Didi Gregorius and the Need for Defense and Development [2015 Season Preview]

Get off El Duque's lawn. (Presswire)
Get off El Duque’s lawn. (Presswire)

I don’t know if it was their top priority this winter, but finding a new starting shortstop was a very important item on the Yankees’ offseason shopping list. Derek Jeter retired and with no shortstop prospects on the cusp of MLB, that meant they had to go outside the organization. Free agency had some okay solutions and the trade market is always a bit of a mystery, so eh.

After reportedly making several trade offers for multiple shortstops earlier in the winter, the Yankees found their new shortstop in early-December, sending Shane Greene to the Tigers in a three-way trade that brought Didi Gregorius to New York. The Yankees had been trying to acquire Didi since at least the 2013 Winter Meetings, so it wasn’t a total surprise when they acquired him.

“They turned me down 10,000 ways over and I had to go through a third team,” said Brian Cashman to Chad Jennings last week. “I went through a number of different teams who when I was dealing with them who told me, ‘I tried to get him, too.’ I tried to get him at the deadline. I obviously tried to get him over the winter. A number of failed attempts. And then other teams were conveying back to me their failed attempts.”

The Yankees also re-signed Stephen Drew to play second base this winter, and while he is a natural shortstop, he is not considered any sort of threat to Gregorius. The Yankees didn’t trade Shane Greene to get Gregorius only to pull the plug after his first slump. Didi will get a long look this year and have a chance to solidify himself as the club’s shortstop of the future. Let’s look at what the Yankees need from him and what he can realistically provide.

Yankees Need: Above-Average Defense

Let’s not kid ourselves here. Gregorius is a glove first player and the Yankees acquired him first and foremost because of his work in the field. Jeter was a tremendous player, but he stunk defensively, especially later in his career, and the Yankees clearly prioritized improving their infield defense over the winter. This is a pretty simple and straight forward request: Gregorius has to make all the plays he’s supposed to make plus some a Yankees’ shortstop hasn’t made in a long time.

Gregorius Can: Play Above-Average Defense, I Think

There’s a disconnect between the scouting reports and stats when it comes to Didi’s fielding ability. He came to the Yankees will a reputation for being a strong gloveman, but it could just be the infield version of Nichols Law, meaning he’s so bad at the plate his defensive reputation got inflated. Here are some scouting report tidbits from Baseball America (subs. req’d) over the years.

  • 2011: “He has a 65 arm on the 20-to-80 scouting scale that allows him to make any throw, often without needing to set his feet. His above-average speed and quick feet give him good range as well, though his hands are still somewhat erratic. Many of his errors come from a lack of focus and a tendency to rush plays.”
  • 2012: “Gregorius is a quality athlete whose best attribute is his arm, which rates a 65 on the 20-80 scouting scale thanks to its strength and accuracy. He’s a plus defender with good range and a quick first step. His hands are his biggest drawback defensively and contributed to his 21 errors in 80 games in 2011.”
  • 2013: “He has smooth actions, plus range and a sniper rifle of an arm. His arm rates as a 70 on the 20-80 scouting scale, allowing him to make plays from deep in the hole that other shortstops can’t.”

The scouting reports say Gregorius has defensive tools, yet UZR (-3.6), DRS (0), Total Zone (-7), and FRAA (-4.0) all say he’s been average or (mostly) worse in his 1,521.1 career innings at short. Inside Edge data shows Gregorius has been above-average at making difficult plays and below-average at making routine ones, which lends some credence to that whole “many of his errors come from a lack of focus and a tendency to rush plays” nugget from Baseball America’s 2011 scouting report.

When it comes to a player who has just about one year worth of MLB time at a position, I’m going to trust the scouting reports over the stats every time. Defensive stats are a wonderful tool but they are still very much a work in progress, and one year is not a big enough sample to say anything definitive. Gregorius might really be below-average! We’re going to find out this year. Until then, I’m sticking with the scouting reports that say he’s a strong defender.

Yankees Need: To See Some Improvement Against Lefties

In 724 career plate appearances, the 25-year-old Gregorius is a .243/.313/.366 (84 wRC+) hitter overall, including .262/.332/.411 (102 wRC+) against righties and .184/.257/.233 (33 wRC+) against lefties. If he performs like that against right-handed pitchers going forward, I think the Yankees would be thrilled. (His career spray charts against righties suggest Didi will benefit from Yankee Stadium.) They would be even more thrilled if Gregorius makes some strides against southpaws and shows he can be an everyday player long-term, not just the heavy side of a platoon as a left-handed hitter. Some sort of progress against lefties is a must in 2015.

Gregorius Can: Try To Improve Against Lefties

Didi has only 180 career plate appearances against southpaws at the MLB level and that’s not much, but those same scouting reports that praise his defense also note he’s struggled against left-handed pitchers throughout his career — “Being a lefthanded hitting shortstop is another positive in Gregorius’ favor, though he has struggled against lefties throughout his career,” said the 2012 write-up — so this isn’t a new trend.

