Where does each 2017 Yankee hit the ball the hardest?

(Rich Gagnon/Getty)
(Rich Gagnon/Getty)

Ever since Statcast burst on to the scene last year, exit velocity has become part of the baseball lexicon. It’s everywhere now. On Twitter, in blog posts, even on broadcasts. You name it and exit velocity is there. Ten years ago getting velocity readings of the ball off the bat felt impossible. Now that information is all over the internet and it’s free. Free!

Needless to say, hitting the ball hard is a good thing. Sometimes you hit the ball hard right at a defender, but what can you do? Last season exit velocity king Giancarlo Stanton registered the hardest hit ball of the Statcast era. It left his bat at 123.9 mph. And it went for a 4-6-3 double play because it was a grounder right at the second baseman.

That’s a pretty good reminder exit velocity by itself isn’t everything. Launch angle is important too, as is frequency. How often does a player hit the ball hard? One random 115 mph line drive doesn’t tell us much. But if the player hits those 115 mph line drives more than anyone else, well that’s useful.

The Yankees very clearly believe in exit velocity as an evaluation tool. We first learned that three years ago, when they traded for Chase Headley and Brian Cashman said his exit velocity was ticking up. Former assistant GM Billy Eppler once said Aaron Judge has top tier exit velocity, and when he reached he big leagues last year, it showed. Among players with at least 40 at-bats in 2016, Judge was second in exit velocity, so yeah.

With that in mind, I want to look at where each projected member of the 2017 Yankees hits the ball the hardest. Not necessarily on the field, but within the strike zone. Every swing is different. Some guys are good low ball hitters, others are more adept at handling the inside pitch, and others can crush the ball no matter where it’s pitched. Not many though. That’s a rare skill. Those are the Miguel Cabreras of the world.

Also, I want to limit this to balls hit in the air, because as we saw in the Stanton video above, a hard-hit grounder is kinda lame. Hitting the ball hard in the air is the best recipe for success in this game. The average exit velocity on fly balls and line drives last season was 92.2 mph, up ever so slightly from 91.9 mph in 2015. I’m going to use 100 mph as my threshold for a hard-hit ball because, well, 100 mph is a nice round number. And it’s comfortably above the league average too.

So, with that in mind, let’s see where each Yankee hit the ball the hardest last season (since that’s the most relevant data), courtesy of Baseball Savant. There are a lot of images in this post, so the fun starts after the jump. The players are listed alphabetically. You can click any image for a larger view.

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Didi Gregorius and the value of being a bad ball hitter

(Denis Poroy/Getty)
(Denis Poroy/Getty)

In just a few short weeks, the Yankees will enter year three of the Didi Gregorius era. Time flies, eh? In his two seasons as New York’s starting shortstop, Gregorius has shown a rocket arm and strong overall defensive chops, and blossoming power as well. And enthusiasm for the game, too. The Yankees have been a little too corporate over the years and a player having fun on the field is a welcome change.

Gregorius came to the Yankees with questions about his ability to hit, and while no one is going to confuse him for Derek Jeter at the plate, Didi hasn’t been a total zero with the stick either. He’s authored a .270/.311/.409 (94 wRC+) batting line in nearly 1,200 plate appearances as a Yankee. The league average shortstop hit .262/.319/.407 (92 wRC+) last season, so Gregorius is right there. Add in his defense and you’ve got a nice little player.

One thing we know for sure about Gregorius offensively is that he loves to swing. Loves it. His 55.4% swing rate last season was sixth highest among the 146 hitters to qualify for the batting title. And when he swings, he usually puts the ball in play. Gregorius had the third lowest walk rate (3.2%) and 26th lowest strikeout rate (13.7%) in baseball last season. He’s not someone who swings and misses a lot. When he swings, he tends to put in play.

Gregorius is not shy about swinging at pitches out of the zone — his 38.3% chase rate last year was 14th highest among those 146 batters — and that can get pretty annoying! At the same time, his 71.7% contact rate on pitches out of the zone was quite a bit above the 63.9% league average. This play sticks out to me from last summer. David Price tried to put Gregorius away with a changeup out of the zone, and Didi hooked it into the corner for extra bases:

That’s not a bad pitch! It was down and out of the zone, and with an 0-2 count and two outs, trying to get the hitter to chase something in the dirt is a smart move. The count says you don’t need to go right after the hitter in that situation. Price had some wiggle room thanks to the 0-2 count and the pitch was a ball (via Brooks Baseball) …

david-price-vs-didi-gregorius-050716

… yet Gregorius made him pay. What can you do if you’re the pitcher in that situation? Nothing, you just have to tip your cap, as annoying as that may be. Price made a good pitch and Gregorius drove in three runs anyway. That’s baseball. Sometimes you do everything right and still get beat.

That play speaks to Didi’s skills as a bad ball hitter. Vlad Guerrero was the ultimate bad ball hitter. We’ve all see the highlight of him hitting a single on a pitch that bounced. That guy could swing at any pitch in any location and do damage. Ichiro Suzuki was another great bad ball hitter. Gregorius is not a Vlad or Ichiro caliber bad ball hitter, basically no one is, but he is better than most in MLB today.

