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Jarrell: Didi Gregorius and a Looming Decision

Every now and then, a cliché is just too good to pass up. “There will be a time,” says Albus Dumbledore in Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire, “when we must choose between what is easy and what is right.” It is such a juncture at which the 2019 Yankees currently find themselves, facing a difficult gauntlet in the American League playoffs that will put their magical season to the test – one that unfortunately and unhappily involves a player whom I posit merits consideration for the role of captain.

The starting lineup is finally approaching some semblance of full strength, with 2018 stalwarts knocking on the door of positions surprisingly and heroically filled to this point in the season, and difficult decisions will have to be made come next Friday. Perhaps the most gut-wrenching is this: the batting order that gives the Yankees the best chance of winning the World Series doesn’t include Didi Gregorius

New York Yankees’ Didi Gregorius celebrates his solo home run in the seventh inning of a baseball game against the Detroit Tigers in Detroit, Tuesday, Sept. 10, 2019. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Let’s start with a few baseline assumptions. The outfield depth heralded all year long as a strength of the team has whittled away to practically nothing, but the Yankees are still in good shape. Giancarlo Stanton, Brett Gardner, and Aaron Judge, an absolute unit of an outfield trio that’s completely healthy for the first time in 2019, gives the team an edge both offensively and defensively. After locking that in and moving to the infield, the decisions become more challenging. Assuming he’s healthy in time, Gary Sánchez will catch. An obvious stipulation is that Gleyber Torres and Yankees MVP DJ LeMahieu must start; I also contend that Edwin Encarnación (129 wRC+, solid defense) warrants everyday inclusion.

Moving on to the second tier, the Yankees have Gio Urshela, Gregorius, and Luke Voit vying for one position plus the DH role. Here’s where things get tricky. Urshela has slumped during the month of September, hitting below the Mendoza line, but there’s reason to believe the downturn is partially the result of bad luck: Gio’s batting average on balls in play is a paltry .206 and his hard-hit rate, while below his May and August seasonal peaks, hasn’t exactly tanked. He was also forced to miss time with a groin injury earlier this month. Given the body of work this season, Urshela should be starting in the playoffs. He’s had an incredible year, his numbers are backed by quality of contact (76th percentile in xwOBA), and he plays a sure-handed third base. He has to be in there. Voit has also had a relatively hard time since his return from the IL, hitting just .230 in September, but he’s still managed to produce runs at an above-average rate during that span. He held the lineup together earlier this year when other big boppers were down, and his 92nd-percentile barrel rate and 94th-percentile walk rate on the season make it difficult to sit him. Given Encarnación’s heavily superior glove, you’d have to assume the Yankees would pencil Voit in at DH.

Gregorius is the odd one out. To put it plainly, he hasn’t hit at all this season. He’s slashing .243/.283/.453 for a wRC+ of 88 (12 percent below league average). His strikeout rate of 15.5 percent is the highest mark of his Yankees career, and his walk rate is down three percentage points from last season. He doesn’t command any matchups, hitting for a wRC+ of 88 against righties and 87 against lefties. In fairness, he got started late after recovering from a serious injury, but he’s had half the season to round back into form, and it just hasn’t happened. He plays a good defensive short, but per the advanced metrics, he’s been worse there than Torres (-6 DRS to Torres’ zero in roughly the same number of innings). An infield without Gregorius allows LeMahieu to play second, his strongest position this season (6 DRS at second, 2 at third, zero at first). It allows Torres to play short, where he’s been better defensively than at second, per both the eye test and the metrics. It shoehorns Urshela into the order, and it makes room for the presence of both Encarnación and Voit. Along with Sánchez, Stanton, Gardner, and Judge, this is the optimal Yankees lineup, well-rounded on both sides of the ball. Emotional attachments aside, it’s the lineup they sd.hould go with in Game 1 of the ALDS.

  1. D.J. LeMahieu 2B
  2. Aaron Judge RF
  3. Giancarlo Stanton LF
  4. Gary Sánchez C
  5. Edwin Encarnación 1B
  6. Gleyber Torres SS
  7. Luke Voit DH
  8. Gio Urshela 3B
  9. Brett Gardner CF

I love Didi Gregorius. He’s an excellent baseball player – and I firmly believe he’s a better player than his 2019 numbers suggest. Perhaps it was the abbreviated season that slowed him down, and he’ll bounce right back to the Gregorius we know and love next year. He’s an absolute joy of a human being, he’s clearly a leader in the clubhouse, and he’s become a fan favorite both on Twitter and off. The rebuild does not proceed as quickly and efficiently without him; the Yankees aren’t one of the best teams in baseball three short years after a total teardown without him. Though there are other pressing issues to be addressed, I sincerely hope he’s offered a respectable contract this offseason and he remains in pinstripes in 2020. 

But this is a simple question about maximizing the chances of winning the World Series this October. Depth is a great problem to have, and the simple numbers indicate that someone important isn’t going to play every day. No matter who that someone is, the Yankees will be in a good position to accomplish their goal. The easy choice includes an indispensable cog of the last five years in the starting nine, but the right choice may not be the same.

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