The Yankees have already mentioned platooning Gregorius with Brendan Ryan, but that’s just silly. (Ryan has a 56 wRC+ against lefties the last three years!) If the club wants to shelter Gregorius and sit him against the toughest of lefties, the David Prices and Chris Sales of the world, then fine. But it shouldn’t be an outright platoon. The only way Gregorius is going to improve against lefties is by facing them. If he rides the pine against good but not great southpaws like Mark Buehrle, Wei-Yin Chen, and Wade Miley, then what the hell is the point?

Yankees Need: Some Excitement

The Yankees are a pretty boring team, wouldn’t you say? Masahiro Tanaka starts, Michael Pineda starts, and Dellin Betances appearances were by far the most exciting part of last year’s team. By far. Every once in a while Frankie Cervelli would pump his fist or do something goofy, but that was it. We couldn’t even laugh at Eduardo Nunez‘s helmet falling off every damn time he ran to first because he had been sent packing. So Didi, the Yankees and everyone else beg you to please inject some life in this group.

Gregorius Can: Play With Energy

Gregorius has a reputation of being a high-energy player though I’m not sure how true that really is because I haven’t seen him play all that much. Hopefully it is true. Everyone can play with energy though, especially a 25-year-old shortstop, so hopefully Gregorius is the kind of exciting, fun to watch player the Yankees have sorely lacked in recent years. If the Yankees are going to miss the postseason again, I would at least like them to be watchable.

(Just FYI: My alternate title was “In Which Didi Stands For Di-fense and Di-velopment.”)

The pressure’s on Didi Gregorius, but not because he’s replacing Derek Jeter

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The first few days of Spring Training have been predictably dominated by Alex Rodriguez. The focus on A-Rod has gone well beyond overboard. But, if there’s anything good to come out of the A-Rod attention, it’s that other players in camp have been able to get their work in and fly under the radar. That includes the team’s first new starting shortstop in two decades.

“People didn’t pay a lot of attention to (Didi Gregorius) the first few days of camp,” said Joe Girardi to Chad Jennings over the weekend. “It could change as time goes on, but I’m sure it helped him to get comfortable a little bit earlier and get to know his teammates without having to answer a lot of questions.”

Gregorius is replacing Derek Jeter as the team’s starting shortstop but he’s not really replacing Jeter. It’s not like the Yankees picked between the two. Jeter retired and the Yankees needed to find a new shortstop no matter what. They could have taken the easy way out and signed a proven veteran like Jed Lowrie or Asdrubal Cabrera, but instead they went young and traded for Gregorius. That’s all.

The “Didi replacing Derek” storyline is unavoidable the same way the same storyline was unavoidable when Tino Martinez replaced Don Mattingly, but so far Gregorius has said all the right things whenever the media has been able to tear themselves away from A-Rod. “I am going to play the game, that’s all. What Jeter did nobody else can do. If they compare me to Jeter, there is nothing I can do. It’s my choice if I want to get it in my head,” said Gregorius to Ken Davidoff.

Any pressure Gregorius feels this year should not come from being the guy who plays shortstop for the Yankees after Jeter. It should come from Gregorius himself because this season is a tremendous opportunity for him. He just turned 25 and he’s the starting shortstop for the New York Yankees (!) with no one coming from the farm system to breathe down his neck anytime soon. The job is his for the taking. He should be putting pressure on himself to capitalize.

Gregorius had a similar opportunity with the Diamondbacks two years ago — the opportunity to cement himself as an MLB regular — and he responded by hitting .252/.332/.373 (92 wRC+) in 404 plate appearances. That isn’t great by any stretch and I remain skeptical of Didi’s bat going forward, but I get the feeling the Yankees would be pretty happy with that kind of production from Gregorius this year. At least as long as he catches the ball and shows improvement against lefties at the same time. Besides, that would be a big upgrade over what Jeter gave them last season.

Being the shortstop that follows Jeter will not be easy. The microscope will be on Gregorius all year the same way it was on David Robertson when he replaced Mariano Rivera last year. There’s nothing Didi can do about that. That’s baseball. All he can go is play his game, the game the Yankees acquired, and work to develop into the best player he can be. Given the opportunity in front of him, Gregorius has a chance to cement his spot in the team’s long-term future, and that should be his goal. Not to make people forget the Cap’n.

“(Replacing Jeter) doesn’t bother me at all,” said Gregorius to Jennings. “I came here a little bit early so I could get to know everybody. I’m not worried about the attention. Of course I’m going to get interviewed no matter what I do, so it’s fine. When you guys come here, like right now, I’m going to answer you guys. Whenever you guys go talk to Alex, I’ll be waiting.”

Poll: The Most Important Addition of the Offseason

Miller appears to be 95% arms and legs. (Presswire)
Miller appears to be 95% arms and legs. (Presswire)

Spring Training has begun and the offseason is over. The Yankees made a lot of transactions this winter — I count eleven trades and free agent signings involving actual MLB players — and accomplished their goals of getting younger and more flexible. It was a different winter in the sense that there were no massive free agent contracts handed out.

