Didi Gregorius' biggest challenge as a baseball player this season won't be trying to follow in the footsteps of a future first-ballot Hall of Famer. That's a storyline for the mass media to hype and write about it, and Gregorius knows himself that he can't replace the Yankee shortstop legend.
“What Jeter did, nobody else is going to do that," he told reporters during the first week of spring training. "If they compare me to Jeter, there’s nothing I can do."
The most daunting task he's going to face come April will be whether he can hit left-handed pitching and show Joe Girardi that he is capable of being the Yankees everyday shortstop.
Gregorius' career stats against southpaws are ugly. He is one of 105 left-handed batters with at least 150 plate appearances against lefties since his debut in 2012. Here's how he ranks among this group:
GREGORIUS vs LHP, RANKS AMONG LHB SINCE 2012**
|BA||OBP||Slug pct||OPS||Miss Pct||K Pct|
**Min. 150 PA (out of 105 batters)
When we look further at how he has performed against lefties compared to against righties during his career, the biggest things that jump out are the high strikeout and swing-and-miss rates.
GREGORIUS L/R SPLITS, CAREER
|BA||OBP||Slug pct||OPS||K pct||BB pct||Miss pct|
Along with the lack of contact and inability to put the ball in play, his power outage against lefties is another black hole in his resume. He's yet to hit a homer versus a southpaw, and he has just seven extra-base hits (six doubles, one triple) in 163 at-bats.
Okay, so we've established that he's pretty horrible when he comes to the plate and doesn't have the platoon advantage. We can't change the past, but we can look ahead to the future...
The Glass is Half-Full Rather than dig deeper into his struggles (it's hardly a surprise that he can't hit breaking balls away), let's instead focus on some positives about his performance against lefties – and how they might translate into improved numbers for him this season.
One of the more optimistic trends is that Gregorius has shown pretty good plate discipline versus left-handed pitching. His career walk rates are virtually the same regardless of the platoon split (see chart above), and his 7.2 percent mark against lefties is roughly league-average for a left-handed batter vs a left-handed pitcher (7.3).
He also chases fewer pitches out of the zone against lefties (26.5 percent) than he does against righties (29.0), and his rate of called strikes against lefties (25.4 percent) is better than against righties (29.8).
Another encouraging sign is that when Gregorius makes contact against lefties, he actually hits it pretty hard. According to video review by Inside Edge scouts, 19.3 percent of all the balls he put in play against southpaws during his career have been characterized as “hard-hit”, a tick below the average of 20 percent for lefty swingers.
And that number was even better during 2014, when his hard-hit rate on contact vs lefties was a whopping 26.3 percent. For context, that's basically the same mark that David Ortiz (26.8 percent) put up last season. So why did Ortiz crush southpaws (.544 slugging percentage) last year while Gregorius barely made a dent (.196)?
We know that Gregorius appears to be able to discern good pitches from bad pitches, and that he can hit the ball with a solid stroke –- two traits that indicate he's capable of producing above-average numbers when facing a lefty. However, the fact remains that his poor contact rate is really holding him back in terms of him reaching his full potential against left-handed pitchers.
If Gregorius can learn to consistently put the bat to the ball (whether it's better swing mechanics or something else), he has the chance to really improve his numbers against same-sided pitchers and cement his place in the lineup as the everyday shortstop for the Yankees next season. It seems like the new Yankee hitting coaches have their first project!