The New York Yankees’ line-up is loaded. Veterans such as Alex Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran, Brian McCann, and Mark Teixiera prove to be pesky outs in the middle of the line-up while speedsters Brett Gardner and Jacoby Ellsbury set the table for them atop the line-up. The bottom third, however, doesn’t get the same amount of love that they should seeing how they have the best hitter in the line-up near the bottom. I’m not referring to Starlin Castro, but rather Didi Gregorius. Now hear me out. I know that the talk of the Yankees universe has been surrounding Castro, the veterans, and the rotation, but that does not mean that Gregorius is doing poorly. In fact, he is best all-around hitter right now on the team. What I mean by all-around does not completely take into consideration the player stats, but rather how pitchers pitch the the hitter and the hitter’s sabermetric stats. His hitting stats this season are rather average; he is currently hitting a modest .333/.348/.524 over 24 plate appearances. See, nothing to write home about, but keep in mind, it’s only April 13th, the season just started. Stats and trends this early in the season are akin to those in Spring Training: meaningless. In fact, if we take his basic and advanced hitting stats into serious consideration, then Gregorius would be a top-ten shortstop in the game. He has been top-ten so far this season, but to say that he is in the top third of the game’s shortstops is a bold statement. I can easily think of ten other shortstops whose offensive production is much better than Gregorius’. Plus, the projections on Gregorius are more average than above average. But, as I prefaced before, this post is not about stats, its about the way defenses play him.
In last night’s Yankees game, I couldn’t help but notice the way the defense played Gregorius. Here is how the Toronto Blue Jays played him in the top of the 5th inning:
The infield played him pretty much straight up, while the outfield was shaded a little to the left. Gregorius finished the at bat with a double to left-center field; an opposite field hit. He finished the night 1-3 with a strikeout and a successful sacrifice bunt. Not the most impressive stat line, but when delving deeper into just these plate appearances we can see that each plate appearance was valuable. In his first plate appearance of the game he grounded out to second with a man on third and two outs. However, he got into a two ball count (a hitter’s count) and made solid contact. Plus, Chase Headley was the man on third and he isn’t the most fleet of foot. His advanced stats prove that he doesn’t have even league average base running IQ. Of course a base hit to any part of the field would have plated Headley, but Gregorius was never known as a power hitter who could drive in runs. He wasn’t brought to New York for his offensive prowess; the talk was all about his defense and if his bat would catch up. So not a horrible plate appearance, certainly not one that Gregorius should feel badly about. His second plate appearance he hit a line drive double to left-center field on a one-one pitch (the straight-up defense). The Yankees couldn’t plate him and he stayed stranded on second, but his double was one of only two extra base hits in the game, and the only extra base hit off of the highly regarded starter Aaron Sanchez. Sanchez was, after all, a consensus top-50 prospect prior to the 2015 season and is now a rotation mainstay in Toronto. Gregorius’ third plate appearance was game changing. Men on first and second with no outs, everyone in the ballpark knew that which is why the Blue Jays brought the corners in expecting a bunt. After a first attempt and ball, Gregorius landed a bunt to the third base side and moved the runners to third and second. Ellsbury hit next and drove in Headley to take the lead. They never looked back after that run. The final plate appearance was a strikeout in the top of the 9th, but he was able to get to a full count before a check swing called third strike. However, it was a tough at bat; the left-handed reliever Gavin Floyd was brought in to face the 9-1-2 hitters: Gregorius, Ellsbury, Gardner. Three left-handed hitters. Floyd pitched a quick ten pitch innings and retired all three batters. Overall, Gregorius performed well despite the less than sexy batting line; he saw more balls than strikes, he had productive, positive plate appearances, and he executed a key bunt. But let’s look a little bit closer as to why else he is the best all-around hitter in the Yankees’ line-up.
I thought that it would be important to look at the heat maps to see what his career hit pattern looked like. He’s still a young player, 26, and has a few years left to grow until his peak, but to see his potential we have to look at his career so far. Here is the career spray chart for Gregorius:
What’s notable is that he hits the ball to all parts of the field. There are several hot spots in the outfield and all parts of the infield. This is a possible explanation as to why the Blue Jays played him straight up in the infield and shaded left in the outfield. As a comparison, here are the career spray charts for his teammates Rodriguez and McCann:
McCann and Rodriguez are notorious pull hitters; the Blue Jays shifted on both these hitters last night. Knowing Rodriguez hits right-handed and McCann left-handed, then it clearly makes sense as to why teams shift on these players. However, these two players aren’t like Gregorius. McCann and Rodriguez have made a living hitting home runs and driving in base runners. They sit in the middle of the order for a reason. Gregorius is not a power hitter. He has to live off of base hits and smart at bats and he has been doing that. For his career to grow and continue, he has to utilize the entire field in order to pick up hits. By working with the Yankees’ hitting coach, he has been able to change his approach and stance in the box that he has been on fire since before the All-Star break last season. If he is able to continue having productive and positive plate appearances and can hit to all parts of the field, then his all-around game will continue to improve too.
— Alek Miletic