Some offseason pickups are more important to the Yankees than others, obviously. More important not just for the success of the 2015 Yankees, but for the 2016 and beyond Yankees as well. Which offseason addition was most important both short and long-term? That’s what we’re here to decide. With all due respect to one-year guys like Stephen Drew and Garrett Jones, and fringe roster guys like Chasen Shreve and Chris Martin, here are the team’s six biggest offseason pickups.

RHP David Carpenter

Acquired from the Braves in the Manny Banuelos trade, the 29-year-old Carpenter is going to step right into some sort of setup role this year. Shawn Kelley’s old role, basically, which is fitting because they are similar fastball-slider pitchers. It’s hard to consider any non-elite reliever like Carpenter a long-term piece — he’s been traded four times and claimed off waivers once already in his career — but he is under team control as an arbitration-eligible player through 2017. If he performs well, he’ll stick around in the bullpen for a few years.

RHP Nathan Eovaldi

Eovaldi, who just turned 25 ten days ago, was New York’s big rotation addition this winter. He had a shaky year with the Marlins in 2014 (4.37 ERA in 199.2 innings) but there are signs of growth, specifically his continually improving walk rate (2011-14: 13.7 BB%, 8.9 BB%, 8.9 BB%, 5.0 BB%) and FIP (2011-14: 4.35, 4.13, 3.59, 3.37). The Yankees acquired Eovaldi because of what they believe he will become, not what he has been, and his raw tools — specifically one of the hardest fastballs in the game — suggest major upside. Upside, of course, means he’s not there quite yet. Like Carpenter, Eovaldi is under control through the 2017 season as an arbitration-eligible player and the team envisions him fronting the rotation by time he qualifies for free agency.

SS Didi Gregorius

(Ralph Freso/Getty)
(Ralph Freso/Getty)

Needless to say, a starting shortstop is a pretty big deal. The Yankees had to find a new starting shortstop this winter for the first time in two decades and Gregorius, who turned 25 last Wednesday, gets the first crack at being Derek Jeter‘s long-term replacement. He’s basically the polar opposite of Jeter as an above-average defender and below-average hitter. It’ll be a shock to the system for many Yankees fans initially. Gregorius came over in the Shane Greene three-team trade and he’s under team control for five more years, including the last four as a Super Two arbitration-eligible player. He’s never going to be a guy who hits in the middle (or even at the top) of the order, but shortstop is a damn important position.

3B Chase Headley

The Yankees acquired the 30-year-old Headley at the trade deadline last year and saw firsthand how well he fit both in the clubhouse and on the field. A switch-hitter with patience and some pop to go with excellent defense at the hot corner is the kind of player every team could use. The Yankees re-signed Headley this offseason to a four-year contract worth $52M to take over as their starting third baseman, A-Rod or no A-Rod. He probably won’t be asked to hit in the middle of the order at the outset of 2015, but honestly, I could see him hitting second or third before long if the guys expected to hit in the middle of the order repeat their 2014 efforts.

LHP Andrew Miller

Although he’s a lefty, Miller replaced David Robertson on the roster. They’re both top notch late-inning relievers. Handedness doesn’t matter. The Yankees gave Miller a four-year, $36M deal over the winter and it remains to be seen if he’ll be the team’s closer or setup man this season. Either way, the team expects him to be a force in eighth and/or ninth inning. This isn’t your garden variety lefty reliever. Miller, 29, will be counted on to be a late-inning force during the life of his new contract.

LHP Justin Wilson

Like Miller, Wilson is no typical lefty reliever. He has power stuff — averaged 96.3 mph with his fastball last year — and is able to face both lefties and righties. Walks have been an issue for the 27-year-old Wilson in his two years and one month as a big leaguer (career 10.6 BB%) but he has missed plenty of bats (career 22.0 K%) and gets plenty of ground balls (50.9 GB%). He’s basically a left-handed complement to Carpenter. Wilson has four years of team control remaining. He can’t become a free agent until after the 2018 season.

* * *

As a reminder, this poll is trying to balance short and long-term importance. That isn’t necessarily easy. Veteran players like Headley and Miller figure to have their best years in 2015 and gradually decline during their four year contracts. And, if all goes according to plan, younger guys like Gregorius and Eovaldi will get better each year, so 2015 will hopefully be the worst years of their time in pinstripes. Make sense? Anyway, let’s get to the poll.

Who was NYY's most important pickup of the winter?

The five most interesting Yankees ZiPS projections

2015 ZiPS

Early last week, as part of his annual series at FanGraphs, Dan Szymborski released his ZiPS projections for the 2015 Yankees. As always, projections don’t mean a whole lot of anything. They aren’t predictions — projections are an estimate of current talent level — and while ZiPS has historically been accurate on a macro level, there are always individual outliers. Projections are a completely objective look at a player and a conversation starter, that’s all.

