmond should he allowed to reach free agency, or in trading away a valuable asset elsewhere like the Yankees have done by giving away Greene here.

Which brings us back to evaluating this specific trade. Early returns on Gregorius may not have been great, but then these are only early returns. He has struggled in all aspects of the game, but this is a young player with some level of a major league track record, and intuitively it seems more likely that he is in a dry spell as opposed to having turned into a pumpkin right from Opening Day. If we use Inside Edge fielding statistics, that breaks down plays into categories based on the likelihood of success, we can see that over a full season Didi has reliably converted about 98% of his "Routine" opportunities. So far this season, he's been at 90.9%, a significant drop-off, but in a sample size so small we don't even have a UZR score yet. As Brian Cashman pointed out, Gregorius looked pretty good defensively in spring training, even if he is obviously struggling a little in the early part of the year.

He has struggled at the plate as well, slashing an awful .152/.194/.152, over his first ten games. It has seemed like he's pressing at the plate at times, and the walks drying up  - 2.8% from a career 7.9% - bears testament to that. The strikeout rate has picked up a little  - 19.4% over a career 17.0% - but nowhere near enough to explain a batting average 50 points short of the Mendoza line. No, the real culprit is his batted average on balls in play; 0.185, or about 90 points below his career average. The way it breaks down in his batted ball profile, though, might surprise you.

Batted Ball Type Groundball Flyball Line Drive
2014 37.4% 42.9% 19.6%
2015 48.1% 37.0% 14.8%

Batting Average Groundball Flyball Line Drive
2014 0.232 0.163 0.628
2015 0.308 0.100 0.000

Data courtesy of Fangraphs

Gregorius is still making outs frequently on fly balls, unsurprisingly, though he is hitting fewer of them, even after making four flyball outs on Friday night. He's hit more groundballs, but he's doing better this year on those than he was last year. The killer, line drives. As Nikhil pointed out in the offseason, Didi Gregorius would do well to hit more line drives. Last season, he got a hit in almost two-thirds of his line-drives. This season, after a sample size of four line-drives, he's batting 0-for-3.

Give him another two hits and suddenly his batting average is 0.212, still not great but starting to trend in the above-Mendoza direction. Maybe one of them goes for extra bases, and the slugging average is a little higher, and while it's a fun game to be handing out hits to struggling Yankee batters, I'll get to you in a bit Carlos Beltran, I'm really not sure if we can make anything out of all this. At some point this season Gregorius was going to make three straight outs on line drives, unfortunately for him it's happened on his first four attempts - the other was a sacrifice fly. I don't know if the ground ball to fly ball ratio is a change in approach, if it is maybe it's a good thing. It probably isn't, or he might not have made four flyball outs on Friday.

The only thing I do know in all this is these tables would have looked quite different if this post had been published a day later or a day earlier, that's the thing with early season small sample sizes. By the time you read this, Sunday's game is probably over, and maybe Gregorius has a couple of line drive hits and makes an out on a groundball, and the data starts to normalize a little. Maybe something completely different happens. Perhaps all we can say is that it's simply too soon to be trying to get anything meaningful out of batted ball data, or really in anything that underlines early season performance. Surely then, though, it's simply far too early to make anything meaningful out of the performance itself? Even if it's a case of looking at Didi and thinking he's rushing, or trying too hard, or whatever else. What player looks good when he's going through a slump?

I can't in all fairness argue against anyone having made up their minds on the trade, for I already have. I liked the move on its merits at the time, the Yankees traded a potentially valuable but uncertain asset in the rotation for one at shortstop and shortstops are not easy to acquire. If we are judging on performance though, I think it's just going to have to be a case of waiting till we have more than a handful of games.

What do you think about judging the decision to trade for Didi Gregorius? Is the conversation premature, or do you have an opinion on the early returns?