The following is a guest post from Carlo Macomber, who goes by CoryWadeDavis in the comments. Carlo is a freshman at Colby College in Waterville, ME. He’s previous written a guest post about Masahiro Tanaka.
Baseball executives, analysts, and fans alike have always attempted to make comparisons between young, up-and-coming players and current or former MLB players. In recent years, as more and more information has become available on amateur players, these comps have started earlier than ever. If you watch the MLB First-Year Player Draft on MLB Network, you’ll hear the analysts comparing college and even high school players to established MLB regulars. Almost all of the time, this is completely unfair. Many of the early draft picks get completely unrealistic comps to perennial All-Star or even Hall of Fame caliber players. As a result, I usually end up feeling really bad for the mid first round pick that for some reason only draws a Larry Bigbie or Tony Graffanino comp (or someone along those lines).
Some comps are just plain lazy. Carlos Martinez has been compared to Pedro Martinez because they’re both small RHPs from the Dominican Republic with the last name Martinez. Similarly, #1 Yankees prospect Aaron Judge has drawn lazy comparisons to Giancarlo Stanton. These are based completely on size and position. Stanton had hit 117 MLB home runs through his age 23 season, while Judge is about to open his age 24 season in AAA. There is really no comparison here, especially not one fair to Judge.
Anyway, all of this leads me to the main point here: a fair and plausible comp for Didi Gregorius. After his early season struggles in 2015, Gregorius put together a solid 3.1 fWAR season. While the vast majority of Yankees fans were more than content with Didi’s first season in the Bronx, we all hope to get even more production out of him in the future, especially offensively.
As a result, Giants shortstop Brandon Crawford is a player with a career path that Gregorius could (and should) look to follow. Before this year, Crawford was known as a solid defensive shortstop with a below average overall bat but a slightly above average one for the position. This is similar to how Gregorius is viewed now. In 2015, Crawford broke out offensively. He hit .256/.321/.462/.783 (117 wRC+) with 21 home runs. All of those numbers are by far career bests. Crawford’s breakout offensive campaign coupled with what has become excellent defense led to him producing a 4.7 fWAR season.
The comparison of Crawford and Gregorius is not directly related to Crawford’s 2015 season, however. It starts by comparing Didi’s 2015 season (age 25) and Crawford’s 2013 season (age 26). Here is some key offensive data:
Looks pretty similar, doesn’t it? Gregorius was ever so slightly better in 2015 by wOBA but 2013 Crawford looked better by wRC+. Gregorius had a better batting average — both players had similar and close to league average BABIPs in the respective seasons, by the way – and Crawford showed slightly better power potential (.114 ISO to .105). Overall, though, the offensive numbers are very similar.
The difference in WAR, as you could assume, is actually a result of defense. In 2013, Crawford posted +2 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and had a +4.2 Ultimate Zone Rating per 150 games played (UZR/150). He had yet to emerge as a truly excellent defender. On the other hand, 2015 Gregorius posted +5 DRS and +7.9 UZR/150. Gregorius proved last year that he is capable of putting together a 3 WAR season mostly because of his defense. If he wants to take the next step like Crawford and become a 4.5-5 win player, he should look to make similar offensive improvements, while always trying to incrementally improve his defense.
So, what noticeable offensive differences are there between 2013 and 2015 Brandon Crawford? There are some important changes in batted ball data:
It’s easy to look at the table above and notice that Crawford’s hard contact percentage jumped almost 8% during the two-year period, and that this obviously led to his breakout offensive season. However, it also appears that Crawford tried to pull the ball more last season than in the past. Pulling the ball has gotten a bad reputation in recent years because of defensive shifts, but just about all players hit the ball harder to their pull side. Crawford took advantage of this fact by pulling the ball nearly 4% more often last year and hitting to the opposite field 2.6% less often. Because Crawford was able to pull the ball with authority more often, his HR/FB spiked up in 2015. His 21 home runs last season were more than double his previous career high (10).
While Crawford provides an example of one way a previously below-average hitter can break out offensively, his offensive trends don’t mean that Didi should try to copy him completely. Gregorius doesn’t strike me as someone who will hit 20 home runs in a season. Maybe he develops into a 15 homers per season guy, but I don’t see him as having quite the same power potential as Crawford. Hopefully now that I said that he proves me wrong. Anyway, Didi’s 2015 batted ball data does show that he could work on improving his ability to pull the ball with authority.
The first thing to note here is Gregorius only had about half a season’s worth of PA in 2014 with the Diamondbacks. 299 PA isn’t nothing, though. The numbers show that Didi did start to pull the ball considerably more often last year. Crawford noticed significant offensive gains when he pulled the ball more often, and that hasn’t really happened yet for Didi. However, when Gregorius started to pull the ball more often, he actually made hard contact 5.4% less often, and soft contact 4% more often. The problem here appears to be his spike in GB% and drop in FB%. Didi moved to Yankee Stadium last year, and, as a left-handed hitter, he naturally started to pull the ball more to take advantage of the famous short porch in right field. Unfortunately, Gregorius hit considerably more grounders and considerably fewer fly balls, which completely ruins the point of pulling the ball at Yankee Stadium.
This strikes me as a pitch selection issue. Didi has the right idea of trying to pull the ball more often (like Crawford), but he has to try to pull the right pitches. Trying to pull outside pitches will cause weak ground balls to first and second base, something Didi did too often last year (and that’s backed up by the data!). In order to follow Crawford’s career path “model,” Gregorius should look to follow a teammate’s lead. Brett Gardner has improved his ability to pull the ball with authority (and subsequently raise his power numbers) by jumping on middle and inside fastballs. While it is always important to be patient, Didi should try and get the bat head out to the ball quickly on any middle-in fastballs. In order to do this, Didi will have to improve his overall pitch recognition, which, as a 26-year-old entering just his second full season, he still has time to do. If Gregorius can improve his pitch recognition and pull the ball with authority more often, the Yankees could have an elite two-way shortstop entering his prime years. The Giants are in a similar situation with Crawford, and there’s reason to believe Sir Didi could follow suit!