Didi Gregorius is ready to help all the young shortstops in the Yankees’ farm system

(Sung Min Kim/River Avenue Blues)
(Sung Min Kim/River Ave. Blues)

A bit after the Netherlands-Israel World Baseball Classic match at the Gocheok Sky Dome in Seoul, a group of Taiwanese reporters flocked towards the Netherlands dugout as Didi Gregorius stepped outside of the dugout. As one of the reporters finished an interview, she giddily asked Gregorius for a selfie because she “wants to prove that she actually talked to him.” Gregorius easily obliged. He (and I) probably knew that the reporter probably wanted one with him regardless because he is Didi Gregorius, a young and rising figure who plays for the famed New York Yankees.

Gregorius spent the past week in Seoul as a member of the Kingdom of the Netherlands team for the 2017 World Baseball Classic. After one of the exhibition matches, Gregorius and several teammates went out and he posted on his Instagram stories a selfie of themselves at a shopping mall.

“I was just walking around,” he said. “You gotta experience everything when you’re in a different country. I’ve never been (in Korea) so you gotta walk around and see what they got.”

The Korean baseball fans — and many others who traveled to see the games in Seoul — however, got to see what Gregorius has to offer. Gregorius, after hitting a home run in his first Spring Training at-bat this year, did not seem to lose his power stroke in Pool A play of the World Baseball Classic. In three games and twelve at-bats, he has hit for a 1.083 OPS, hitting three doubles and knocking in three. One of the doubles, which came in the bottom of eighth in the game against Taiwan, tied the game up at five and Netherlands went on to walk-off in the ninth to clinch the second round trip to Tokyo.

Gregorius also barely missed a home run earlier in the game, as the ball hit the wall just a few feet shy of being in the seats. It might as well as been a home run in many other ballparks, as the Gocheok Sky Dome is rated below-average for home run rates. Last night, in the Tokyo Dome, Gregorius clobbered a big home run for the Netherlands:

However, Gregorius never looks for home runs when he steps into the box. He is aware of last year’s power surge and the expectations that came with it. But when asked if he changed his offseason training regimen to increase power, he immediately shook his head and gave a firm response.

“If I hit a home run, I hit a home run,” Gregorius said. “But I’m just trying to drive the ball, try to hit it gap to gap — left field line, right field line — I’m a line drive hitter. If they go out, they go out, but nothing’s going to change.”

Indeed Didi is a line drive hitter. He’s always had a line drive swing that Yankee scouts loved even when his bat did not play out for the Diamondbacks in 2014 (.226/.290/.363 in 299 PA). After hitting for a .276/.304/.447 line with 20 home runs with 70 RBI in 2016 while still displaying slick fielding ability, he’s established himself as one of the most fun AL shortstops to watch.

With the Team Netherlands, Didi is teammates with another young AL shortstop, Xander Bogaerts, whom Gregorius acknowledges is a better hitter “if you look at the numbers.” While they play for rival teams in the regular season, Gregorius and Bogaerts feel natural playing for a same squad.

“It does not feel weird to play with (Bogaerts) because I played with him when we were young,” Gregorius said. “It’s just fun because all people (on the team) are from back home representing Netherlands and Curacao. When we’re working together, we are a team. When we’re playing each other, we don’t know each other (laugh).”

Sure, the Red Sox may have a better-hitting shortstop right now, but the Yankees have some great shortstop talent in the minors that could impact the big league team in a few years. There’s of course Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo. Deeper down, there are Tyler Wade, Wilkerman Garcia, Kyle Holder, Hoy Jun Park, etc., all of whom signed as shortstops but could very well change positions in near future.

Despite the many shortstop talents in the system, Gregorius is not worried about his long-term outlook with the Yankees.

“I’m going to play my game,” Gregorius put it succinctly. “They are playing their game too. I cannot judge people on what they do and I cannot worry about it.”

Even if any of the younger talents land in the majors, Gregorius is planning to be an embracing “veteran.” “When we are on the team, we play together so there’s no competition between each other,” he said. “Why do I have look out for something that’s not even there right now? (To them) I’m a so-called veteran so they come to me and I pass along what A-Rod and all those guys taught me. I hope every young guy goes a long way because you want them to be successful.”

Gregorius, of course, was once in their shoes before. Breaking into the bigs in 2012, it took him until 2015 to be a solid regular and the work ethic that scouts raved about and guidance from older players took his play to the next level in 2016. Prior to that though, he has had to go back and forth between Triple-A and MLB in the both Reds and Diamondbacks systems. He is aware of the challenges of having to transition as an ML player and has the right intentions – guide them through the most crucial part of their career.

