The Development of Didi

Image result for didi gregorius 2017
Two years later, Didi still has those rockin’ sunglasses at shortstop.

Exactly two years ago today, I wrote about the progression of Didi Gregorius at shortstop for the New York Yankees. I was still in my infancy as a writer, and the marked improvement that I have made since then is apparent as soon as one reads the article.

And exactly two years ago today, Didi Gregorius was still in his infancy as the Yankees’ first shortstop post-Derek Jeter. And the marked improvement that he has made since then is apparent as soon as one watches Gregorius on the diamond today.

Despite narrowly missing out on an All-Star spot, Didi Gregorius has been precisely that for the Yankees since the second half of his first year in New York. The development of Didi from a shy .220 hitter into an affable team leader that hits .300 and bats in the middle of the order has been a big storyline for the Yankees over the past 3 years, and it’s one that is still being written.

Let’s take it back to when the Yankees first acquired Didi. The team was fresh off of the retirement of Derek Jeter, and the team needed to find a young shortstop that they could build around. They had Brendan Ryan on the roster as a veteran insurance policy, but his light bat wasn’t anything that the Yankees wanted to have starting at shortstop, especially when it came to replacing an icon such as Derek Jeter.

So with the farm system completely devoid of internal help, GM Brian Cashman worked the trade market. He stumbled upon Gregorius, who the Diamondbacks had apparently given up on. Already on his second team, the lanky shortstop hadn’t caught on with either the Cincinnati Reds nor the D-Backs, and had lost his starting spot by midseason. However, Cashman still saw some of the flash that had made Gregorius such a hot commodity when he was still a prospect.

In a three-team trade that has benefited everyone except the Detroit Tigers, the Yankees traded promising right-hander Shane Green to Detroit and received Gregorius from Arizona, while 2017 NL All-Star Robbie Ray went from Detroit to Arizona. And with that, the Yankees had acquired their shortstop of the future.

Gregorius struggled at first under the bright lights and immense pressure of New York. He hit just .206 with no power in his first month as a Yankee and committed too many errors. It got so bad that Ryan, who was coming off a season in which he hit .167, began to start for Gregorius against left-handed pitching. Many Yankee fans were ready to send Didi packing.

Of course though, Gregorius inevitably found his footing in the Bronx. He hit .294 after the All-Star Break, settled down in the field, and was reassured that the starting shortstop position was his and his alone. The Yankees made the playoffs that season, but were eliminated in the wild card game.

Gregorius had his breakout season in 2016. In a season in which the Yankees sold at the trade deadline for the first time in years, Didi was often the cleanup batter and the guy that other teams had to pitch around. He hit a career-best .276, popped a surprising 20 homers, led the team with 70 RBI, and batted in every lineup spot except leadoff. Didi was a more consistent fielder in 2016, and looked to be an emerging star.

The hallmark of Gregorius’ improvement was his newfound ability to hit left-handed pitching. After struggling against southpaws for much of his career, Gregorius flipped the tables in 2016 and actually hit better against lefties than righties, slashing a league-best .324/.361/.473 versus lefties. And this season, Didi has dominated both righties and lefties, batting .301 against right-handers and .298 versus southpaws.

This season was supposed to be a big one in the development of Didi. However, an arm injury suffered in the World Baseball Classic put his season on hold for much of the first month. Although Ronald Torreyes played surprisingly well at short in Gregorius’ absence, there was no doubt that Joe Girardi was happy to have Didi back in the lineup upon his return.

Didi has had a banner season in 2017. He is hitting an even .300, has 10 home runs and 38 RBI in 61 games, which put him on pace to shatter his career-bests, and has played stellar defense. In a lineup that features Aaron Judge, Gary Sanchez, Matt Holliday, and Starlin Castro, Didi would presumably be the weak link: the guy that other pitchers would rather pitch to. However, Gregorius has been just as good as the other big names in the Yankee lineup, and has a knack for coming through in clutch situations. There are few Yankees you’d rather have up in a late-game situation than Gregorius, who doesn’t strike out much and often puts the ball in play.

Despite getting passed over at the All-Star Game, Yankee fans know that they have an All-Star in Didi Gregorius. He has more than exceeded the club’s initial expectations, and has become more than just Derek Jeters’ replacement. Didi Gregorius is very much his own man: he was knighted back in 2011, enjoys drawing, photography, and flying drones. In a campaign to get to the All-Star Game, Didi even made burritos and offered subway swipes for his fellow New Yorkers. He has a smile that can light up a room, and is one of the most marketable Yankees.

So let’s flash back again to the winter of 2014. Imagine if the Yankees had signed or traded for some over-the-hill veteran instead of choosing Didi. The Yankees would certainly be weaker today, and the club still wouldn’t have a capable replacement for Jeter. However, the development of Didi has proven GM Brian Cashman right, and has given the Yankees another star middle infielder, one that will hopefully remain in the Bronx for many years to come.

 

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