Didi Gregorius Is Unleashing His Power in a Weird Way
New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius was in a tough position entering the 2015 MLB regular season. Not only was he going to get his first taste of the New York media market, but he also had to take the place of a franchise icon and future Hall of Famer, Derek Jeter.
That's the kind of situation that not many people would be jealous of, but Gregorius has done a terrific job. About to finish his third season in the Bronx, the 27-year-old is in the midst of a career year -- right after he enjoyed one in 2016.
Of all the things Gregorius has accomplished since landing in the Bronx, it's the transformation of his power that really jumps out. Through his first 724 career plate appearances (between the 2012 through 2014 seasons), the shortstop launched just 13 homers while producing an Isolated Power (ISO) of .124. After hitting nine dingers in 2015, though, he's backed that up with consecutive 20-homer campaigns and a cumulative ISO of .158 entering action on Monday.
He's the first Yankee shortstop to ever do that, and he is also on the brink of breaking Jeter's single-season franchise record for homers by a shortstop after hitting his 24th long ball over the weekend.
What's most interesting, however, is the manner in which Gregorius has accomplished this feat during the 2017 campaign.
Changes in His Batted-Ball Profile
Since 2015, Gregorius has made the usual adjustments we'd typically see from a position player who continues forming his offensive approach. And like many players in today's game, he's joined the fly-ball revolution. What is a little different, though, is how his quality of contact has changed during this period of time.
The below table shows how his line-drive rate (LD%), ground-ball rate (GB%), fly-ball rate (FB%), soft-hit rate (Soft%), medium-hit rate (Med%), and hard-hit rate (Hard%) have changed since he began donning pinstripes.
If Gregorius keeps pace with that 22.8% hard-hit rate, it would be his second lowest single-season mark, while that 24.9% soft-hit rate is easily on pace to be his highest. That's not how you'd expect someone to go about having the most powerful season of their big league career, now is it?
But as we've seen in certain instances, a player's overall batted-ball profile may not tell the whole story. Texas Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus is the perfect example of that by making the most of the fly balls he's hit this season. We can't use that explanation for Gregorius, though.
After posting a 23.3% soft-hit rate and 28.0% hard-hit rate on fly balls in 2016 -- leading to a 65 wRC+ and .344 ISO -- those numbers have gotten worse (27.4% and 24.2%, respectively), yet he's still seen drastically better results (112 wRC+ and .435 ISO). With regard to his performance on fly balls, his change in pull rate is one area that has improved quite a bit, as it's gone from 21.2% in 2016 all the way up to 31.6% so far in 2017.
He has pulled all of his 24 homers, so that can potentially help explain the rise in his power output.
Can't Blame it on Yankee Stadium
The next logical thought just about anyone would have when dissecting this issue is Yankee Stadium. We already established that Gregorius is pulling the ball with a lot more frequency, but his home park is also a homer-hitting haven for left-handed hitters, so it has to be that, right?
Gregorius has collected 29 more plate appearances on the road than at home, but 13 of his 24 homers have taken place away from Yankee Stadium. He's actually been a much better hitter on the road (141 wRC+) than at home (83 wRC+), with his overall power also following that trend (.216 ISO on the road, .183 at home).
So, we can't just point to Yankee Stadium -- even though it is a launching pad for offense -- and say that's the reason behind such an odd power surge.
Joining a Rare Club
If you're thinking that what Gregorius is currently on track to accomplish is rare, you're right. Since the 2002 season, there have been just five instances of a player accumulating 400-plus plate appearances and hitting at least 20 home runs while producing a hard-hit rate below 25.0% and a soft-hit rate above 20.0%. Those hitters include Joe Crede and Rod Barajas in 2005, Edwin Encarnacion in 2008, Johnny Damon in 2009, and Jhonny Peralta in 2011.
Gregorius is not only on track to join this club, but he may also form an even rarer group with Encarnacion. Unless something drastic changes over the last two weeks of the regular season -- which isn't likely at this point -- these two will be the only players during this period of time to hit 20-plus homers in a season despite having their soft-hit rate climb higher than their hard-hit rate.
It certainly isn't in the manner that we'd expect it to happen, but Gregorius has found a way to unleash his power while also becoming a better overall hitter during his tenure in the Bronx. And while it's impossible for anyone to forget Jeter, Didi's combination of improving offense and mostly solid defense has made it a seamless transition with regard to on-field production.