(Didi Gregorius getting ready to take some swings in the batting cage – Photo by Jason Schott)
When Didi Gregorius came to the Yankees in 2015, he faced the monumental task of replacing Derek Jeter, perhaps the best shortstop in their illustrious history.
Three years later, Gregorius is off to a historic start that has him as an early favorite to achieve something Jeter never did: win Most Valuable Player.
The Yankees acquired last year’s National League MVP in Giancarlo Stanton, and Aaron Judge was the runner-up for American League MVP, while also taking home Rookie of the Year honors.
The thinking was that Stanton or Judge would be the Yankees that could be in the MVP conversation this season, and it is Didi that has gained an early edge on his teammates.
Judge is off to a nice start, with a superb .345 batting average, seven home runs, 17 RBI, .481 on-base percentage, and .655 slugging percentage, while Stanton had a slow start, but is getting it going now, with his average is up 30 points in the past week, to .226, along with five home runs and 15 RBI on the season.
Gregorius is hitting .372, with nine home runs and 29 RBI, .470 on-base percentage, and an .833 slugging percentage.
On Wednesday night, in the Yankees’ 7-4 win over the Twins, their fifth straight win to improve to 14-9, Gregorius went 3-3 with a home run, two RBI, and two walks.
That was Didi’s ninth home run of the season, the second player in the major leagues to reach that number this season, behind the Angels’ Mike Trout with 10. He has now homered in four straight games, starting with a homer Sunday against Toronto and into these three wins against Minnesota.
Gregorius has hit all nine of his home runs at Yankee Stadium, the second Yankee to collect nine homers in a month at the current Stadium, which opened in 2009. Judge is the other one to do it, as he had nine at The Stadium last September.
Didi has now homered in a career-best four consecutive games, and he is the first Yankee to collect at least a home run and two RBI in four straight games at the current Stadium.
To show how Gregorius has quietly become a power hitter, coming a long way from when he had nine home runs in 155 games in 2015. He hit .265 and had 56 RBI in that season as well.
In 2016, Didi stepped it up and launched 20 home runs with 70 RBI, while upping his average to .276 in 153 games.
Last season, he missed April due to an injury he incurred in the World Baseball Classic, yet he put up the best offensive numbers of his career.
Gregorius had 25 home runs and 87 RBI, with a .287 batting average, .318 on-base percentage (same as in 2015), with a .478 slugging percentage, 31 points higher than 2016 and 108 points more than 2015), in 136 games.
His power surge continued into the postseason, when he launched a three-run homer in the bottom of the first inning to tie the wild-card playoff with the Twins, a game the Yankees went on to win 8-4.
In the fifth game of the American League Championship Series, Didi had two home runs against Cleveland ace Corey Kluber to help the Yankees win 5-2 and clinch their first postseason series victory since 2012.
Gregorius’ power has been overshadowed only because of who he shares a lineup with, as Stanton had 59 home runs last season, while Judge had 52. That is not to mention the other power threats the Yankees have in Gary Sanchez and Greg Bird.
What other team in baseball can claim to have five legitimate sluggers?
On most teams, Didi would be the power option and probably lead them in home runs, and the pace he is on, he might lead the Yankees this season.
By comparison, the leading home run hitters for the Boston Red Sox in 2017 were Mookie Betts with 24 homers, followed by Hanley Ramirez with 23.
Gregorius leads the majors with 29 RBI, the most a Yankee has had through 23 games since Alex Rodriguez had 34 RBI to this point in 2007. A-Rod won the MVP that season, his second in three years with the Yankees, as he also won it in 2005.
This is the third-highest April RBI total in franchise history, behind Tino Martinez (34 in 1997), A-Rod (34 in 2007), Tino (29 in 1998), and Dave Winfield (29 in 1988).
Gregorius’ slash line in 15 games at Yankee Stadium this season is .451/.561/1.059 (23-51) with nine homers, 25 RBI, 16 runs scored, four doubles, and 13 walks.
On Wednesday night, Gregorius got an RBI single in the bottom of the first inning, and launched a solo home run in the third to tie the game at 2 in the third.
Later in the third, Tyler Austin hit his fifth home run of the season, a three-run blast to make it 5-2 Yankees.
Austin now has the most home runs by an American League rookie and second-most in the majors behind San Diego’s Christian Villanueva, who has seven dingers this season.
In the fourth, Judge got a sacrifice fly to make it 6-3, and Stanton had a sacrifice fly in the eighth to give them a needed insurance run and make it 7-4 Yankees, which was the final.
The Yankees have cleaned up on this homestand, as they have now won seven out of nine, and the finale is on Thursday afternoon at 1 pm when they look to sweep the Twins in this four-game set.