The graphic above shows the rough WAR projections for the Yankees’ regulars. The team’s full ZiPS projections are right here, so check them out at your own convenience. I want to focus on five players with projections that stood out as interesting to me, either for good reasons or bad reasons. Let’s get to it …

Brian McCann: +3.0 WAR

Catcher defense is still very difficult to quantify and ZiPS doesn’t handle it well, so there’s no point in looking at McCann’s projected WAR. The most important thing is ZiPS sees him as a .249/.316/.431 (.325 wOBA) hitter this coming season, which is way better than the .232/.286/.406 (.306 wOBA) line he put up last year. It’s down slightly from his .252/.329/.441 (.332 wOBA) line with the Braves from 2011-13 but still in the same ballpark. That’s encouraging.

Remember, ZiPS knows all about McCann’s heavy career workload and catcher aging curves and all that. It knows that catchers McCann’s age tend to continue declining once they’ve started declining, yet it still expects him to bounce back in 2015. That’s because it sees his .231 BABIP last summer and knows it was out of line with his .283 career mark. That said, it only has him getting back to .260 BABIP. This 100% objective computer system doesn’t expect McCann to slide into uselessness just yet and for some reason I find that reassuring.

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

Didi Gregorius: +1.6 WAR

Defensive stats are sketchy and defensive projections are even sketchier. ZiPS pegs Gregorius as a +1 defender, which is actually better than his career UZR (-3.6) and DRS (0) numbers at short, but not in line with his reputation. Is it possible Didi’s defensive skills have been overstated? Oh hell yeah. It happens all the time, especially with players who can’t hit. But, as I explained a few weeks ago, the scouting reports and Inside Edge data make it seem Gregorius is a standout defender with a knack for the occasional mental mistake on routine plays. That is something that can be improved with experience, in theory.

Anyway, aside from the defense, ZiPS has Didi as a .251/.307/.369 (.295 wOBA) hitter and that sorta stinks. The league average shortstop put up a .251/.306/.363 (.297 wOBA) line last year though, so Gregorius is projected as almost a perfectly league average hitting shortstop. There’s nothing sexy about that, but Derek Jeter did hit .256/.304/.313 (.279 wOBA) last season, and that’s really really bad. Even at the league shortstop average, Didi will be a big upgrade at the plate. Add in even +1 defense, and he’s an even bigger upgrade. The Yankees got -2.3 WAR from their shortstops a year ago, easily the worst in baseball. Gregorius is looking very much like a multi-win upgrade even with the modest ZiPS projections.

Nathan Eovaldi: +1.1 WAR

To me, Eovaldi is the perfect example of a pitcher poised to exceed projections. ZiPS only knows the stats, remember. It doesn’t know Masahiro Tanaka has a tiny tear in his UCL, for example. It doesn’t know Chasen Shreve decided to throw harder last year. And it doesn’t know Eovaldi appeared to improve his changeup late last season or that he is going from an atrocious pitch-framer (Jarrod Saltalamacchia) to an elite one (McCann) or that pitching coach Larry Rothschild has a long history of improving strikeout rates. Those are three ZiPS ignored factors that could have a major impact going forward. Eovaldi is projected for a 4.51 ERA (4.16 FIP) and I wouldn’t be surprised if he outperforms that by a full run this coming season. Okay, fine, let’s say half-a-run instead. Either way, I like Eovaldi’s chances of exceeding ZiPS.

Justin Wilson: -0.1 WAR

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

So ZiPS isn’t a fan of New York’s new lefty middle reliever. Wilson has a 2.99 ERA (3.45 FIP) in 138.1 career innings and the projection system has him as a true talent 4.31 ERA (4.54 FIP) pitcher in 2015. His strikeout and walk rate projections (23.6 K% and 12.8 K%) are right in line with his 2014 performance (23.8 K% and 11.7 BB%), so the difference is all in home run rate. After allowing eight homers in his first 138.1 big league innings, ZiPS sees Wilson as an eight homers in 64.2 innings guy right now. That … seems weird.

Yes, Wilson is moving into a much more hitter friendly ballpark. Yankee Stadium had a 111 HR Park Factor last summer — that means it inflated homer production to 11% more than the league average — while PNC Park had an 88 HR Park Factor, so that’s a big difference. Enough to go from a 0.52 HR/9 from 2012-14 to 1.11 HR/9 in 2015? Maybe! That just seems like an exorbitant spike in homer rate, especially for a pitcher with a career 50.9% ground ball rate.

Reliever homer rates can be pretty volatile year to year because they inherently work in small samples, maybe 60-70 innings per year. One single homer results in a pretty big change in a reliever’s homer rate. Five dingers in 50 innings is 0.90 HR/9. Four is 0.72. Six is 1.08. Those are pretty big swings that result from one swing of the bat, one gust of wind, a couple degrees of temperature, stuff like that. ZiPS sees Wilson being replacement level because it expects him to start serving up long balls, but reliever homer rates are really volatile. The computer is being pretty pessimistic.