Over the last two seasons Gregorius has hit .222 with a .297 BABIP on pitches out of the zone, which sounds terrible, but the league averages were .187 and .281, respectively. The best bad ball hitter over the last two seasons, Denard Span, hit .268 on pitches outside the zone. Only nine others cleared .250. Here are Didi’s BABIPs on pitches in various locations from 2015-16, via Baseball Savant:

didi-gregorius-babips

The brighter the red, the higher above average the BABIP. The brighter the blue, the further below average. Gregorius has excelled at pitches down and in and out of the zone, like the Price changeup in the video above, and has been about average on pitches out of the zone away from him. That’s from the catcher’s perspective, so his weakness is up and in. Otherwise if it’s out of the zone, Gregorius has some level of success when he swings.

Of course, in a perfect world Didi would not swing at pitches out of the strike zone, but that’s just not who he is. Getting a hitter to change his approach is awfully tough, especially when you’re talking about a soon-to-be 27-year-old who has had success in the big leagues swinging at everything. Gregorius at this point probably is what he’s always going to be from an approach standpoint. He’s going to swing and swing often. So it goes.

I definitely think there is value in having a bad ball hitter in the lineup. Diversity is cool. On-base percentage is king and patient hitters who make the pitcher work tend to drive successful offenses. These days though, with velocity and strikeouts at an all-time high, having someone who can not only spoil those put-away pitches out of the zone, but actually get base hits off them is pretty useful. A full lineup of free swingers like Gregorius might not work. One in a lineup of patient hitters though? That’s doable.

Do the Yankees have a lineup full of patient hitters at the moment? Not really, though they’re probably in better shape than their 7.8% walk rate a year ago (19th in MLB) would lead you to believe. Brett Gardner, Chase Headley, Matt Holliday, and Greg Bird all have histories of working the count and drawing walks. Gary Sanchez showed similar patience last year. Aaron Judge has done it in the past too. Gregorius, Starlin Castro, and Jacoby Ellsbury are the team’s only true swing at everything hackers right now. Maybe three is too many.

Over the last two years we’ve seen enough from Gregorius to know he’s probably never going to draw a ton of walks and be a high on-base guy. Would I prefer it if he laid off pitches out of the strike zone? Of course, but that doesn’t seem to be in his DNA. Revamping his approach will take a lot of work. Drawing walks is not natural to him. If nothing else, at least Gregorius has demonstrated the ability to have some success when swinging at pitches out of the zone. If he’s not going to lay off them, then that’s the next best thing.

Update: 2017 Salary Arbitration Filing Day Signings

Didi gonna get paid. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)
Didi gonna get paid. (Dustin Bradford/Getty)

Original Post (Friday, 12pm ET): Today is a significant day on the offseason calendar. The deadline for teams and their arbitration-eligible players to file salary figures for the 2017 season is 1pm ET. The team submits the salary they believe the player deserves while the player submits the salary he feels he deserves. Simple, right?

The Yankees have seven arbitration-eligible players on the roster right now. They started the offseason with nine, but Nathan Eovaldi and Dustin Ackley were released when 40-man roster space was needed back in November. Here are the seven arbitration-eligible players and their projected 2017 salaries, per MLB Trade Rumors:

Most arbitration-eligible players around the league will sign a new contract prior to the filing deadline. Last year the Yankees signed Pineda and Ackley before the deadline, but ended up filing figures with Gregorius, Eovaldi, Ivan Nova, and Aroldis Chapman. It was the first time they failed to sign an eligible player before the filing deadline in several years.

It’s important to note exchanging figures today doesn’t mean the two sides have to go to an arbitration hearing. They can still hammer out a contract of any size at any point. In fact, the Yankees were able to sign Gregorius, Eovaldi, Nova, and Chapman not too long after the filing deadline last year. New York hasn’t been to an arbitration hearing since beating Chien-Ming Wang during the 2007-08 offseason.

We’re going to keep track of today’s Yankee-related arbitration news right here, assuming nothing crazy like a long-term extension happens. I’m not counting on it. Make sure you check back for updates often. The deadline is 1pm ET, but the news tends to trickle in all throughout the afternoon.

Update (Friday, 11:39am ET): The Yankees and Gregorius have agreed to a one-year contract worth $5.1M, reports Jon Heyman. Exactly as MLBTR projected. Gregorius made $2.425M last season, which was his first of four years of arbitration-eligibility as a Super Two. A long-term extension was always a long shot. Didi can’t become a free agent until after the 2019 season.

Update (Friday, 12:27pm ET): Romine and the Yankees have an $805,000 agreement in place, says Heyman. Quite a bit below MLBTR’s projection, relatively speaking. Romine made made $556,000 last season. This was his first trip through arbitration.

Update (Friday, 4:52pm ET): Pineda and the Yankees have agreed to a one-year contract worth $7.4M, per Heyman. That’s up from his $4.3M salary in 2016. It pays to be a (middling) starting pitcher. Pineda came in just under his MLBTR projected salary.

Update (Friday, 4:55pm ET): The Yankees have a $2.29M agreement with Warren, according to Josh Norris. Almost exactly what MLBTR projected. He made $1.7M a year ago. Warren will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player in 2018 as well.

Update (Friday, 5:30pm ET): The Yankees announced they have agreements in place with both Hicks and Layne. They’re one-year contracts. No word on the money yet though. That leaves Betances as the only unsigned arbitration-eligible player. I’m not surprised. Contract talks weren’t smooth last year.

Update (Friday, 7:13pm ET): Betances filed for $5M and the Yankees countered with $3M, according to Heyman. That’s a pretty significant gap. They might end up going to a hearing. Then again, I said the same thing about Chapman last year, and they hammered out a deal. Get that paper, Dellin.

Update (Friday, 7:56pm ET): Layne received $1.075M, so says Bryan Hoch. He was arbitration-eligible for the first of four times as a Super Two this offseason, so he’s under team control through 2020. Then again, Layne is already 32 and he’s been in four organizations the last five years, so yeah.

Update (Tuesday, 6:00pm ET): The Yankees and Hicks agreed to a $1.35M salary for 2017, reports Ronald Blum. Just a touch below MLBTR’s projection. Hicks made $574,000 last season. He will remain under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2019.

Dellin Betances isn’t the only Yankee who could play in the 2017 WBC

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

In a few weeks baseball players all around the league will leave their teams in Spring Training to participate in the fourth edition of the World Baseball Classic. Pool play begins March 6th in South Korea, and the tournament will end with the Championship Game at Dodger Stadium on March 22nd. Here is the full 2017 WBC schedule.

The 16 countries do not have to finalize their WBC rosters until January, though we already know Dellin Betances will pitch for the Dominican Republic. He committed to them recently. Betances was on Team USA’s preliminary roster but instead choose to honor his family by pitching for the Dominican Republic squad. So far he’s the only Yankees player to commit to the WBC.

The Yankees are not as star-laden as they once were — a few years ago a case could have been made their entire starting infield belonged in the WBC — so they don’t figure to send a ton of players to the WBC next spring. Chances are Betances won’t be the only Yankee to participatein the event, however. In fact, farmhand Dante Bichette Jr. already played for Brazil in the qualifying round in September. Who knew? (Brazil did not advance.)

So, as we wait for the commitments to trickle in and the final rosters to be announced, lets look at the Yankees who could wind up joining Betances and participating in the WBC. Keep in mind the WBC is not limited to big league players — some countries can’t field an entire roster of MLB players, hence Bichette playing for Brazil — and the rosters are 28 players deep, not 25, so there are extra spots.

Canada: Evan Rutckyj

Rutckyj, who recently re-signed with the Yankees as a minor league free agent, was the team’s 16th round pick back in 2010. The Braves took a look at him this past spring as a Rule 5 Draft pick, but Rutckyj failed to make the Opening Day roster and instead returned to the Yankees. He struck out 14 in 11.2 innings around a relatively minor elbow procedure during the 2016 regular season.

Only eleven pitchers born in Canada have appeared in the big leagues over the last three years — only seven did so in 2016 — and five of those eleven threw fewer than 20 innings. Three of the other six are now retired (Erik Bedard, Jeff Francis, Phillippe Aumont). Rutckyj, who grew up across the river from Detroit in Windsor, has had some Double-A success as a reliever and could make a Canada roster that has been heavy on minor league pitchers in previous WBCs.

Colombia: Tito Polo, Carlos Vidal

Colombia clinched their first ever WBC berth by winning their qualifying round back in March. They won a pool that included France, Spain, and Panama. Both Polo and Vidal were on Colombia’s roster for the qualifying round and chances are they will be on the actual WBC roster as well. Only six Colombian-born players appeared in MLB in 2016, one of whom was Donovan Solano and none of whom were an outfielder like Polo and Vidal.

Vidal, 20, has spent most of his career with the various short season league teams in New York’s farm system. He went 2-for-8 with a double and played in all three qualifying games in March. Polo, 22, came over from the Pirates in the Ivan Nova trade. He was Colombia’s extra outfielder in the qualifying round. He appeared in two games as a a pinch-runner and defensive replacement and did not get an at-bat. Both Vidal and Polo figure to play in the WBC in March.

Dominican Republic: Gary Sanchez (Starlin Castro?)

WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)
WBC teammates? (Rich Schultz/Getty)

Over the last three seasons, the leader in bWAR among Dominican-born catchers is Welington Castillo. Sanchez is second. For all the great baseball players to come out of the Dominican Republic, the island hasn’t produced much catching talent in recent years. Their catching tandem in the 2013 WBC was Francisco Pena, Tony’s son, and Carlos Santana, who is no longer a catcher.

The Dominican Republic’s current catching pool includes Sanchez, Castillo, Pena, Pedro Severino of the Nationals, and Alberto Rosario of the Cardinals. I have to think they want Sanchez and Castillo there. Then again, Tony might want Francisco on the roster, and I’m sure the Yankees would rather Sanchez spend his first Spring Training as the No. 1 catcher learning the pitching staff.

The Yankees can’t stop Gary from going to the WBC if he’s invited though. They might need Pena to pull some strings, which would be kind of a dick move. I’m sure Sanchez would love to play. Bottom line: Sanchez is arguably the best Dominican catcher in baseball right now and inarguably one of the two best. In what is intended to be a best vs. best tournament, Gary belongs on the Dominican Republic roster.

(For what it’s worth, Victor Baez reports Pena promised Sanchez he would be considered for the WBC team, but acknowledged things may change before the final roster is submitted.)

As for Castro, he has an awful lot of competition on the Dominican Republic middle infield. Robinson Cano is the presumed starter at second with someone like Jose Reyes or Jean Segura at short. Jonathan Villar, Jose Ramirez, Eduardo Nunez, Jhonny Peralta, and some others are WBC candidates too. Castro’s a possibility for the tournament but probably isn’t part of the club’s Plan A infield.

Japan: Masahiro Tanaka

Interestingly enough, not a single MLB player was on Japan’s roster for the 2013 WBC. Not even Ichiro Suzuki. They filled their entire roster with NPB players. Japan has had big leaguers on their roster in previous WBCs, including Ichiro and Daisuke Matsuzaka, just not in the last one. Will they invite big leaguers this time? I honestly have no idea. We’re going to have to wait and find out.

If Japan does want current MLB players, Tanaka figures to be near the top of their list. He’s one of the best pitchers in baseball and on the very short list of the best Japanese-born pitchers on the planet. The Yankees can’t stop Tanaka from playing in the 2017 WBC. Brian Cashman confirmed it during his end-of-season press conference. Needless to say, the thought of Tanaka suffering an injury during the WBC is enough to make you squeamish. The Yankees have already been through that once before, with Mark Teixeira and his wrist in the 2013 WBC.

For what it’s worth, Tanaka has participated in the WBC twice before. He was on Japan’s roster in both 2009 and 2013, throwing 9.1 total innings across one start and seven relief appearances. Maybe that was enough for Tanaka? Maybe he’s had his fill of the WBC — Japan won the 2009, so he has a championship — and would rather focus on the Yankees in Spring Training and putting himself in the best position to use his opt-out the team in the best position to win? Gosh, I hope so.

Mexico: Luis Cessa, Gio Gallegos

Fifteen pitchers born in Mexico have appeared in the big leagues over the last three seasons, and 13 of those 15 did so in 2016. The two exceptions are ex-Yankees: Manny Banuelos and Al Aceves. Banuelos is coming off another injury and Aceves spent the 2016 season in the Mexican League. Mexico figures to try to build their WBC rotation from a group that includes Marco Estrada, Julio Urias, Jorge De La Rosa, Yovani Gallardo, Jaime Garcia, and Miguel Gonzalez.

Cessa and Gallegos — fun fact: the Yankees signed Gallegos away from a Mexican League team as part of a package deal with Banuelos and Aceves in 2007 — could be candidates for Mexico’s bullpen. Especially Cessa since he has MLB experience. Gallegos might not get much consideration given the fact he has yet to pitch in the show. Roberto Osuna, Joakim Soria, and Oliver Perez are likely to be Mexico’s late-inning relievers, but they’re going to need other pitchers for middle relief, especially early in the tournament when starters have limited pitch counts.

Keep in mind both Cessa and Gallegos figure to come to Spring Training with a chance to win an Opening Day roster spot. Cessa will be among those competing for a rotation spot, which is kind of a big deal. Gallegos, who the Yankees added to the 40-man roster earlier this month to protect him from the Rule 5 Draft, is trying to reach the show for the first time. As much as I’m sure both guys would love to represent their country in the WBC, they would be better off hanging around Spring Training and focusing on winning a roster spot with the Yankees at this point of their careers.

Netherlands: Didi Gregorius

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

The Dutch team has had to rely heavily on players from Honkbal Hoofdklasse, the highest level of pro ball in the Netherlands, to fill their WBC roster in the past. The same figures to be true this year. Only six Dutch players have played in MLB the last two years: Gregorius, Andrelton Simmons, Xander Bogaerts, Jonathan Schoop, Jurickson Profar, and Kenley Jansen. So, if nothing else, the Netherlands doesn’t have to worry about their infield or closer. They’ll need Honkballers in the outfield and rotation.

It’s entirely possible the Netherlands will look to take all five of those infielders to the WBC because, well, they’re the best players the country has to offer. Profar has played first base and Bogaerts has played third, so the starting infield could very well be those two on the corners with the other three guys splitting time up the middle and at DH. Gregorius was not on the 2013 WBC roster, and with his Yankees roster spot secure, he could jump at the opportunity to play for the Netherlands.

Team USA: Tyler Clippard (Brett Gardner? Jacoby Ellsbury?)

Even with Betances committing to the Dominican Republic, Team USA’s potential bullpen is insane. Zach Britton closing with Andrew Miller and Craig Kimbrel setting up, Wade Davis as the fireman, Mark Melancon and Tony Watson as the middle relievers … goodness. What are the odds of that happening though? Extremely small. Some of those guys are going to pass on the tournament. Happens every WBC.

The Team USA bullpen in 2013 included Kimbrel and, uh, Luke Gregerson? Tim Collins? Mitchell Boggs? Vinnie Pestano? Yup. Yup yup yup. Team USA’s leader in relief innings in 2013 was Ross Detwiler. So yeah. The odds of a super-bullpen are so very small. Clippard could be among the club’s Plan B or C relievers. Team USA is going to miss out on a ton of the top guys, no doubt, so who’s next in line? Clippard could be one of them.

Along those same lines, I suppose Gardner and/or Ellsbury could receive outfield consideration if enough top guys drop out. We already know Mike Trout and Bryce Harper are passing on the tournament. Team USA would need to receive a lot of “nos” before considering Ellsbury and Gardner for their outfield — they ranked 12th and 20th in bWAR among American-born outfielders in 2016 — but hey, you never know.

* * *

The Yankees are said to have interest in bringing Carlos Beltran back, and I have to think he will suit up for Puerto Rico in the WBC next spring. The next generation of Puerto Rican stars has arrived (Carlos Correa, Francisco Lindor, Javier Baez) but Beltran is still insanely popular in Puerto Rico, and he usually gives the people what they want. Aroldis Chapman, on the other hand, won’t pitch for Cuba regardless of whether he returns to the Yankees. No expatriates on the national team.

The Continually Improving Didi Gregorius [2016 Season Review]

(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)
(Otto Greule Jr/Getty)

Two years ago the Yankees faced an uncertain future at shortstop following Derek Jeter‘s retirement. The last year or two of Jeter’s career weren’t great, he was a below-average hitter at that point, but there was something comforting knowing he was going to be the guy at the position. Shortstop’s important! That’s not a spot to have a revolving door.

Now the future at shortstop is far from uncertain. The Yankees acquired Didi Gregorius to replace Jeter and there were legitimate questions about his ability to be an everyday big league shortstop. Would he hit enough? Is his defense enough to carry his bat? Could he handle the pressure of replacing Jeter and playing in New York? There were lots of questions. Now there aren’t. Gregorius is the answer at short.

The 20-Homer Shortstop

A year ago Gregorius smacked nine home runs in 578 plate appearances thanks to an excellent second half, during which he hit .294/.345/.417 (110 wRC+) with five homers in 72 games. The hope was that strong second half would carry over into 2016. Gregorius is still young — he played the entire 2016 season at 26 — and he had a season under his belt in New York. He figured to be more comfortable in 2016 than he was in 2015.

It wasn’t unreasonable to expect Gregorius to produce more offense this season, especially in the power department, and he did exactly that. Didi hit 20 home runs this summer, the same number as Carlos Correa, and seven of the 20 came during a four-week hot streak at the end of the first half. At one point he hit five home runs in the span of ten games. One of the five was a walk-off against the Rangers.

There are reasons to believe Gregorius’ power spike are legit and reasons to believe it might have been a little fluky. In reality, it was probably a little of both, right? You’ve got a prime-aged left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium, so you’d expect a power uptick. Homers also jumped around the league this year — I think the baseballs are juiced, but who knows — and surely Didi benefited some.

I’ve never seen a ground ball go over the fence, so a prerequisite for hitting for more power is hitting the ball in the air more often. Take a look at Gregorius’s ground ball rate since joining the Yankees:

Didi Gregorius ground balls

Well well well. Look at that. When Gregorius first arrived in New York, he was beating the ball into the ground. His ground ball rate has been in steady decline since. Didi had a 48.0% ground ball rate and a 36.0% fly ball rate in April 2015. It was down to 31.0% grounders and 56.0% fly balls in September 2016. Pretty awesome. Gregorius isn’t a speedster. Driving the ball in the air is the best way to do damage.

The best part of Didi’s newfound ability to get the ball airborne is that he isn’t selling out and trying to yank everything down the line. We’ve seen more than a few left-handed hitters fall in love with the short porch and try to pull everything to right. Gregorius is still hitting the ball to all fields. In fact, he was hitting more balls the other way this year than last year.

Didi Gregorius pull oppo

This is a wonderfully positive development for Gregorius. He’s hitting the ball in the air and the result is more home runs, and he’s been able to do that without sacrificing the all-fields ability he showed last year. For someone who makes so much contact — Didi had the 26th lowest strikeout rate (13.7%) among the 146 qualified hitters in baseball in 2016 — this is a really great skill set. Really, really great.

Now, as I said before, power was up around the league this year, and I have no doubt Gregorius benefited a bit from that. He hit for more power this summer because everyone hit for more power this summer. (Except Brett Gardner.) Let’s quickly compare Didi’s isolated power to the league average, while adjusting for ballpark. Same idea as OPS+, basically, except we’re using ISO instead of OPS.

2015: 57 ISO+
2016: 77 ISO+

Success! Last year Gregorius’ power output was 57% of the league average left-handed hitter in Yankee Stadium. This year it was 77%. So still below-average for his environment, but there’s still a legitimate improvement here. Those 20 home runs he hit this year weren’t just the product of the increase in power around the league. Didi himself improved. Hopefully he takes another step next year, in his age 27 season.

Suddenly Dangerous Against Lefties

Gregorius came to the Yankees will a big platoon split. He hit .262/.332/.411 (101 wRC+) against righties with the Reds and Diamondbacks from 2012-14, and only .184/.257/.233 (32 wRC+) against southpaws. That platoon split existed last year too, though it wasn’t quite that extreme. He hit .272/.321/.391 (95 wRC+) against righties and .247/.311/.315 (74 wRC+) against lefties.

This year, Gregorius managed to reverse the split. He was better against lefties than righties. Didi put up a .258/.283/.437 (88 wRC+) batting line against righties while hitting a whopping .324/.361/.473 (126 wRC+) against lefties. Fifty-four left-handed hitters had at least 100 plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this year. Among those 54, Gregorius ranked third in AVG, 13th in OBP, and eighth in SLG. Only Charlie Blackmon (.331) and Daniel Murphy (.329) had better left-on-left batting averages.

The question now is why? Why did Gregorius improve so much against lefties, and is this his new true talent level? I’m guessing he’s not really quite this good against lefties, but some improvement would be cool. Here are Didi’s core stats against lefties the last two years:

PA BB% K% GB% FB% Pull% Opp% Soft% Hard% BABIP
2015 164 6.1% 15.9% 49.6% 32.8% 41.1% 26.6% 27.4% 21.8% .292
2016 161 2.5% 7.5% 38.5% 43.7% 34.3% 28.6% 20.0% 22.9% .331

There are two huge differences there. One, Gregorius hit way more balls in the air against lefties this year than last year. That’s consistent with everything above about his power output. His soft contact rate dropped a ton too, though it became medium contact, not hard contract. That’s still better than nothing.

And two, Didi put way more balls in play against lefties this year. Look at those strikeout and walk rates. Last season Gregorius had 164 plate appearances against southpaws and put 124 balls in play. This year it was 140 balls in play out of 161 plate appearances. Pretty big difference. The combination of a) more balls in play, b) more balls in the air, and c) less soft contact helps explain the uptick in left-on-left damage.

Is Gregorius going to hit .320/.360/.470-something against lefties going forward? I find that unlikely. That doesn’t mean his improvement was a total mirage, however. A .331 BABIP in 161 plate appearances is not completely insane. It might not happen against next year, but it’s not so outrageous that it’ll never happen again, you know? I think there’s real improvement here. Didi is making more contact against lefties and hitting the ball in the air more often in general. Those are big positives.

All told, Gregorius hit .276/.304/.447 (98 wRC+) with 32 doubles and 20 home runs in 2016. He rarely struck out (13.7%) but he also rarely walked (3.2%). Only Rougned Odor (3.0%) and Brandon Phillips (3.1%) walked less among qualified hitters. That’s just who Didi is. He’s a free swinger. I don’t have much hope for him improving his plate discipline drastically. Hopefully one day he can get up to a 7.0% walk rate. That would be cool. (It was 5.7% last year.)

A Good Bad Defender, or a Bad Good Defender?

In terms of raw defensive tools, Gregorius is as good as anyone. He’s athletic, he’s got good hands, and his arm is a rocket. One of the best I’ve ever seen from a shortstop. Why then did the defensive stats hate him so much this year? Almost all of them, across the board.

DRS UZR Total Zone FRAA
2015 +5 +7.4 +4 +1.2
2016 -9 -2.9 +5 -5.2

Total Zone is the only holdout. DRS, UZR, and FRAA all dinged Gregorius this year, and by quite a lot too. We’re talking a full win in the field according to both DRS and UZR. That’s pretty crazy. That’s why Didi went from +3.1 fWAR and +3.3 bWAR in 2015 to +2.7 fWAR and +2.2 bWAR in 2016 despite his offensive improvement.

The eye test told me Gregorius was a really good defensive player this year, though I also thought there were a few more miscues than last year. Basic mistakes. A bobble, a ball not knocked down and kept on the infield, that sort of thing. Error totals don’t really help us — Didi had 13 errors last year and 15 this year — and I’m not sure really how to quantify this stuff. The various defensive stats are better than nothing, though they’re far from perfect.

I do have a very hard time believing Gregorius cost the Yankees with his glove this year. Was he really, truly, a negative in the field? Maybe he was! Maybe I’m my perception of quality shortstop defense is distorted after watching Jeter all those years. I see stuff like this …

… and think hey, this dude is pretty good defensively though. I thought Didi was really good in the field this year. The defensive stats disagreed. Feel free to form your own opinions.

Outlook for 2017

The Yankees are blessed with a ton of quality shortstop prospects right now, most notably Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo. There’s also Tyler Wade, who figures to open next season in Triple-A. Those guys don’t matter right now. Gregorius is New York’s unquestioned shortstop going into the next season and will be continue to be going forward until one of those other guys unseats him. The Yankees won’t give Torres or Mateo the job. They’ll have to take it.

Gregorius is under team control through 2019 as an arbitration-eligible player — MLBTR projects a $5.1M salary next year — and it would behoove the Yankees to approach him about a multi-year contract extension this winter. Forget about the prospects in the minors. A prime-aged up-the-middle player who plays good defense and can smack 20 dingers is a valuable asset worth locking up. The Yankees can figure out what to do with Torres and Mateo when the time comes.

Checking in on Didi’s Discipline

(Patrick Smith/Getty)
(Patrick Smith/Getty)

In January of last year, I wrote a piece about what room for improvement Didi Gregorius had after his modestly successful 2015 debut campaign with the Yankees. At the end, I suggested that Didi work on his plate discipline to become a better hitter:

Didi Gregorius is never going to be an elite hitter, and he doesn’t need to be, given his position and his defense at that position. Still, any improvement helps and since it’s unlikely that he starts popping homers over the short fence any time soon, Didi should focus on improving his discipline to round out his offensive game a little bit. He’s already given Yankee fans plenty to be happy about, so hopefully more is on the horizon.

Part of that concluding paragraph was right: Didi certainly gave us more to be happy about in 2016. Aside from his generally joyous attitude towards the game, he managed to reach a career high in homers with 20 as well as in wOBA (.319) and wRC+ (98). A shortstop who does those things in 2016 is pretty darn valuable and the Yankees seem to have picked the right guy for the job. Back to that conclusion, though, and the thing that didn’t happen. Sir Didi most definitely did not improve his plate discipline in 2016.

His walk rate dipped to a more-than-minuscule 3.2%, leading to just 19 unintentional walks, lower than his home run total. In the post last year, I mentioned his chase rate–his O-Swing%–and this year, that percentage went up to 38.3%, a jump of almost five percentage points. This was part of a trend, as his overall swing percentage jumped from 51.6 to 55.4%. In conjunction with the jump in O-Swing%, his contact rate on those pitches also jumped from 62% to 70.8%. I’ve often posited that O-Contact can be a double-edged sword: making contact is good, but if the pitches are out of the zone, you risk bad contact and fewer hits. Did, however, seems to have defined that.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Using Brooks as a guide, we see that in 2015, Didi had 50 hits outside the zone. In 2016, he was able to bring that up to 63. Granted, his batting average on these balls wasn’t great either year; he hit .219 on balls out of the zone that he put in play in 2015 and .235 in 2016. That improvement mirrored Didi’s overall improvement, though, as he raised his average to a career high (again) of .276.

Didi didn’t quite follow my “advice” in 2016, but it didn’t really seem to matter, did it? He showed that he can be a productive player even without a traditional sense of plate discipline. He did swing at more pitches in the zone than he did last year, too, so perhaps it was a matter of Didi just getting the right pitches to hit and doing something with them.

MLBTR’s projected 2017 arbitration salaries and the Dellin Betances outlier

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

With the 2016 season now complete, we can begin to look forward to the offseason and the 2017 Yankees, and this winter a lot of attention will be paid to arbitration-eligible players. The Yankees have a lot of them. Nine, in fact. Some of them are pretty important parts of the team too.

Yesterday Matt Swartz at MLB Trade Rumors published his annual arbitration salary projections for next season. Swartz’s model is pretty darn accurate and it gets more and more precise with each passing season. The numbers might not be exact, but they’re usually in the ballpark. Here’s what Swartz’s model projects for the Yankees’ nine arbitration-eligible players.

That’s $32.8M worth of arbitration salaries next year, which works out to a $14.6M raise over what those nine players earned this past season. As a reminder, players need three years of service time (3.000) to qualify for arbitration in most cases. Some, like Gregorius and Layne, are arbitration-eligible four times as a Super Two. The Super Two cutout this year is approximately 2.127, according to Steve Adams. That doesn’t really affect the Yankees. Anyway, here are some thoughts on the projected arbitration salaries.

1. The Betances projection seems light. The arbitration process is pretty archaic. Old school stats like ERA and saves — especially saves — matter most. Betances has been a setup man for the majority of his career, so he doesn’t have those big money making saves totals, which is going to hurt his arbitration case. We all know Dellin has been one of the two or three best relievers in baseball since Opening Day 2014 though.

Swartz’s model has trouble with elite players with unprecedented resumes. Tim Lincecum damn near broke the thing when he went into arbitration with two Cy Youngs a few years ago. Betances leads all relievers in innings and strikeouts over the last three seasons by a lot. He struck out 392 batters from 2014-16. Next most by a reliever? Andrew Miller with 326. Yeah. Look at the five highest strikeout totals by a reliever the last three years:

  1. 2014 Betances: 135
  2. 2015 Betances: 131
  3. 2016 Betances: 126
  4. 2016 Miller: 123
  5. 2015 Aroldis Chapman: 115

Yeah. Betances is also a three-time All-Star. Do you know how many other relievers have been to the All-Star Game each of the last three years? None. Not one. Dellin’s the only one. The All-Star Game selections plus the bulk inning and strikeout totals mean Betances is going into arbitration with far more earning potential than most setup men. He could break Swartz’s model, so to speak.

As best I can tell, the record salary for a first year arbitration-eligible reliever is $6.25M by Jonathan Papelbon back in the day. The lack of saves will probably prevent Betances from breaking Papelbon’s record, though I do think he’s going to wind up with a salary closer to Papelbon’s than the projected salary above. Dellin isn’t a normal reliever and projecting his arbitration salary with a one size fits all model probably won’t work.

2. Eovaldi and Ackley are goners. Swartz’s model projects no raise for Ackley. He made $3.2M this year and the model has him making $3.2M next year. That’s what happens when you barely play and barely hit before suffering a season-ending injury. Given the salary and the lack of production, Ackley is a prime non-tender candidate this offseason. The Yankees might release him after the World Series to clear 40-man roster space rather than wait until the December 2nd tender deadline.

As for Eovaldi, the model projects a $1.9M raise, though that’s pretty irrelevant. He recently underwent major elbow surgery, including his second Tommy John surgery, so he’s going to miss the entire 2017 season. There’s no sense in paying Eovaldi that much money to not pitch next season, especially when he’ll be a free agent next winter. The business side of baseball can be cruel. Eovaldi is hurt and soon he’s going to be unemployed too. The Yankees will non-tender him. Brian Cashman all but confirmed it.

A non-tender wouldn’t necessarily mean Eovaldi’s career in pinstripes is over. The Yankees could re-sign him to a smaller contract with an eye on 2018. They’ve done that before, sign injured pitchers to a two-year deal and rehab them in year one. Think Jon Lieber and Andrew Bailey and David Aardsma. The second Tommy John surgery is much riskier than the first, but with pitching so in demand, it’s probably worth exploring a two-year deal with Eovaldi. Just not at the projected salary.

(Rich Schultz/Getty)
(Rich Schultz/Getty)

3. Extension time for Gregorius? Gregorius made $2.425M this past season and projects to make $5.1M next season, which is a $2.675M raise. His salary projects to more than double. Didi will be in his second of four arbitration years as a Super Two next year, so if we apply similar raises going forward, we get $7.775M in 2017 and $10.45M in 2018. That’s a real quick and dirty way of estimating his earning potential the next three years.

That rough estimate puts Gregorius at $23.325M from 2016-18 before he hits free agency. Is it worth it to explore a long-term extension this offseason? It is if you think his power breakout this past season was real, and there are reasons to believe it is. Gregorius is only 26, remember. He’s entering what should be the best years of his career. A four-year deal that guarantees him $35M or so seems worthwhile for the Yankees. We’re talking about a prime age player at a premium position.

At the same time, the Yankees have a ton of shortstops in the minors, namely Tyler Wade in Double-A plus both Gleyber Torres and Jorge Mateo in High-A. I wouldn’t worry about that though. Gregorius is a talented young player at a hard to fill position and those guys are worth locking up. If there’s a logjam at shortstop when Wade and Torres and Mateo and whoever are ready, great! That’s a good problem.

4. Big Mike‘s big salary. Being a starting pitcher is pretty good when arbitration time arrives. Even mediocre starters like Pineda get hefty raises. He made $4.3M this past season and projects for $7.8M next year, so we’re talking about a $3.5M raise. That’s despite a 6-12 record and a 4.82 ERA (90 ERA+) in 175.2 innings. That stuff matters in arbitration.

Pineda’s raise has more to do with his 207 strikeouts and AL leading 10.6 K/9. And really, $7.8M is still below market value for a pitcher of Pineda’s caliber. Guys like him will run you $10M to $12M or so in free agency. Probably more these days. It would be worth asking Pineda and his representatives what it would take to get an extension done this offseason, simply because the upcoming free agent pitching classes are so weak.

5. The remain projections are fair. The projections for Warren ($2.3M), Hicks ($1.4M), Layne ($1.2M), and Romine ($900,000) seem just about right. Not high enough to consider a non-tender and not low enough to see it as a bargain. That could change in a year, but right now, they’re fair. Weirdly enough, it wouldn’t surprise me if all four of those guys are on the 2017 Opening Day roster and it wouldn’t surprise me if all four are jettisoned in the offseason. I feel like we’re in for some surprises this winter.