Not only Gregorius cares about the younger players, but also he has looked out for the fans during Pool A play of the World Baseball Classic. After Netherlands defeated Taiwan in a dramatic walk-off affair, he walked over to the Royal Diamond seats (the seats directly behind the home plate and by the dugouts in Gocheok) to sign each autographs for each fan and take selfies while his teammates had gone into the clubhouse to celebrate the win.

In each instance I have been around him, Gregorius is upbeat, smiling, not saying “no” to fans and generally being positive to whatever is in his sight. His positive attitude rings in his answer when asked what his 2017 goal is.

“Win a ring. That’s it,” he said. “We got a lot of talent and a lot of young guys coming up so wait for the season.”

All Rise for Aaron Judge [2017 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first impression was as good as it gets. On the fourth pitch he saw as a big leaguer, Aaron Judge smoked a towering home run off the very top of the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar in center field at Yankee Stadium. The ball cleared the windows and very nearly made the seats. It was fun to see the power after reading all those scouting reports over the years.

The second impression wasn’t so good. In 94 plate appearances after that home run, Judge went 14-for-83 (.169) with three homers and 42 strikeouts before an oblique strain ended his season prematurely. Judge’s strikeouts were no surprise. He struck out a bunch in the minors and hey, a 6-foot-7 hitter has a pretty huge strike zone. Still, seeing a 44.2% strikeout rate in action is no fun.

Over the winter Judge went to work on his lower half and he came to Spring Training with a chance to win the right field job. Barring injury, it’s either Judge or Aaron Hicks, and I do believe this is a true competition, not one of those rigged ones we’ve seen over the years. So far this spring Judge has hit .310/.394/.586 with two homers and seven strikeouts in 33 plate appearances (21.2 K%), which is promising, but ultimately doesn’t mean much of anything.

There’s very little question the Yankees want Judge to be the right fielder of the future. Is he ready to be the right fielder of the present? My gut says the Yankees will indeed go with Judge over Hicks once the regular season rolls around, but what do I know. We’ll find out soon enough. Let’s preview Judge’s season, shall we? We shall.

What is an acceptable strikeout rate?

Well, that depends. It depends how much Judge produces when he does make contact. No, I don’t think there’s any way he can be productive with a 40-something-percent strikeout rate. The highest single-season strikeout rate in baseball history is 36.2% by current Yankee Chris Carter. He hit .223/.320/.451 (112 wRC+) with 29 homers in 585 plate appearances for the Astros that year.

Only six batters in history have struck out in one-third of their plate appearances while qualifying for the batting title, and two of the six failed to produce at a least average rate offensively:

  • 2013 Chris Carter: .223/.320/.451 (112 wRC+) with 29 homers and 36.2% strikeouts
  • 2010 Mark Reynolds: .198/.320/.433 (96 wRC+) with 32 homers and 35.4% strikeouts
  • 2012 Adam Dunn: .204/.333/.468 (115 wRC+) with 41 homers and 34.2% strikeouts
  • 2009 Mark Reynolds: .260/.349/.543 (127 wRC+) with 44 homers and 33.7% strikeouts
  • 1963 Dave Nicholson: .229/.319/.419 (111 wRC+) with 22 homers and 33.7% strikeouts
  • 2008 Mark Reynolds: .239/.320/.458 (97 wRC+) with 28 homers and 33.3% strikeouts

One of those things is not like the other. Anyway, there’s no precedent for an everyday player striking out as much as Judge did last year, mostly because you’d eventually get sent down or released if you struck out that much. Even the guys who struck out one-third of the time needed to hit for huge power and draw a ton of walks — 2008 Reynolds had the lowest walk rate among those six batters at 10.4% — to have value offensively.

Clearly, Judge needs to cut down on his strikeouts and both he and the Yankees know that. That’s why he continues to work on his hitting mechanics. He’s changed his leg kick however many times over the last two years, plus he’s changed his hand position as well. If Judge fails, it won’t be due to a lack of effort. He’s working with the hitting coaches all season and offseason and trying all different things. Being a 6-foot-7 hitter is hard.

Strikeouts around baseball have ticked up over the last few years, mostly because pitchers are throwing harder than ever before, and also because there are more specialized relievers. Here’s a quick plot showing wRC+ vs. K% for all hitters with enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title over the last five seasons:

wrc-vs-k

There’s close to zero correlation between strikeout rate and offensive production, interestingly enough. Anyhow, looking at the graph, once you get beyond a 25.0% strikeout rate, there aren’t many dots above a 110 wRC+ or so. It seems striking out a lot won’t stop you from being a productive hitter, but it will reduce your chances of being a great hitter. Only 18 players since 2012 managed a 120+ wRC+ while striking out at least one-quarter of the time.

So I suppose that’s the magic number for Judge this year: 25.0 K%. Get the strikeout rate down there and he has a chance to be a quality offensive weapon for the Yankees. Judge struck out 24.7% of the time in the minors overall and 25.7% of the time at Triple-A (23.9% in 2016), so getting down to a 25.0% strikeout rate in the big leagues doesn’t seem impossible. Can he do it this year? That’s the million dollar question. The Yankees hope so. Getting down to 25.0% strikeouts in 2016 would be wonderful, but, if nothing else, we at least need to see a decline in strikeouts. Fanning four out of every ten plate appearances ain’t gonna cut it.

Exactly how much power are we talking?

A ton. We’ve seen it already. There was that aforementioned shot off the Mohegan Sun Sports Bar last year, and we all saw that ball Judge hit off the top of the scoreboard in his first spring game this year. His home run this past weekend really gives you an idea of how strong this guy is. There’s basically no effort in this swing:

Baseball America (subs. req’d) says Judge’s power “rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale” while MLB.com says it’s a 60. That’s really good! A hitter with 60 power can be expected to mash 25-30 homers a year. Someone with 70 power projects to hit 30+ dingers annually. The various projection systems love Judge’s power:

  • PECOTA: 20 homers in 468 plate appearances (26 HR per 600 PA)
  • Steamer: 17 homers in 378 plate appearances (27 HR per 600 PA)
  • ZiPS: 30 homers in 522 plate appearances (34 HR per 600 PA)

Only ten rookie hitters have qualified for the batting title while averaging 26+ homers per 600 plate appearances since 2000, and they’re guys like Albert Pujols, Mark Teixeira, and Prince Fielder. Basically the best power hitters of the century. The completely objective projection systems think Judge can produce at that level, at least when it comes to hitting the ball over the fence.

The Yankees haven’t had a rookie hit 25+ home runs since Bobby Murcer in 1969. Heck, prior to Gary Sanchez last year, the last Yankees rookie to hit even 20 homers in a season was Kevin Maas in 1990. If he makes enough contact — and that remains the big question — Judge could very well smack 25+ homers this summer. It’s not unreasonable, not given Yankee Stadium and the other hitter friendly AL East parks. Judge’s exit velocity on fly balls and line drives is elite. When he connects, he tends to do a lot of damage.

Don’t forget about his defense.

Given his size, power, and strikeout tendencies, it can be easy to stereotype Judge as a lumbering slugger. That’s not the case though. Judge is a very good athlete for his size and he has the skills to be a defensive asset in right field. He has a very strong arm …

… and he covers a decent amount of ground. He’s not going to be Brett Gardner out there in terms of range, but he won’t be Carlos Beltran either. “He’s a slightly above-average runner underway and plays average defense in right field with a well above-average throwing arm,” said Baseball America’s scouting report.

Judge doesn’t play station-to-station baseball despite being so damn massive. He offers some speed and will contribute with the glove in right field, especially since right field in Yankee Stadium is kinda tiny. So, even if he strikes out a bunch while finding his footing in the big leagues, Judge will still be able to provide value in the field. The big man is more well-rounded than you’d think.

* * *

What would qualify as a successful season for Judge? Geez, that’s tough. It’s about more than raw stats with Judge. Is he cutting down on the strikeouts? Is he showing a sound approach and recognizing how pitchers are attacking him? Judge is going to see a ton — a ton — of breaking balls down and away. It’s inevitable. Can he lay off more often than not?

The numbers might not be there, but if we see improvement with his approach and strikeout rate, it’ll be a positive. Judge is going to require patience, perhaps more than most prospects, though the potential reward is sky high. This dude can be a game-changing impact bat, and odds are he will get a chance to claim the long-term right field job this summer.

Fan Confidence Poll: March 13th, 2017

Spring Record: 13-4 (101 RS, 73 RA)
Spring Opponents This Week: Mon. OFF, Tues @ ATL (no TV), Weds. vs. PHI (YES, MLB.tv), Thurs. @ TOR (no TV), Fri. @ DET (MLB.tv, MLBN), Sat. vs. BAL (YES, MLB.tv), Sun. @ HOU (MLB.tv)

Top stories from last week:

Please take a second to answer the poll below and give us an idea of how confident you are in the team. You can view the interactive Fan Confidence Graph anytime via the Features tab in the nav bar above, or by clicking here. Thanks in advance for voting.