Bryan Mitchell: -1.3 WAR

Yikes. ZiPS pegs Mitchell for a 5.92 ERA (5.68 FIP) with mediocre strikeout (15.0 K%) and walk (11.5 BB%) rates, which isn’t good at all but not completely unexpected for a non-elite 23-year-old pitching prospect. The problem is Mitchell is more or less the team’s sixth starter. Maybe he’s more like the eighth starter behind Adam Warren and Esmil Rogers, but the point is he’s not all that far down the depth chart. ZiPS won’t have any impact on Mitchell’s real life performance, but geez, it would have been nice to see the system be a little more optimistic heading into the season.

Ranking the 40-Man Roster: Nos. 3-5

Over these next two weeks we’re going to subjectively rank and analyze every player on the Yankees’ 40-man roster — based on their short and long-term importance to the team — and you’ll inevitably disagree with our rankings. We’ve already covered Nos. 6-10, 11-14, 15-16, 17-19, 20-25, 26-31, and 32-40.

Dellin. (Elsa/Getty)
Dellin. (Elsa/Getty)

We are now in the home stretch of our 40-man roster rankings and about to enter the top five. These guys are the cream of the crop. The impact players for both today and tomorrow. The guys who will hopefully be at the center of the next great Yankees team. Simply put, these are the players the Yankees need to excel to get back to being contenders.

Today we’re going to cover players three, four, and five. Two pitchers and an everyday up-the-middle player. The weird thing is we don’t quite know what to expect from two of the three just yet because one has injury concerns and the other hasn’t even played a game in pinstripes yet. So let’s get on with it. Here is the next batch of players in our 40-man rankings.

No. 5: Dellin Betances

2015 Role: High-leverage reliever. Betances emerged as one of the top relievers in the world last season and the Yankees are asking him to do it again. Well, I’m sure they understand he might not be that good again, but they are counting on Betances to dominate late in the game, and for multiple innings on occasion. I don’t think he’ll throw another 90 innings in 2015 — the two-inning appearances might not come as often only to keep him fresh and healthy.

Long-Term Role: Closer, and it could happen as soon as next year. It seems obvious to me Betances is being groomed for the ninth inning, and all the bullpen depth they added this winter means it’ll be easier for Joe Girardi & Co. to navigate the seventh and eighth innings without Dellin. There is a question of whether Betances is best used as a setup man or being pigeon-holed into the ninth inning, but teams tend to use their best relievers in the ninth inning, and Betances is the team’s best reliever even after the addition of Andrew Miller.

Although it feels like he’s been around forever, Betances is still under team control for five more years, the next two as a dirt cheap pre-arbitration player. He’s not all that young anymore — he’ll turn 27 in March — so by the end of his five years, he’ll already be 31 and heading into his age 32 season. That’s too far away to think about though. Betances earned a lot of responsibility last season and it’s only a matter of time until he gets the glory of the ninth inning.

Didi. (Presswire)
Didi. (Presswire)

No. 4: Didi Gregorius

2015 Role: Starting shortstop. The Yankees have discussed platooning Gregorius with Brendan Ryan but that seems sort of silly. Ryan has hit lefties worse than Didi these last two years (31 vs. 25 wRC+). I do think the team will sit Gregorius against tough lefties, the David Prices and Chris Sales of the world, but I think he’ll get a chance to sink or swim against guys like Mark Buehrle and Wei-Yin Chen, the non-overpowering lefties.

As the starting shortstop, Gregorius’ first responsibility comes in the field on defense. He is a massive upgrade over Derek Jeter defensively and the team is trying to compensate for their lack of offense with great defense, so catching the ball at short is imperative. Didi is a standout gloveman with a knack for highlight plays and that’s what the Yankees want to see. Anything he contributes at the plate is a bonus, though it is worth noting he’s a left-handed hitter with a career .262/.332/.411 (102 wRC+) line against righties. He could help more than expected offensively, especially in Yankee Stadium.

Long-Term Role: Gregorius will turn 25 next month and the long-term shortstop position is his for the taking. The Yankees clearly like Didi, they’ve been trying to get him since at least the 2013 Winter Meetings and they traded away a valuable young player in Shane Greene to get him, so I fully expect him to get an extended opportunity at the position this summer. Five-hundred something at-bats. They want him to be their shortstop of the future.

Gregorius has five years of team control remaining. He’ll make something near the minimum this season and will be arbitration-eligible four times as a Super Two. The Yankees want him to spend all five of those years reeling in balls at short and contributing at the plate from the bottom of the lineup. Gregorius is not Jeter, neither he nor anyone else ever will be, though he has a chance to be a shortstop in this league for a very long time, and the team wants him to have that career in pinstripes. I have no doubt about it.

No. 3: Michael Pineda

Big Mike. (Presswire)
Big Mike. (Presswire)

2015 Role: Ace. Ace-ish, really. Pineda finally made it to the mound for the Yankees last year and the little bit of time he did spend in the rotation was dominant: 1.89 ERA (2.71 FIP) in 13 starts and 76.1 innings. He was the team’s best starter last season on a rate basis and the Yankees want to see more of the same this coming season. Lots more. When he’s healthy, Big Mike showed he can be a difference-maker.

