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Didi Gregorius, Stephen Drew and the oddness of perception

Brian Cashman’s been called a genius for trading for Didi Gregorius and an idiot for sticking with Stephen Drew. Why do we view two players with roughly the same numbers so differently?

Dan Hamilton-USA TODAY Sports

What were your thoughts when you read Brian Cashman's comments this weekend, where he called Stephen Drew "the best option that we've had" at second base and praised him on vague immeasurable qualities like work ethic and desire to win? Disgust? Frustration? Confusion? For me it was all of the above. For whatever abilities he does possess, I know I'm not alone among Yankee fans when I say I'm tired of the same show that's been on repeat for more than a full season. I've gotten to the point where I sort of cringe whenever Drew hits a home run, knowing that he's probably bought himself another month in the lineup...or maybe another year.

On the other side of the infield, Didi Gregorius has gotten plenty of praise for the way he's rebounded from a dreadful start to the season. With Shane Greene getting shelled in Detroit, most recently out of the Tigers' bullpen, the trade that brought Gregorius in has been stamped a rousing success. On Saturday's YES broadcast, Michael Kay wondered whether the Yankees have found their shortstop for "the next ten years."

The weird thing is that these two players, despite being viewed through lenses of vastly different shades, have put up numbers that are strikingly similar. Gregorius is up 1.5 to 0.0 in the fWAR department, but that gap is based largely on defense and specifically on the added difficulty of the position he plays, as his and Drew's UZR are a not-too-far-apart 4.0 and -1.2. On the offensive side, Drew's hitting a non-robust .192/.258/.387 with a wRC+ of 74, but Gregorius doesn't have him beat by much, trailing his double play mate in OPS by .002 and leading in WRC+ by just three points. Gregorius has improved as the season's gone on, posting a 95 wRC+ in the second half so far and a triple slash of .279/.315/.367 since June 1st. But so has Drew. He's got a 89 wRC+ since the All-Star break and a slightly better line of .225/.285/.469 since the end of May, as his stats have made a slow creep from historically awful to just bad.

Observation over the past couple of months has told me that Drew's done a lot of stat-padding - if you can even call his stats "padded" - during the many blowout wins the Yankees earned during a red-hot stretch that ran through July and early August. The numbers do back that up. Drew has an OPS of .804 in low leverage situations, where he's hit 11 of his 15 home runs. In high leverage spots, he shrinks to a pitcher-like OPS of .368. In games the Yankees are leading, Drew's hitting .242/.301/.510, and he gets even better if they're up by four or more runs at .276/.318/603. When his team's trailing, Drew's OPS dips to .513, and in games separated by a run or less, he's at .494.

Yet most of the same rings true for Gregorius, albeit to a not as extreme extent. Didi's hitting .283/.343/.361 in low leverage vs. .234/.271/.313 in high leverage, his OPS is .775 in blowouts vs. .546 in one-run or tied games, and he's 17 for 81 with runners in scoring position.

So why is Gregorius considered a big part of the Yankees' future while Drew's the hate vessel du jour? All-or-nothing is not a quality that's looked on favorably in baseball, and Drew is just about the epitome of that, with intermittent bursts of power interrupted by long stretches of consistent out-making. Any left-handed hitter who hits fly balls and pulls balls near 50 percent rates is going to get a few of them in the seats playing home games at Yankee Stadium, but you need Brian McCann, not Stephen Drew, power to actually be effective with that approach. What Gregorius has done - consistent contact, balls hit to all fields, line drives on 21.8 percent of balls in play - is far more aesthetically pleasing than a batting average below the Mendoza line, even if both yield approximately the same statistical value. You feel better with Gregorius at the plate than you do with Drew, especially with men on base, because there are more plausible positive outcomes for his at bat, but Drew's positives do more to change games.

Gregorius isn't as good as we've perceived him and Drew isn't quite as bad, but fans don't view players in a time-space vacuum. When we watch Gregorius, we see what could be. Although his output hasn't been all that different from his two years in Arizona, he's a 25-year-old who still has room to blossom into a real asset in the Yankees' infield, particularly with nothing else on the near horizon at shortstop and Jorge Mateo still in A-ball. In Drew we see what isn't. A 32-year-old who outside of a Fenway-fueled spark in 2013, has been profoundly mediocre going on five years - he's hit .221/.296/.382 in over 1,800 plate appearances since the start of 2011 - and is for reasons apparent only in Cashman's mind, blocking a prospect who has a .374 OBP and a 133 wRC+ at Triple-A. It's not Drew's fault that Rob Refsnyder's still cooling his heels in northeastern Pennsylvania, or that the Yankee front office has such a lukewarm opinion on him, but the fact that hope is out there teasing us from somewhere down I-80 makes the banality of Drew's presence in the lineup all the more maddening.

One last trait that the Yankee middle infielders share is that both are seemingly here to stay. With a weak free agent class at shortstop this off-season, the Yankees will keep at it with Gregorius, as they should. Meanwhile, if Refsnyder gets called back up in September, any playing time he gets will be at the expense of Brendan Ryan and only Brendan Ryan. How sure are you that Drew won't be back next year? If Refsnyder hasn't convinced the Yankees he's a major leaguer in his first 183 games at Scranton-Wilkes Barre, it's pretty unlikely he'll be able to in his next 21. The winter will feature a few good names at second in Howie Kendrick, Ben Zobrist and Daniel Murphy, but no one from that group will come cheap. Cashman's made a run at Drew in one form or another every year since 2013, and since he's had - by default - a better showing this year than last, why should anyone believe it won't happen again?