Shortly after the Yankees were ousted by the rival Red Sox in 2018’s American League Division Series, Brian Cashman made a surprising announcement: Didi Gregorius would need Tommy John surgery. Gregorius was fresh off a career year in which he hit .268/.335/.494 (122 wRC+) and was worth nearly five wins. The news that he tore a ligament in his elbow during Game 2 of the ALDS and would get the surgery immediately came as a big blow. His 2019 season, obviously, was in jeopardy.
However, Gregorius would return to the field just eight months after the surgery, rejoining the 2019 Yankees on June 7 in Cleveland. He went 2-4 in his first game back and did this the next day:
The good times, at the plate at least, would not last. Gregorius ultimately hit just .238/.276/.441 (84 wRC+) in 2019, earning him the unflattering distinction of being New York’s worst offensive regular. Unfortunately for the affable shortstop, it came at a bad time: 2019 was a walk year, and Gregorius now tests free agency for the first time.
Here’s what went wrong for Sir Didi last year, what went right, and what might come next.
Reverting to Old Habits
Didi has never been known for his patience, walking in just about six percent of his 3,382 Major League plate appearances, averaging just 3.72 pitches per plate appearance. League average is about eight percent and 3.86 over the same time period, for reference. Couple that with the fact that his career chase rate sits at roughly 36% (league average is 28%) and the fact that he swings at the first pitch over a third of the time, and you can see Gregorius’ major offensive weakness.
It’s worth noting, though, that Gregorius had reversed these trends in 2018, only to slip back into old habits last year. Check out some key metrics related to his plate discipline in 2017, 2018, and 2019:
|Chase %||1st Pitch %||Swing %||Whiff %||BB %|
Clearly, last year was a major step forward for Gregorius in nearly every way when it came to plate discipline: he walked more, chased fewer pitches, and swung less. It’s worth noting that this was a major departure from his career norms, but it’s only fair to counter that players do improve. Coming into 2019, I hoped to see Gregorius’ new, comparatively more patient approach stick.
Unfortunately, it did not. As you can see, he reverted to all of his old habits again this past season. He regressed in nearly every area in which he progressed in 2018. However, one interesting and positive note: he saw over four pitches per plate appearance in 2019, for the first time in his career.
Even if Gregorius maintained his otherwise good production at the plate, regression in this key area would have signified less production overall. Lack of discipline and patience has always held him back, but, unfortunately for everyone’s favorite Yankee, he also regressed in another key area, too–and it was one that makes an ugly cocktail when paired with the stats highlighted above.
Can’t Catch Up to the Heat
Perhaps it was due to the long layoff, but Sir Didi really struggled to catch up to fastballs last year. That’s bad for any player, but especially for Gregorius, given the fact that he is aggressive early in the count–where he is more likely than not to see a fastball.
Last year, for example, Gregorius hit .273 with a .359 wOBA against all fastballs, swinging through 15% of the opposition’s heater. In years prior, he hit .265, .265, and .290 against the straight stuff. In 2019, though, he managed just a .216 batting average and .285 wOBA on the pitch, swinging through 17% of those offerings. The power remained–he slugged 10 homers on the pitch and the exit velocity on those on which he did make contact was up, a phenomenon that can likely be attributed to the juiced ball.
Peel back the layers further and it is evident that Gregorius struggled with high-velocity fastballs especially. Although the fastest fastballs give most players trouble–there’s a reason, after all, that teams so crave pitchers with this tool–Gregorius struggled by the one objective metric: against the standard he himself has set. Consider some numbers against fastballs 95 miles-per-hour or faster since he turned the corner at the plate in 2017:
That’s troubling for Gregorius, especially considering the fact that high-velocity stuff is, as evidenced by the data, becoming more frequent as the years go on. But it’s also worth noting that Gregorius was recovering from a relatively brutal injury and his timing may just have been off. My guess, although this might be optimistic, is that the further away from the injury Gregorius gets, the more productive he gets at the plate. But this is a trend that will be worth watching closely in 2020, regardless of where Gregorius lands.
A Flair for the Big Moment
With all of this said, though, Gregorius still landed some of the Yankees’ biggest hits of the 2019 season–in grand fashion, at that. The first of these came just four at-bats after Aaron Judge’s crushing blow against Tampa. It was one of the most memorable moments of the 2019 season, at least for me:
All of these months later, and I’m still not sure how Sir Didi was able to get on top of *that* pitch. I mean…look at this:
How in the world? In any case, that was truly delightful, and it put the cherry on top of what was essentially a division-clinching series win over Tampa Bay. Just delicious.
And who can forget his other grand slam, which came in Game 2 of the American League Division Series against the Twins? Didi had been struggling hard in the last two months of the season, but boy oh boy did he deliver here:
Incredible. I was at the Stadium for this one (as well as his other big blow against Minnesota in 2017) and it erupted. It really did. There is a special connection between Gregorius and the Yankee Stadium faithful, I think. That’s evident even when he’s struggling.
Anyway, Sir Didi also played great defense in the clinching Game 3, particularly in the 9th, and had a few other big hits. Gregorius may have struggled in the ALCS, but if that was it for Didi, he didn’t leave the Yankees with a sour taste. He was one of their postseason heroes in 2019. He also delivered one of the key hits of the regular season. That’s what he does.
Free agency! The Yankees did not offer Gregorius the nearly $18 million qualifying offer, which should come as no surprise. His tough 2019 meant that he might very likely accept the offer, since he won’t touch that salary average on the market. From Didi’s perspective, he’d likely take the big-ish payday and hope to rebound next year, away from the injury, and re-assert his value. That’s why the Yankees didn’t offer it to him, and I think that makes sense.
We’ve already heard that the Reds are interested in a reunion with Gregorius, which also makes sense. Believe it or not, his 108 wRC+ since the start of 2017 ranks 9th out of players whose primary position is short, as does his 9.8 fWAR. He’s easily the best middle infielder on the market, has a reliably good bat for his position, and brings great defense. He’s going to attract some attention, including from the Yankees.
I still hold out hope that the Yankees and Gregorius will work out a one-year deal that Gregorius will take to rebuild his value. Anything more than that would surprise me. I could be wrong, though. After all, Gregorius is a good player at a premium position. I just think the Yankees will have other priorities to tend to first. Didi may well be gone by then.
If that’s it for Gregorius’ tenure in the Bronx, then it will have been a very fine one indeed. He admirably filled in for Derek Jeter, quickly became a fan favorite, grew as a player, and delivered many of the most memorable hits of the era. The Didi era was a good one, and I truly hope it is not over yet.
For now, I leave you with this: