There was a smattering of boos for Giancarlo Stanton on Tuesday. That’s how those things go. A gaggle of geese, a murder of crows, and a smattering of boos. It doesn’t have to mean anything. It’s too wordy to yell, “I’m not mad, Giancarlo. I’m just disappointed,” so a quick boo will suffice, and everyone will forget about it the next time he hits a ball that knocks Ganymede out of orbit. This is how it goes for the Yankees and their new, expensive superstars.
Later in the game, almost immediately after the boos, Didi Gregorius got a standing ovation. This is far more interesting to me than a very vocal six percent of Yankee Stadium booing Stanton. This is a way to explain the Yankees. Not just the 2018 Yankees, but everything they’ve represented for the last 23 years. Everything they’ve accomplished and will continue to accomplish. The reason why they’re still the most enviable and loathed team after all these years.
Gregorius is the Yankees, and it’s beautiforrible. Let me explain.
Gregorius is the Yankees because he came around when everything was ending for the franchise. What goes up must come down, and the Yankees were finally, finally, finally going to stumble into a dark rebuilding period. Alex Rodriguez was a million years old. Mark Teixeira was busted. Jacoby Ellsbury was a bad idea. The most important part might have been Derek Jeter retiring. Not because he was still so very valuable — he wasn’t — but because it was a reminder that after nearly two decades, they weren’t going to have one of the best shortstops in baseball every year. That built-in annual advantage had expired.
So the Yankees had to get a new shortstop.
Here’s what they found: A 25-year-old glove-first shortstop who hit .226 with a .290 on-base percentage the year before. This was their answer to a Hall of Famer being devoured by old, and the internet wasn’t so sure about it.
@YankeesWFAN Cashman has known that Jeter was nearing the end. Its fireable he had no one in the pipeline and has to resort to Gregorius.— Eric Girard (@ericpgirard) December 5, 2014
Here was a Pinstripe Alley headline in May, 2015:
Should the Yankees already regret the Didi Gregorius trade?
Gregorius was hitting .200 and the Yankees had injuries in the rotation, which meant they were really missing Shane Greene. It was a rocky start for the post-Jeter era.
Cut to three years later, and Gregorius is an established and respected two-way shortstop. More than that, he’s a slugging shortstop. Compare this new reality to some of his Baseball America writeups from the past.
Scouts are divided on Gregorius’ bat. Some think he could end up as a No. 2 hitter, while others think he’ll fit at the bottom of a lineup.
While he made strides with his plate discipline this year, he’s overly aggressive and just a fringy runner, so he projects to hit in the lower third of an order.
His career 724 OPS in the minors is completely stereotypical for a glove-first shortstop prospect, and when the Yankees acquired him, he was making good on that promise with the Diamondbacks, hitting like a Brendan Ryan, but fielding like a Brendan Ryan. It was as if the Yankees were tired of years and years of jump throws from deep short and limited range, so they made a point to overcorrect.
That’s not what happened, though, and it’s another example of what separates the Yankees from most teams. Go through the steps of turning Didi Gregorius into a human standing ovation:
Step 1: Recognize that a player is undervalued and has untapped potential
It’s not as if Gregorius was without trade value. Lots of teams appreciated his tools, and he was highly thought of as a buy-low candidate. But it took the Yankees coming over the top with a young, cost-controlled pitcher who had already proven his worth in the major leagues to get a trade done. Greene was highly thought of back then — enough that the Tigers preferred him to Robbie Ray — and he had a fine season last year, too. The Yankees were willing to give that up because they believed in Gregorious’ chances to be something more than Brendan Ryan.
They were right. This is what the Yankees are great at, the underrated component to their success. The money and ability to casually slip Giancarlo Stanton into the lineup is the obvious pillar holding up the whole enterprise, and their ability to develop super-duper stars is what’s powering them now, but their ability to spot diamonds in the rough is just as important. They did it with Aaron Hicks and Adam Warren (twice!), and they did it with Bartolo Colon and Freddy Garcia at exactly the right time. They’ll do it for two or three players taking up roster spots every year, and sometimes they’ll do it with a foundational player.
In this case, they did it with a player who was an unremarkable glove-first shortstop who would rack up the dWAR and nothing else.
Step 2: Fix the player and/or weaponize him using secret, spooky Yankees’ tactics
If the Tigers traded Ray straight up for Gregorius and sent Jose Iglesias away, would Gregorius be as valuable today? Possibly.
I’m gonna err on the side of “nope,” however. It’s not just Yankee Stadium that’s a fit for Gregorius. It’s the entire Yankees’ franchise. There are failures sprinkled in (Chris Carter and Ike Davis, to name two), so it’s not like they can wave a wand over everyone and make them True Yankees.
But they can scout the players. They can identify ways to improve them. They can implement the improvements. It’s how Aaron Judge went from a bottom-tier prospect on the top-100 list, mostly because he came with preinstalled power that was hard to find, to a complete hitter. It’s how Gary Sanchez is hitting more homers in the majors than he ever did in the minors.
Is it a talisman the Yankees make them wear? Do they have to swallow one of Lou Gehrig’s exhumed teeth in a secret ritual? Or do they just employ smart people who are just a little better at their job than a lot of their peers. Probably the latter, but don’t rule out the rituals. My book on the Freemason symbols embedded throughout the new Yankee Stadium will be self-published because of cowards in and around the publishing industry, but it will still be shocking.
They’re probably just better at taking Didi Gregorius coal and turning it into Didi Gregorius diamonds, though.
We’ve gone over this before, and we’ll go over this again. Yankees players tend to exceed expectations, and they’ve done this for decades. It’s how they can maintain an admirable farm system without picking in the first round of every draft, and it’s how they were always able to stay over .500, even in the leaner years. It’s always safe to assume they’ll do just a little better than expected, and none of this is new.
It’s still worth repeating with every relevant example, though. Here’s Didi Gregorius, who didn’t have to be better than Darwin Barney. Here he is, much better than the Yankees should have hoped for.
They get a lot of those. We are all Vince Vaughn in Anchorman, and there’s nothing we can do about it.