Didi Gregorius: Welcome to the new era of Yankees shortstops

After setting a Yankees shortstop record today, it’s time to take a look at just how well Didi Gregorius has stepped up since Derek Jeter’s retirement.

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In his third season as a Yankee, Didi Gregorius has now accomplished something that Derek Jeter wasn’t able to do in two decades in pinstripes: hit 25 home runs in a season. How has a guy who wasn’t on anybody’s radar a few years ago become a premier shortstop for New York though? It’s been a strange ride.

Struggling for the spotlight

Back when Jeter retired in 2014, I’d wager somewhere between 90-100% of Yankees fans had never even heard the name Didi Gregorius, and probably for good reason. The left-handed hitting shortstop from the Netherlands made his debut back in 2012 for the Cincinnati Reds at the tender young age of 22. At one point he was Cincinnati’s #5 prospect, but he never cracked a league top 100 list. After eight games with the team, he got sent to Arizona in a nine-player, three-team trade that also happened to send starting pitcher Trevor Bauer to the Cleveland Indians.

Gregorius spent two years with the Diamondbacks, during which time he slashed .241/.314/.368 over the course of 183 games. Couple that line with some subpar defensive performance, and whatever prospect status Didi held was starting to fade, and fast.

Meanwhile across the country, the Yankees were scrambling to figure out how they were going to fill the hole at shortstop left by Jeter’s retirement. The internal options weren’t attractive and a free agent market topped by names like Asdrubal Cabrera and Hanley Ramirez (who was decidedly no longer a shortstop at that point in his career) was looking pretty slim. Then, in an unexpected and remarkably uninspiring three-team trade, New York shipped starting pitcher Shane Green off to Detroit in a three-time deal and brought the no-name shortstop Gregorius to the Bronx.

Year One

When Gregorius stepped into the hole between second and third on opening day in 2015, he was only the second player not named Derek Jeter to do so since 2002, the one exception being  Eduardo Nuñez subbing in for an injured Jeter in 2013. Derek had been the perennial starting shortstop for New York since Bill Clinton was still in his first term as president, and here was this kid who came all the way over from Amsterdam just to play baseball now standing in his place. He finished the day 0 for 2 and was caught trying to steal third base after reaching on an error in front of a Yankee Stadium crowd of 48,469.

Didi put that game behind him though, and his first season in pinstripes went about as well as any reasonable fan could have expected. He picked his batting average up to .265, as compared to his .226 mark in 2014, but his OBP and slugging percentage were roughly par for the course at .318 and .370, respectively. It was a fairly unremarkable season for a fairly unremarkable player.

Gregorius did, however, do one thing that was fairly remarkable, and something that was especially remarkable for a Yankees shortstop. Over the course of the 2014 season, Didi put up an ultimate zone rating (UZR) of 7.4, the fifth best rating for a shortstop that season. UZR is a metric used to measure how many runs a player saves or gives up due to their defense. Going all the way back to 2002, which is as far back as UZR data goes, Jeter never was able to save his team that many runs on defense. In fact, other than 2009, Jeter never actually recorded a positive UZR over the course of a season, finishing his career with a -76.1 runs saved.

So, maybe the kid couldn’t hit, but he sure could play short, and that’s something Yankees fans weren’t exactly used to seeing. In the end, it was more than enough reason to keep him around.

The Didi Era

But then something happened. The kid DID start hitting. In 2016 he picked his batting average up to .276 and slugged .447 on the season while raising his OPS by more than 60 points up to .751, which was good enough to put him in the top half of the league for shortstops. Sure, nothing crazy, but it was far more than what was expected from Didi coming into the season. He also put up double-digit home runs (20) for the first time in his career, all while keeping up his stellar defense.

Gregorius had become an offensively average shortstop with above average defense, and that’s more or less what the Yankees were hoping for at the start of 2017. Didi has gone on to exceed expectations once again though.

Let’s start with the defense. So far, Gregorius has put up a 4.9 UZR, which is good for sixth in the league among shortstops. He has also committed just 9 errors in 126 games so far, which is third best in baseball for qualified shortstops. In conclusion, the defense is still as good as ever.

Now let’s talk about the offense. You already know Didi has hit 25 home runs so far this year. That’s the second most behind just Francisco Lindor, who has 30. He is also ranked top five among shortstops in batting average (.292), slugging (.491), OPS (.816), ISO (.199), and has the second lowest K% at 12.2. All things considered, he also has an overall 3.8 fWAR on the season, which puts him at sixth in the league, and makes a strong case for him as a top three American League shortstop.

Looking Ahead

The most exciting thing about the fact that Gregorius continues to improve year after year is that he is still only 27 years old and is just beginning to enter his peak as a player while he remains in arbitration. New York is paying him $5.1 million for this season, which is an absolute steal given his production. He will continue to be arbitration eligible through 2019 and will become a free agent just before his age 30 season.

The big question is whether or not the Yankees will try to extend his contract before then. If the shortstop continues on this trend, those early 30’s seasons could be some prime Didi years. In spite of his recent production though, there still isn’t a lot of hype surrounding him as a player. An extension after the end of this season could ensure New York keeps their shortstop situation under control at a premium for at least the next five seasons, which is more than a lot of teams can say.

Of course, there’s always Gleyber Torres to consider. The Yankees prospect just got bumped up to #1 on MLB’s top 100 list after the promotion of the Mets Amed Rosario. Torres is out until the start of next season with Tommy John surgery, but the guy has done nothing but shine at every level in the minors thus far and could get a call up as early as the end of next season if all goes well. As long as he continues to improve at shortstop, this could create something of a logjam for the team at the position, making an extension for Didi unnecessary unless they were to shift him to second or third.

But that’s not something anyone should be worrying about right now. Having just swept the Twins, the Yankees are in the thick of the playoff race with a commanding lead of the wild card and the top of the division in their sights. No matter how far New York makes it into the postseason, Gregorius will no doubt be key to their success, just as he has been all season.

Win or lose though, I have no doubt the kid will continue to lead the league in Emojis, and that’s really the best you can hope for in your team’s shortstop.