There are only so many conclusions we can draw from player performances less than a month into the MLB regular season. Some open your eyes so much, though, that you can’t help but wonder if these early adjustments will stick for the long term.
When it comes to New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, it’s just about impossible for those thoughts to not cross your mind.
We’ve been fortunate to see a number of position players get off to hot starts in 2018, but few are currently on Gregorius’ level. On a team full of elite offensive talent, Didi’s 227 wRC+ is easily leading the way. And that number just so happens to be one of the best in baseball heading into action Thursday.
Through 69 plate appearances (nice), he’s slugging .333/.464/.804 (!!) with 5 home runs, 16 RBI, and 14 runs scored. Without him, there’s no way the Yankees enter Thursday with an 8-8 record.
Surprising, But Not Totally
Gregorius has gotten himself off to an eye-popping start, but it’s not as if this offensive production is coming completely out of nowhere. Since landing in the Bronx for the 2015 campaign, he’s consistently improved at the plate when looking at his wRC+ (89, 98, 107) and home-run numbers (9, 20, 25).
Despite making these leaps with the bat, one of the things that didn’t really change was his quality of contact. Didi’s soft-hit rate never fell below 19.6% in a single season since becoming a Yankee, while his hard-hit rate never climbed above 24.5%.
His 2017 production in these departments was especially interesting, as his hard-hit rate (23.1%) wasn’t as high as his soft-hit rate (24.4%) or his final homer tally (25).
As one can imagine, this has been one of the big changes we’ve seen from him. While Gregorius’ soft-hit rate is still 22.0%, his fly-ball rate has continued to climb (50.0% heading into Thursday’s games), and he’s combined that with a 38.0% hard-hit rate.
The Drastic Change Making This Possible
Experiencing a complete 180-degree turn with regard to generating hard contact usually doesn’t happen overnight without a change in approach. The first clue that’d smack you in the face upon looking at Gregorius’ FanGraphs page is that 20.3% walk rate.
Over the past three seasons (2015-17), his 4.4% walk rate was one of the 15 lowest in baseball among qualified hitters. A lot of that can be predicated on the fact that he liked to swing a lot, which included swinging at a lot of balls outside the strike zone.
Gregorius’ 55.0% swing rate and 39.1% chase rate during this time were each among the league’s highest. And since he was making contact on 69.5% of those pitches he swung at outside the strike zone, it suddenly makes sense as to why his hard-hit rate settled in so low despite the strides in other aspects of his game.
So far this season, Didi has lowered his swing rate to 44.8% and his chase rate to 27.7%. It’s obviously still too early to tell how permanent this shift in approach is (or if it’s permanent at all), but there certainly appears to be a conscious effort to make a change.
Gregorius’ 70.6% swing rate on strikes would actually be a career-low mark if sustained through the end of this season, but he’s also making contact a staggering 98.6% of the time in this situation. That swing rate is still a few percentage points above the league average, so this decrease isn’t a bad thing. If anything, it’s a good thing.
The focus is clearly on offering at pitches he can do more damage with than in years past. As his batted-ball profile continues to improve, it’s natural to see his quality of contact would follow suit based off what we’re seeing here.
Now It’s Time to Sustain
This tremendous start and everything that’s gone into it has no doubt been encouraging for Gregorius and the Yankees, but the hard part is coming now. While doing this over a three-week span is cool, it won’t mean much if he can’t sustain some level of this newfound plate discipline moving forward.
With the growth we’ve seen from him at the plate in recent years, this could just be the latest long-term adjustment. Now in his age-28 season, we’re supposed to be watching some of Didi’s best years. If he is able to keep this going, it’s also coming at quite an opportune time.
Gregorius is still under team control in 2019 before potentially hitting the open market in advance of the 2020 season. Taking a substantial leap like this now could do two things. The Yankees could be convinced to try and work out some kind of multi-year deal that’ll buy out a number of his free-agent years, or it’s setting himself up for a nice pay day in a couple winters — even if it won’t be the kind we’ve been used to seeing due to this past offseason’s market shift.
That’s all in the future, though. What’s important right now is that Didi continues to be an asset on defense while showing that among tremendous offensive firepower like Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, and Gary Sanchez, he’s a vital piece to New York’s championship aspirations.
About Matt Musico
Matt Musico currently manages Chin Music Baseball and contributes to The Sports Daily. His past work has been featured at numberFire, Yahoo! Sports and Bleacher Report. He’s also written a book about how to become a sports blogger. You can sign up for his email newsletter here.