Pineda’s battled shoulder trouble since coming over to New York in the January 2012 trade with the Mariners, and last year he missed more than three months with a muscle strain in his shoulder. Durability is a major concern for Pineda. You can’t realistically expect him to maintain his 2014 performance over a full season, but the Yankees would happily take something like a 3.50-ish ERA in 2015 if it meant getting 180+ innings out Pineda.

Long-Term Role: Ace! Pineda is No. 3 on this list for a reason: because he is capable of domination and ace-caliber performance. The health concerns are never really going to go away — guys who have shoulder surgery tend to continue having on-and-off problems in their careers — but they can be alleviated somewhat with a healthy year in 2015.

Maybe Pineda’s long-term outlook is Al Leiter? Leiter had major shoulder surgery at age 23 — the same age as Pineda — and threw only nine big league innings from 1990-92 before finally settling in as a workhorse starter with occasional ace-level domination in his late 20s. Pineda turned 26 less than two weeks ago and will soon be three full years out from shoulder surgery.

Either way, the Yankees have Pineda for another three seasons as an arbitration-eligible player. At the time of the trade, they were hoping he would have risen to the top of rotation by now, but that didn’t happen. That’s baseball. We saw last year that Pineda is still capable of being excellent and it was encouraging. Now that he’s beyond the shoulder surgery, the goal is keeping him healthy and seeing more of that top of the rotation ability.

Coming Thursday: No. 2. The two-way threat with the most remaining guaranteed contract years on the roster.

New additions will help Yankees against pitches down in the zone

Jones is a weapon against low pitches. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)
Jones is a weapon against low pitches. (Scott Cunningham/Getty)

As first explained by Jon Roegele last January and revisited by Jeff Sullivan in September, the strike zone has been expanding in recent years. It is expanding downward, specifically. There are more called strikes at the knees and below nowadays than there were a few years ago for whatever reason. Pitchers have been taught to keep the ball down for decades, and now there is even more of an incentive to do so. It’s hard to do anything with pitches down in the zone.

As a result, some teams have started seeking out low-ball hitters to counter the expanding strike zone. Josh Donaldson, who went from the Athletics to the Blue Jays this offseason, is one of the best low-ball hitters in the game, putting up a .273 AVG and .180 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below the last two years. The MLB averages were .230 and .103, respectively. The best low-ball hitter in baseball the last three seasons has been (who else?) Mike Trout, with a .343 AVG and .229 ISO.

Last season, the Yankees as a team hit .229 with a .101 ISO on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below, the 17th and 15th best rates in baseball, respectively. The MLB averages in 2014 were a .232 AVG and .103 ISO. Keep in mind those are raw AVG and ISO numbers, unadjusted for ballpark or anything like that. The Yankees were a below-average hitting team on pitches down in the zone despite playing home games in hitter happy Yankee Stadium.

The Yankees have remade their lineup a bit this offseason, at least compared to the Opening Day lineup a year ago. They have a new projected starters at the three non-first base infield positions plus a new primary DH regardless of whether Alex Rodriguez or Garrett Jones gets the majority of the at-bats. Let’s look at how the current roster has performed on pitches down in the zone the last three seasons, with an enormous thanks to the indispensable Baseball Savant.

The Infielders

AVG ISO BABIP K%
C Brian McCann .219 .148 .236 18.5%
1B Mark Teixeira .193 .147 .225 23.4%
2B Stephen Drew .179 .072 .276 33.7%
SS Didi Gregorius .245 .115 .286 17.5%
3B Chase Headley .225 .098 .318 28.5%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

I was curious to see Teixeira’s down in the zone stats before looking them up because, anecdotally, it seems like he’s a high-ball hitter based on what I’ve seen during his first six years in pinstripes. Sure enough, the data backs it up. Teixeira hit .193 with a .147 ISO on pitches down in the zone these last three years while hitting .268 with a .266 ISO on all other pitches. The MLB averages for pitches not down in the zone since 2012 are .273 AVG and .175 ISO, for reference.

Both Teixeira and McCann are power-before-average hitters, which is why they have a better than league average ISO but a below-average batting average on pitches in the bottom third of the zone and below. Headley has been below-average on low pitches but not by much, just a few points in both AVG and ISO. Remember, AVG and ISO are unadjusted and Headley spent most of the last three years in cavernous Petco Park. I expect these numbers to come up going forward. Drew … yikes. Let’s leave it at that.

Gregorius is interesting because he has actually been slightly above-average on hitting pitches low in the strike zone, though only slightly. On the other hand, he has hit .244 with a .134 ISO on pitches not down in the zone, below those .273 AVG and .175 ISO league averages. Seven of his 13 big league homers have come on pitches in the lower third of the zone and below — one of those seven is his first career homer (video), which came at Yankee Stadium off Phil Hughes in April 2013 — so it seems like Gregorius has some golf in his swing. That’s useful.

