Over the winter the Yankees were tasked with finding a replacement at shortstop for Derek Jeter. Well, replacement isn’t really the right word. It’s not like they chose to move on from Jeter, he retired. Successor might be a better term here than replacement. Anyway, the search for a new shortstop led them to Didi Gregorius, who came over from the Diamondbacks in a three-team trade in early-December.
The Yankees had been trying to acquire Gregorius since at least the 2013 Winter Meetings, though they needed to wait until after his disappointing 2014 campaign for the price to drop low enough. Simply put, the Yankees bought low on Gregorius, at least relative to what they think he can become. They’re banking on a just turned 25-year-old improving in the coming years and becoming a no doubt starting shortstop down the road.
Gregorius was born in Amsterdam but grew up in Curacao, which has produced a bevy of talented young middle infielders in recent years. A bevy of talented young middle infielders who all initially struggled at the MLB level. Jurickson Profar started slow before his recent shoulder woes, and others like Gregorius, Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons, and Jonathan Schoop have been below-average hitters early in their careers. They all have that in common.
“(Players from Curacao) are all highly educated, all speak four to seven languages,” said Rangers GM Jon Daniels to Peter Gammons in December. “They almost all come from very strong family backgrounds. So they have little issues adapting to the American society in the minor leagues, and are able to blow through on their natural skills. But in the Majors, when they have to make adjustments for the first time, they haven’t got the baseball backgrounds to make those adjustments. And because we have gotten so intrigued by them, we tend to be disappointed. It’s not fair.”
Current Giants hitting coach and ex-Yankees infield prospect Hensley Meulens, who grew up Curacao, agrees with Daniels. “It doesn’t surprise me at all,” said Meulens to Gammons. “The kids on Aruba and Curacao don’t play a lot of baseball when they are young, and the level is very crude. They play like eleven games in a Little League season. If you’re a kid in the Dominican or Venezuela, you’re playing year round. Don’t lose patience.”
Gregorius doesn’t have the offensive potential of Profar or Bogaerts and he isn’t as gifted in the field as Simmons, but he was considered a potential two-way player coming up through the minors, someone with above-average defense and the ability to be a league average-ish or better hitter. Baseball America (subs. req’d) consistently lauded Didi’s glove during his prospect days and a few years ago noted his “combination of solid bat control, good pitch recognition and plus speed lead some scouts to project him as an above-average hitter.” That sounds promising.
Now, here’s the catch: we don’t know if Gregorius, Profar, Bogaerts, Schoop, and Simmons will be able to make the adjustments Daniels spoke about. Meulens sure didn’t during his days as a player. Others from Curacao like Wladimir Balentien and Roger Bernandina didn’t make the adjustments either. Andruw Jones is the best position player (and best player overall) to come from Curacao by a mile. The second best hitter is probably Randall Simon. It’s not a great collection of names.
That doesn’t mean Gregorius and those other guys won’t the make adjustments though. They haven’t had enough playing time in MLB to show us whether they can. What the Yankees do know about Gregorius is that he consistently hits the ball hard. Subjectively speaking, of course. ESPN stats guru Mark Simon detailed Didi’s tendency to sting the baseball back in December:
Inside Edge, a video-scouting service used by major league teams (including the Yankees) rates every at-bat by a stat known as “hard-hit rate.” The service employs video trackers who chart every batted ball as either hard-hit, medium-hit or soft-hit based on velocity and barrel contact (former Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long used to track this on his own).
Gregorius had a hard-hit rate of 20.4 percent. He was one of 34 players to have at least 250 plate appearances this past season and a 20 percent hard-hit rate.
Gregorius registered 56 hard-hit balls this past season, 30 of which went for base hits, so he hit .536 when hitting the ball hard.
That’s an unusually low number. The average major leaguer hits around .700 on his hard-hit balls. And Gregorius has hit that mark before. In fact, in 2013, he recorded the same number of hard-hit balls. They resulted in 39 base hits.
Inside Edge’s hard-hit ball data is recorded by human stringers, so there will inevitably be some scorer bias, though until HitFX becomes public (which may never happen), this is the best data we have for measuring quality of contact. Three hundred and eleven players had at least 250 plate appearances last season, and Gregorius being one of 34 with a 20%+ hard-hit ball rate means he was in the 90th percentile, give or take. That’s encouraging.
The Yankees have their own internal measure of quality of contact called exit velocity, according to Mark Feinsand. Brian Cashman mentioned the improvement of Chase Headley’s “hit velo” after the trade last summer and assistant GM Billy Eppler told Feinsand their metric places Aaron Judge in the 90th percentile of MLB hitters when it comes to hitting the ball hard. The Yankees use Inside Edge data and have their own internal exit velocity metric, and I’m certain both were consulted before the Gregorius trade.
Beyond the stats, the Yankees also had a firsthand scouting perspective on Didi from Eric Chavez. Chavez played with Gregorius in Arizona from 2013-14 and now works in New York’s front office as a special assignment scout. “I was really high on him,” said Chavez to Bryan Hoch in December. “His defense is unbelievable, and hitting-wise, he has the potential to be a good hitter — a good .275, .280 hitter, 12 to 15 home runs. His swing plays perfect for Yankee Stadium, he’s kind of got that pull swing. Most of his home runs he hit, where he likes to hit them, I think he’ll be pretty successful there.”
I am generally a scouting report over stats guy when it comes to young players, but in this case I’m more inclined to believe the stats than the scouting report. For starters, I wouldn’t expect Chavez to say anything bad about Gregorius. Even if doesn’t like him all that much, he wouldn’t trash him while talking to the media. Secondly, the Inside Edge data is specifically measuring the quality of Gregorius’ contact, which ostensibly tells us more about his offensive potential going forward than, say, his batting average or wRC+ in 2014. Either way, both the stats and scouting report are positive, but I’m trusting the numbers over Chavez here.
The Yankees didn’t acquire a finished player in Gregorius, which is why he came so relatively cheap. Starting shortstops are really hard to find and the team believes Didi is an MLB caliber defender right now — based on what we’ve seen this spring, uh, yeah, he’s a good fielder — and has the potential to improve at the plate. Players from Curacao are slow-starters in general, and the hard-hit ball data suggests Gregorius got some unfortunate results at the plate in 2014. I am skeptical of Didi’s bat long-term, but there is reason to believe his offense will soon be on the upswing.