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Open Thread: March 12th Camp Notes

The Yankees had the audacity to lose a Spring Training game today. Season over! They scored two runs against the Braves and both came on solo homers: Austin Romine and Jorge Mateo. Probably not who you were expecting, eh? Starlin Castro and Kyle Higashioka had the team’s only other hits. At least the Yankees drew six walks, I guess.

CC Sabathia started and it was a disaster. Six runs (four earned) in two-thirds of an inning before he hit his pitch count. Those in attendance tell me Sabathia’s defense did him no favors — the Yankees committed five errors on the afternoon, including three by Ronald Torreyes — but still. Aroldis Chapman tossed a scoreless frame. Here is the box score — there are no video highlights because the game wasn’t televised — and here are the rest of the day’s notes:

  • At some point today the Yankees will announce their first round of roster cuts. Justus Sheffield‘s locker is cleaned out and that’s all we know for now. [Erik Boland]
  • Update: The Yankees announced their cuts. Sheffield, Daniel Camarena, Kellin Deglan, Francisco Diaz, J.P. Feyereisen, Brady Lail, Joe Mantiply, James Reeves, Nick Rumbelow, Evan Rutckyj, and Jorge Saez have been sent to minor league camp. There are 56 players left in big league camp by my unofficial count.
  • Mason Williams is on the travel list for Tuesday, which indicates he’s ready to play in games. He missed the start of camp with patella inflammation. [Mike Mazzeo]
  • The Yankees have an off-day tomorrow, their first of the spring, and it’s a complete off-day. No workouts or anything. Tuesday’s game is on the road against the Rays. It won’t be televised.

Here is the open thread for the rest of the weekend. MLB Network is showing World Baseball Classic games right now (Colombia vs. Dominican Republic, Italy vs. Puerto Rico), at 7pm ET (USA vs. Canada), 10pm ET (Mexico vs. Venezuela), and 6am ET (Netherlands vs. Israel). The (hockey) Rangers, Knicks, and Nets are all in action too. Talk about those games or anything else, as long as it’s not religion or politics.

Imagining Extreme Platooning

#GREGBIRD (Presswire)
#GREGBIRD (Presswire)

Okay, who’s about ready for Spring Training to end and the season to start? Nevermind the fact that this area is, apparently, about to get hammered with snow; it’s pretty much baseball season, dammit! At this point, all we can do is hope everyone gets through March healthy and heads into April charged up and ready to go. Additionally, all the principals of the Yankees seem to be performing well and, hair and arbitration cases aside (ugh), there isn’t much drama surrounding the roster formation; all we’re really waiting on is the fifth starter competition. In terms of the lineup, we know who’s going to be there, just not how it’s going to shake out.

I’ve touched on this a few times in the last month–there really hasn’t been much to discuss, huh?–but I wanted to revisit something I briefly mentioned in my post about Chris Carter:

If the Yanks really want to hammer lefties and eschew defense a bit in the process, they can. They can accomplish this dual ‘goal’ by being aggressive with their platooning in the outfield. Aaron Hicks can play center in place of Jacoby Ellsbury. Matt Holliday can “play” left field in place of Brett Gardner. The latter move would free up a spot for Carter to DH, giving the Yankees an all-right handed lineup against lefties, save for Didi Gregorius at short.

Joe Girardi does like to play matchups, though I’m not sure he likes it so much as to do what I suggested there. Still, it’s fun to draw up lineup scenarios and imagine what they would do. Frankly, the Yankees could destroy lefty pitching if they approached it with an eye towards ignoring defense (not likely). Taken to the extreme, they could go even farther than my suggestion.

C: Austin Romine

1B: Chris Carter

2B: Starlin Castro

3B: Chase Healdey

SS: Didi Gregorius

LF: Matt Holliday

CF: Aaron Hicks

RF: Aaron Judge

DH: Gary Sanchez

ON the plus side, as mentioned, this lineup would probably be death to left handed pitching. With Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury on the bench, late inning defense and match ups could be solved via substitution. The big snag in the plan, though, is using Sanchez as the DH. Every team in baseball hates using their second catcher. And, really, with Romine, is there really going to be that much of a boost? Probably not.

Little CC. (Presswire)
Little CC. (Presswire)

The best bet for a balance of platoon and potential is likely to be trotting out Sanchez at catcher, Greg Bird at first, and Carter at DH. Last year, it’s worth noting, Hicks didn’t live up to his potential against lefties, so if you buy that performance, you could swap out Gardner in center to help cover Holliday in left. Of the two, Gardner is preferable to Ellsbury against lefties.