The Outfielders

AVG ISO BABIP K%
LF Brett Gardner .229 .106 .306 25.6%
CF Jacoby Ellsbury .257 .108 .308 18.8%
RF Carlos Beltran .230 .121 .279 22.1%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

Ellsbury is a high contact hitter who consistently gets the fat part of the bat on the ball, so it’s no surprise he’s fared well on pitches down in the zone. The power production is only league average, but that’s not really his game. Gardner has been so close to being perfectly average on low pitches these last three years that it’s kinda freaky. He’s off the MLB average by one point of AVG, one point of ISO, and three-tenths of a percentage point in strikeout rate.

Beltran has been above-average low-ball hitter by virtue of having an average AVG with better than average ISO and strikeout rates. That said, the Beltran we saw last year was not the same Beltran the Cardinals had from 2012-13. During his two years in St. Louis, Beltran hit .237 with a .133 ISO on low pitches. Last year it was a .211 AVG with a .092 ISO. Hopefully that is just a function of playing through an elbow injury for most of the summer rather than a decline in skills. If that is the case, healthy Beltran is a real weapon against pitches down in the zone.

The Bench

AVG ISO BABIP K%
DH Alex Rodriguez .263 .180 .321 24.8%
C John Ryan Murphy .256 .070 .367 28.3%
IF Brendan Ryan .160 .050 .231 30.0%
OF Chris Young .158 .131 .210 31.0%
UTIL Garrett Jones .244 .157 .290 22.2%
MLB AVG .230 .107 .300 25.3%

First things first, let’s just ignore Murphy’s numbers. He has only 112 plate appearances in the big leagues and fewer than 50 of them (46, to be exact) have ended on pitches down in the zone, so it’s a very small sample. Everyone else’s stats are based on a few hundred plate appearances that ended on low pitches.

Anyway, look at A-Rod! He flat out mashed low pitches from 2012-14, which really means he mashed low pitches from 2012-13 because he didn’t play last year. On the other side of the coin, he put up a .267 AVG with a .142 ISO against non-low pitches the last three seasons, both below-average rates. We have no idea what Alex can do next year at age 39 with two surgically repaired hips after missing all of 2014. If he puts up anything close to the 113 wRC+ he had from 2012-13, it would be a major win, low-ball hitter or not.

Jones has been a real threat against pitches down in the strike zone. His AVG, ISO and strikeout rate have been better than average the last three seasons. By comfortable margins too. I guess that’s not surprising — take a few minutes to watch this highlight video and it’s obvious Jones can go down to get a pitch and lift it a long way. Young has some pop on low pitches but is generally well-below-average. Ryan isn’t much of a hitter, low pitches or otherwise.

The additions of Gregorius and Jones figure to help the Yankees against pitches down in the zone in an age when more low strikes are being called and even more pitches are at the knees or below. Headley should also help now that he’s in a much more favorable park, and A-Rod is a wildcard. Maybe he’ll help but probably not. The Yankees weren’t a very good low-ball hitting team in 2014 and their additions this winter appear likely to help improve the situation this coming season.

Looking at the new left side of the infield using Inside Edge data

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

With Derek Jeter retired and Alex Rodriguez basically a non-factor, the Yankees had to rebuild the left side of their infield this offseason, and they did that by trading for shortstop Didi Gregorius and re-signing third baseman Chase Headley. The Yankees are hoping those two will hold things down on the more glamorous side of second base for at least the next four years, the term of Headley’s deal. (Gregorius has five years of team control remaining.)

Headley performed very well during his limited time in pinstripes this past season while Gregorius has a little more than a full year of MLB time under his belt, so he’s more of an unknown. Both guys have similar profiles though — they’re defense-first players who do their best work catching baseballs, not hitting them. Headley’s been an average or better hitter basically his entire career, though his glove is his calling card. Gregorius definitely fits the all-glove, no-bat profile.

At the very least, the Yankees will have a much better infield defense next season, especially on the left side. How much better defensively? Substantially, really. On the order of two or three wins, I think. Maybe more. To get a better idea of just how improved the defense at short and third will be next season, let’s look at some Inside Edge data and compare the 2014 Yankees to the incoming Gregorius and returning Headley.

Shortstop

There’s no way to sugarcoat it: Jeter was a disaster in the field this past season. I mean, he’s been below-average in the field pretty much his entire career, but the 2014 season was his worst defensively. The combination of age and his broken ankle late in 2012 sapped whatever mobility he had left, and his arm left something to be desired as well. The Cap’n put Mark Teixeira‘s scoop tool to work at first base this summer.

The Inside Edge data shows just how terrible New York’s defense at shortstop was during the 2014 season:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Yankees 0.0% 11.1% 35.3% 64.3% 95.3%
2014 MLB AVG 3.7% 24.1% 49.2% 74.1% 97.2%
2012-14 Gregorius 14.3% 25.0% 52.6% 69.2% 98.2%

Inside Edge is fairly straight forward. Batted balls are recorded by human stringers (so there is some scorer bias) and are split into six groups — the five in the table above plus “impossible,” which register at 0% league-wide — depending how difficult the play will be for the defender. For example, batted balls considered “likely” to be turned into an out are plays that are made 60-90% of the time, with the league average at 74.1%. Got it? Sure you do.

