Didi Gregorious’ free agency is a complicated issue in the Yankees offseason. There is deservedly a ton of attention being paid to the starting rotation, but retaining or losing Didi will have a significant impact on the roster. His free agent status feels like a secondary topic of discussion, but it is a crucial decision to be made. It is a decision that should lead to a reunion between the Yankees and Didi.
Didi is a rare player in this game. He is a good middle infield defender who provides power from the left side of the plate, still possesses good speed and is a clear leader in the clubhouse. The impactful shortstop from Curacao was a foundational piece in the Yankees reload. You could make a strong case that Didi’s growth is a significant factor in the rise of this championship contending version of the Yankees. The team may not be where it currently is without Didi Gregorious.
Despite these valid arguments, sports are overly dependent upon the idea of “what have you done for me lately?” This is where things become complicated for a Didi return to pinstripes. Prior to Didi’s Tommy John surgery, it was widely assumed that the shortstop would sign a pretty nice extension with the Yankees. His offensive numbers were improving every season, including a career year in 2018, and his defensive performance was largely above average. His performance took a significant hit across the board after the injury. Despite his past production, the door is open for the Yankees to move on with far less objection from the fan base. This would be a mistake that would be in direct contrast to how the Yankees have approached roster construction in recent years.
Didi Still Has A Strong Offensive Profile
Bobby touched upon this in his Didi profile, but 2019 was not a banner year at the plate for Gregorious. He finished the season with a career low OBP of .276 and finished the season with his highest K/PA with the Yankees at .154. His BB/K dropped from .696 in 2018 to .321 in 2019. The wOBA, xwOBA, and xSLG numbers took pretty big hits this season as well. These are real numbers and are accurate representations of his performance. But is there other data to suggest that Didi wasn’t that far off from his general NYY profile?
In fact, there is information available that hints Didi can return to his prior form. The first number to look at is his BABIP. His .237 mark from last year is easily a career low. That number is pretty atypical for any major league hitter let alone one as productive as Gregorious. Didi also produced a career high in exit velocity at 88.2 MPH. Some of this is most likely attributed to the juiced ball, but there are other categories that show Didi hit the ball with authority. There were some nice jumps in his barrel %, number of total barrels and hard hit %. 2019 was also a career high in positive launch angle, which is always a good thing when your exit velocity jumps. All of this information suggests Didi is more in line with his previous years than what a glance at traditional statistics may suggest.
The big elephant in the room is Didi’s control of the strike zone. As we all know, Gregorious likes to swing the bat. He will never be confused with Aaron Judge or Aaron Hicks. But what happens when we take a look at Didi’s production in various regions of the strike zone? Is there anything to show that Didi can bounceback in 2020? Here are his statcast swing/take plots from 2018 and 2019:
Didi was pretty effective against pitches in the heart of the zone this past season. He was also better at handling pitchers in the shadow of the zone in 2019 as opposed to 2018. The major difference between the two years is his chase rate. Didi was fooled on pitches living on the edges of the zone far more in 2019 than 2018.
This is where the injury most likely rears its ugly head. Gregorius was on a clear path to improving his strike zone control prior to the surgery. It is an approach that needs constant refinement and reps. A hitter works on this in his offseason program and in spring training. Didi spent all of that time working back to functional sports health. By the time he came back in June, pitchers were in a groove while he was acclimating himself to game speed. It isn’t easy to hold up on nasty breaking pitches that tantalize the zone when you’ve been facing live BP on minor league backfields for a few months.
There is enough positive information that hints Didi will experience a bounce back season in 2020. We also can’t discount the importance of a lefty bat. There are some who suggest handedness isn’t that important of a trait in modern day baseball. While in a vacuum that may be true, a team should build their lineup with home field advantages in mind. Yankee Stadium was constructed to favor left handed power. The 2019 ALCS with Houston highlighted the importance of a more balanced lineup. There are a bunch of tough lefties in the AL East, but when you move beyond the division, it is clear that elite right handed pitchers are just around the corner. Lefty power should always be available for the New York Yankees.
Is Didi’s Defense Worth A Reunion?
Admittedly, this is the one area where concerns of a Didi return are the most valid. The Yankees have a shortstop in the wings in Gleyber Torres. Gleyber is clearly a better shortstop than he is second baseman at this stage of his career. The Yankees have to figure out if their infield defense is stronger with Didi at shortstop or with Gleyber at short and DJ Lemahieu at second full time.
Prior to writing this, I believed Didi was the clear cut better defender over Gleyber at shortstop. After looking at some of the metrics, that may not be the case. There is evidence that points to Gleyber sliding over to shortstop would enhance the defensive performance of the position.
Rtot is total fielding runs above average. It calculates the number of runs above or below average a defender is worth based on plays made. There are other available metrics, but Rtot is a pretty simple concept to follow. In 80 games in 2019, Didi finished the year with a -5Rtot. In 77 games in 2019, Gleyber finished the season with a 5Rtot. At second base, Gleyber was a -4Rtot. Again, there are many evaluations available to paint this picture, but it is pretty clear Gleyber was the superior shortstop in 2019.
Due to Didi’s injury, we do need to go back to 2018 to get a fuller picture. In 2018, Didi was a 3Rtot while Gleyber, albeit in a small sample size, was a -2Rtot. There is a pretty big drop off in Gregorius’ performance from one year to the next. Didi was only 29 this past season so it couldn’t entirely be connected to age-related decline. It seems pretty clear that the Tommy John surgery impacted his overall performance. There is a chance that Didi rebounds on the defensive side of the ball now that his offseason can be dedicated to baseball training and not physical therapy.
How Does Yankees Roster Construction Factor In?
There is another aspect to the Didi decision that goes beyond individual performance. It is a question of depth and how the Yankees approach roster construction. The Yankees clearly prioritize depth and versatility over a top heavy, superstar laden roster. Didi Gregorius is a good player who had a down year most likely due to a significant injury. It makes sense to acquire as many good players as possible. We witnessed the importance of this first hand in 2019.
It is a sound strategy to move Gleyber to short and DJLM to second base. But this flies in the face of how the Yankees approach their team. Depth has never been more crucial. Keep in mind, this is a team that promotes MLB’s version of load management. Players will be rotating in and out all season. I would much rather have three above average players sharing time than two above average players and some version of Tyler Wade and Thairo Estrada. Estrada played well in limited duty, but we don’t know how he will hold up if thrown into regular playing time for a month due to injury. We know Didi Gregorius will be productive one way or another.
A lot of the clamor for moving on from Didi feels rooted in the dream acquisition of Gerrit Cole. The Yankees have done an incredible job of convincing many of the fan base into thinking free agency is an either/or process. If this is truly the case, it is solely because the team chose to employ this strategy. The Yankees can afford Didi and Gerrit Cole. They choose to not go that route. There is also no guarantee that moving on from Didi gets Cole in pinstripes. It is a strong possibility that the Yankees lose their starting shortstop and the best pitcher on the market to the highest bidder. Of course, there is always a ninja Cashman trade lurking, but we never know those possibilities until they happen. Bringing Didi back is a strong move that will keep this championship contending team humming right along.