For the first time in a while, the Yankees are going to be a bonafide threat to lefty pitching. When they want to, they’ll be able to put out an immensely powerful lineup against southpaws, which should help them steal some games. If they can do that while also exposing Greg Bird to lefties in hopes of him improving, it’s a win/win.

Open Thread: March 11th Camp Notes

Can’t stop won’t stop. The Yankees won again today. This win featured opposite field dingers by Gary Sanchez, Matt Holliday, and Gleyber Torres. Torres took old buddy Justin Wilson deep with a little defensive swing on a pitch off the plate. It was: crazy. The Yankees have hit 24 homers in 16 games this spring after hitting 20 in 32 games last spring.

Masahiro Tanaka started and goodness, he was razor sharp. Seven strikeouts in four perfect innings. He fanned the first six men he faced. Bryan Mitchell followed and allowed a run on three hits and a walk in four innings. Good hitting, good pitching, and some good defense too. Start the season already. Here are the box score and video highlights, and here are the rest of the notes from Tampa:

  • Tyler Austin‘s foot is healing, though he still has a ways to go before resuming baseball activity. “Tyler is not ready to be out of the boot or off his scooter, but it is progressing and we were happy with what we saw,” said Joe Girardi. [Lou DiPietro]
  • Some other injury updates: Mason Williams (shoulder) could get in a game next week. Ronald Herrera (shoulder) has resumed throwing. James Reeves (elbow) and Kellin Deglan (shoulder) are still shut down. [DiPietro]

This is the open thread for the rest of the day. This afternoon’s game will be replayed on YES at 7pm ET, if you’re interested. MLB Network is going to have the much anticipated USA vs. Dominican Republic game tonight at 6:30pm ET. MLB Network has other World Baseball Classic games right now (Venezuela vs. Italy) and at 9:30pm ET (Puerto Rico vs. Mexico), 12:30am ET (Cuba vs. Israel on tape delay), and 6am ET (Japan vs. Netherlands). The Knicks, Islanders, and Devils are all playing, and there’s a bunch of college basketball on the schedule too. Talk about all that stuff and more right here, as long as it’s not religion or politics.

Spring Training Game Thread: Tanaka’s Third Start

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

So far this spring the rotation has looked, well, pretty much exactly as expected. The kids have shown promise but are also taking some lumps. Michael Pineda has continued his good start, bad start routine. CC Sabathia is just now getting into the swing of things following offseason knee surgery.

And then there’s Masahiro Tanaka, the staff ace, who has been masterful in his first two Grapefruit League starts. Every fifth day last season the Yankees could count on Tanaka chewing up innings and pitching a high quality game. He’ll make his third start of the spring this afternoon. Here is the lineup the Tigers sent down from Lakeland, and here is the Yankees’ lineup, which looks an awful lot like a potential Opening Day lineup sans Didi Gregorius, who is still away at the World Baseball Classic:

  1. LF Brett Gardner
  2. CF Jacoby Ellsbury
  3. C Gary Sanchez
  4. DH Matt Holliday
  5. 1B Greg Bird
  6. 2B Starlin Castro
  7. 3B Chase Headley
  8. RF Aaron Judge
  9. SS Ronald Torreyes
    RHP Masahiro Tanaka

Available Pitchers: RHP Bryan Mitchell, LHP Daniel Camarena, RHP J.R. Graham, and RHP Brady Lail are all scheduled to pitch after Tanaka. RHP Colten Brewer, RHP Cale Coshow, RHP Ben Heller, LHP Joe Mantiply, and LHP Chasen Shreve are the extra arms. Brewer and Coshow are up from minor league camp for the day. Brewer was a minor league Rule 5 Draft pick from the Pirates over the winter.

Available Position Players: C Austin Romine, 1B Rob Refsnyder, 2B Ruben Tejada, SS Gleyber Torres, 3B Miguel Andujar, LF Pete Kozma, CF Dustin Fowler, RF Billy McKinney, and DH Chris Carter will be the second string off the bench. C Francisco Diaz, C Jorge Saez, C Kyle Higashioka, 1B Ji-Man Choi, SS Jorge Mateo, OF Dustin Fowler, OF Clint Frazier, and UTIL Wilkin Castillo are the extra players.

Pretty much perfect baseball weather in Tampa today. No clouds and temperatures in the low-80s without that gross Florida humidity. Today’s game will begin at 1:05pm ET and you can watch on YES. There’s also MLB.tv and the FOX Sports Go app. Enjoy the game.