The big story with the New York Yankees going into this season was the offense. A power-heavy lineup in a power-friendly ballpark—a lineup that hit more home runs than any other team in baseball last season—now featuring Giancarlo Stanton. Domination was expected of this team, and while their vaunted bullpen has stumbled out of the gate somewhat, the lineup has been pretty much the powerhouse that one would have expected it to be. The Yankees lead baseball in home runs, runs scored, and team OPS. They rank fifth in team batting average, and only the Cubs and the surprising Oakland A’s get on base more. While the team may have underperformed to this point in other areas, they have not been lacking on the batting side.
But the leader of this sterling offensive effort isn’t any of the players you would have anticipated. It is not Stanton, whose struggles to begin his Yankee career have been well-documented. Nor is it Gary Sanchez who, though his monstrous first half-season in 2016 was not too long ago, has endured a similarly unfortunate start to the season as Stanton. It’s not even Aaron Judge, who is somehow having an even better start to his season than he did last year.
No, the man who has been at the forefront of the Yankees’ homer-fueled attack so far is a man who, until 2016, had never hit more than nine homers in a season at any level of professional baseball. He has nine already this season. He has homered in four straight games, becoming the first Yankee shortstop ever to do so. He is batting .372 with a 1.303 OPS. He had the biggest home opener in Yankee Stadium history. And yes, he is actually knighted. He is Sir Didi Gregorius, and he has become one of the most delightful players in baseball.
When the Yankees acquired Gregorius from the Diamondbacks in a three-team trade in December 2014, he certainly didn’t appear to be destined for stardom. Gregorius was an above-average shortstop whose batting line had been, both in the minor leagues and in his limited major-league experience, slightly below league average. Keith Law of ESPN, while describing the deal as a no-brainer for the Yankees, said at the time of the trade that Gregorius’s bat had limited upside, showing little patience and little power.
His main calling-card was his pleasant personality and personal diligence, not his talent level, and much of the headlines surrounding after the trade were related to the fact that he had a knighthood. (Gregorius was knighted as part of the 2011 World Cup of Baseball championship-winning Dutch team, who were presented with knighthoods in lieu of prize money.) He was someone who might not turn any heads, but who wouldn’t hurt the Yankees, either on the field or in terms of payroll, as they went through a transitional period.
His biggest value to the team was the vast improvement he represented as a defensive shortstop. Unfortunately for him, the subpar defensive shortstop he was replacing was Derek Jeter. While Jeter’s final two seasons as a Yankee—an injury-shortened 2013 where he batted .190/.288/.254, and a 2014 that was almost equally sad—he was still one of the team’s most beloved players, a superstar, and an essential part of some of the greatest teams in baseball history. “No one will replace Derek Jeter,” Yankees GM Brian Cashman emphasized after the trade that brought Gregorius to New York. When fans saw Gregorius taking the field at short, they didn’t feel the absence of the diminished Jeter they had most recently seen. They felt the absence of the Jeter they had known for almost two decades.
Sure enough, the Yankee faithful showed no patience for Gregorius’s initial struggles, booing him as he batted only .222, showed a lack of confidence and awareness both at the plate and on the basepaths, and made six errors through his first two months with the Yankees. Every time he slipped up, the fans taunted him with calls for the man who he’d replaced.
The expectations inherent in being a Yankee and particularly of immediately filling the vacancy left by an all-time franchise legend were perhaps unreasonably high—especially for someone who had no precedent for greatness. Gregorius, for his part, didn’t seem overly phased, even during the time of his most profound struggles and most intense displeasure from Yankee fans. “I just laugh,” he said in the midst of his rough debut. “There’s nothing I can do. Just got to play the game. That’s all I can do. I want to do better, like (Jeter).”
So he worked to be better. He worked on his defense with Alex Rodriguez. He worked on his plate discipline. He posted endearing drawings of himself on Instagram. The Jeter chants faded away, and by the end of the 2015 season, even with his terrible start, he finished as a well-above replacement level player. He was one of only three Yankees to get a hit in their 3-0 Wild Card loss to the Astros, and he turned two double plays in the same game. In 2016, seemingly out of nowhere, he exploded for 20 home runs, even as the Yankees scuffled, finishing fourth in the AL East.
Then in 2017, everything clicked—career highs in batting average, home runs, OPS, a legendary playoff moment. Everything came together for the Yankees, and Gregorius was at the center of it all—not as a stopgap, or an afterthought, or an underwhelming replacement, but as a vital part of the team’s success in performance and in personality.
It has been said that these recent Yankees represent a new kind of Yankees baseball. Far from the serious, almost mechanical greatness of the dynasty years that came before, these Yankees are energetic and bombastic, full of personality and full of surprises (to the extent that the Yankees being good can be surprising). They are, in a word, fun. And with his charmingly effusive and emoji-laden #StartSpreadingTheNews tweets, his "only happiness and smiles allowed" policy, his propensity for public transit charity, and now electrifying on-field success, nobody represents this new era better than Didi Gregorius.
Right before Gregorius made his poorly-received first appearance in New York, a scout who knew him well said that he would be a great fit for the Yankees: "He's comfortable in his skin, handles failure well. He's just a real easygoing guy. Nothing gets to him. He'll love being in New York and, if people give him a chance, they'll love him."
He was right. Even if they can’t spell his name, they love Didi Gregorius in New York. No one is chanting for Jeter anymore.