The 2014 Yankees, who had Jeter at short for 78.3% of their defensive innings, made no very difficult plays (“remote”) at shortstop and were comfortably below the league average when it came to making “unlikely,” “about even,” and “likely” plays. Long story short, anything not hit right to the shortstop was converted into an out at a considerably below-average rate. Jeter was that bad in the field. Everything was an adventure.

Gregorius, on the other hand, has been above-average at making every type of play since breaking into the league with the exception of “likely” plays, where he’s been a tick below-average but not Jeterian. Other young middle infielders like Adeiny Hechavarria and Dee Gordon have a similar Inside Edge profile and the thought is they have occasional lapses in concentration and botch the routine play. Tougher plays like “remote” and “unlikely” are all instinct. There’s no thinking.

In theory, those lapses in concentration can be fixed. Then again, they might not even be the problem. It’s just a theory. Baseball America has consistently ranked Gregorius among his organization’s top prospects throughout his minor league career, and over the years their defensive scouting reports have said “his hands are still somewhat erratic” (2010), “his hands are his biggest drawback defensively” (2011), and “he showed improved consistency (with his hands)” (2012). Hands that are “somewhat erratic” but showed “improved consistency” seem like the kind of thing that could contribute to his below-average rate of making “likely” plays.

Either way, the Yankees are getting a substantial defensive upgrade at short by replacing Jeter with Gregorius. Even with those bad hands or lapses in concentration or whatever, Gregorius has made plays at a much higher rate than Jeter these last few years, and it’s expected he will continue to do that going forward. His youth and athleticism mean Didi is more likely to improve going forward than crater and became a below-average gloveman. It’s been a very long time since the Yankees had an everyday shortstop as good as Gregorius defensively.

Third Base

Between the hobbled A-Rod and Kevin Youkilis and the defensively blah Jayson Nix, Yangervis Solarte, and Kelly Johnson, the Yankees have dealt with some really shaky hot corner play the last few years. Headley was a breath of fresh air after coming over at the trade deadline. He made every play he was supposed to make — that was an accomplishment for the 2014 Yankees — plus more than few highlight reel plays.

The Inside Edge data for the team’s third basemen this past season is pretty interesting:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Yankees 0.0% 41.2% 76.9% 77.5% 95.8%
2014 MLB AVG 2.7% 25.9% 57.9% 76.5% 95.9%
2012-14 Headley 2.4% 22.0% 72.9% 85.6% 97.4%

According to Inside Edge, the Yankees were well-above-average at making “unlikely” and “about even” plays at third base in 2014 and basically average at “likely” and “almost certain” plays. When it came to making something more than the routine play, the 2014 Yankees were collectively better than the 2012-14 version of Headley.

Of course, the 2014 Yankees and 2012-14 Headley are not mutually exclusive since he did play a few hundred innings at third for New York this summer. Let’s compare Headley’s defense to the team’s other third baseman this past season:

1-10% (remote) 10-40% (unlikely) 40-60% (about even) 60-90% (likely) 90-100% (almost certain)
2014 Non-Headley NYY 3B 0.0% 30.0% 75.0% 77.4% 94.2%
2014 Headley with NYY 0.0% 57.1% 80.0% 77.8% 99.1%

The team’s non-Headley third baseman were actually above-average at making non-routine plays and about average making “likely” and “almost certain” plays, so the hot corner defense wasn’t a total disaster. Headley, however, managed to improve on all of that across the board. So yeah, the Yankees were getting pretty good glovework at third, but Headley took it to another level.

Now, defense is like anything else in baseball, players can have good defensive years and bad defensive years. It’s like batting average. Robinson Cano hit .306 in 2007, .270 in 2008, then .320 in 2009. Did his talent level change those three years? No, that’s just baseball. The same applies to defense. The various defensive stats (not just Inside Edge) say 2014 was either the best or second best (behind 2010) defensive season of Headley career. He was still above-average from 2011-13, but not as good as 2014.

Given his track record, there’s a chance Headley’s defense going forward won’t be as good as it was this past season, and again, that isn’t to say it will be bad. To go back to Cano for an example, he hit .342 in 2006 and then .308 from 2007-14. He was awesome in 2006 and slightly less awesome from 2007-14. Headley’s defense was outstanding in 2014. It’ll probably be slightly less outstanding going forward, and that’s okay. As long as he continues to be above-average, he’ll be an upgrade on what the team was running out there the last two years.

Going from Jeter to Gregorius will be a substantial improvement for the 2015 Yankees. In fact, it might be the single biggest defensive upgrade at any position in baseball. Maybe second biggest behind the Allen Craig to Jason Heyward move the Cardinals made, but, either way, New York will be considerably better at short next year. They’ll be better at third base as well, just less so. With a ground ball-centric pitching staff, the improved defense on the left side of the infield figures to be very noticeable. It was an upgrade that had to be made.