Why Didi Gregorius is the Best Shortstop Fit for the Twins
Image courtesy of © Eric Hartline-USA TODAY SportsGregorius, who will turn 31 next month, has always made contact at an excellent rate. Ever since he joined the Yankees in 2015, though, he’s demonstrated the further ability to consistently lift the ball to the pull field. Since the start of 2018, in fact, 18.5 percent of Gregorius’s batted balls have been pulled fly balls or line drives. That’s the same percentage as noteworthy sluggers like Justin Turner and Max Muncy. It’s a hair ahead of defending AL home-run champion Luke Voit and erstwhile Twin Aaron Hicks, and a bit further ahead of the man whom Gregorius would displace, if he signs with Minnesota: Jorge Polanco.
Only 17.4 percent of Marcus Semien’s batted balls over the last three years have been pulled liners or flies. For Andrelton Simmons, the figure is 14.0 percent. Semien, on balance, has the most upside in the set, and Simmons (if healthy) offers the surest defensive improvement over Polanco, whose defensive shortcomings are the best reason why the team might opt to move on. Gregorius, though, has a skill set the Twins prize as much as any team in baseball. Over the same three seasons, only the Astros have (narrowly) generated pulled balls in the air at a higher rate than Minnesota has. Gregorius would fit what this team likes to do.
He did change in 2020—or, just as plausibly, was changed, by a new home park, new coaches, and the alien experience of pandemic-ball. He hit the ball much less hard, on average, than he has in the past, and that does raise some concern.
However, Gregorius also made two significant adjustments well-suited both to his skill set and to the Twins’ program. He was less aggressive on the first pitch, which gave him more chances to see pitches and get something he could handle, and he pulled the ball more, without rolling over and hitting on the ground more often.
It’s important to remain cognizant of Gregorius’s weaknesses, and of his medium-term projectability. Since the league expanded to 28 teams in 1993 (and then to 30 in 1998), there have been at least four qualifying shortstops aged 30 or older in every season but three: 2018, 2019, and 2020. In those three campaigns, the only 30-plus shortstops to qualify for the batting title are Brandon Crawford (three times), Elvis Andrus, Nick Ahmed, Miguel Rojas, and Gregorius. The league is getting younger all the time, and that’s especially true at the most demanding defensive positions on the diamond.
In addition to having time working against him on a broad, physical level, Gregorius relies more than other players (though not much, if at all, more than Semien or Simmons) on making contact with pitches outside the strike zone. That skill does not age well. If Gregorius doesn’t make up for declining contact rates with improved power and plate discipline, he’s likely to experience a pretty sharp offensive decline as he moves toward his mid-30s.
Taken together, those factors make it most appealing to sign Gregorius to a short-term deal. That suits the Twins fine. With Royce Lewis on the way, a two-year deal should bridge the gap nicely, and if the Twins added a third-year vesting option, Gregorius would leap at the right offer. The annual average value on such a deal would likely be fairly high, but for what Gregorius does and the way he fits the team, it could be well worth it.
No, he doesn’t bat right-handed, and yes, the team would still need to add a player like Nelson Cruz or Marcell Ozuna after signing him, but Gregorius would solve multiple on-field problems, and would be a superb addition to the team’s very international, ever-evolving clubhouse culture. He’s the right investment, unless one of the elite shortstops a year from free agency is available in trade for much less than is currently believed.
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