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Didi, Part 2: The Pro

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This is the second and final part of two articles dedicated to Didi Gregorius in which I take a look at his pro career and softly address how his character might have helped him achieving success.

Arizona Diamondbacks v Los Angeles Dodgers Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

In the first part we wrote about Didi’s background. In this article we take a look at his professional career.

Didi is waiting for the opportunity to play pro ball and that opportunity is given to him by Jim Stoeckel. At the age of 17 Mariekson Gregorius is signed by the Cincinnati Reds. Reds scout Jim Stoeckel, who would eventually manage the Dutch national baseball team during three stints, sees Didi working out in The Netherlands in a tournament for teams from the entire Kingdom. According to a Dutch baseball site Didi pitches twelve scoreless innings and gets the best pitcher award for it while also batting a .304 average:

He saw the Gregorius name on the Curaçao roster. “Is he any relation to Didi?” Stoeckel asked one of the Dutch officials. “That’s his son”, came the reply.

- Storytelling about the scouting of Didi Gregorius by Jim Stoeckel, article from mlb.com, May 1, 2018 (English)

Jim Stoeckel knows Didi Gregorius Sr. from his first stint as manager of the Dutch team in the 1980s where he had him rostered as a pitcher. After a private showcase and thanks to his personal connection to the family, the American is able to convince Didi’s parents: he and executive Terry Reynolds promise to bring Didi Gregorius to Instructional League in Florida and for a $50,000 bonus. Didi signs as a Red at the age of 17.

It was in the Instructional League after we signed him and he was young and agile, very athletic and a laid-back kid. He had the tools, a little skinny but you could see by his actions he had room to grow. And he played with a little flare. He had energy and you could tell he loved to play.

- Former Reds GM Wayne Krivsky in an article on nypost.com about seeing Gregorius play in 2007, July 10, 2016 (English)

As a pitcher Didi apparently reached 90-92 mph on his fastball, but scouts mostly see Didi Gregorius’ as a shortstop because of his great reach, quickness and especially his strong arm. His first steps as a professional baseball player is for the Gulf Coast League Reds in 2008, now known as the Arizona League Reds. A Reds minor league website mentions:

As for position players I have to say that Gregorius, Kuo and Lutz top that list. All were well noted international signings with 6 figure bonuses.

- Doug Gray, owner and operator of redsminorleagues.com, in an article on the 2008 GCL Reds roster, June 19, 2008 (English)

His first year however is not great. Probably the adaption to a new environment, playing on grass, better competition are factors why Gregorius struggles to a .155 BA in his first pro season. Gregorius is an aggressive hitter: he does not walk much, he does not strike out much but is not very patient either. His first pro season is also heavily influenced by a very low BABIP. Failure and success are constant factors in Didi’s minor league seasons. Every time he is promoted he struggles with the batting, but the Reds minor league system maintains its confidence in a shortstop who is considered defensively as “above average”. Perhaps one of the other reasons Gregorius is able to keep afloat is his attitude:

[...] he could handle failure. He’d go 0-for-4 and come in smiling the next day. He has a short memory, and he lives to play baseball.

- Storytelling about the attitude of Didi Gregorius by Jim Stoeckel, article from mlb.com, May 1, 2018 (English)

Hardly a power bat and with a lack of speed on the bases to become a base stealing force, at least the defensive capabilities stand out to make up for the very average bat. However, Didi Gregorius steadily moves up in the ranks of the Reds prospects rankings. In 2010, a Reds fanblog mentions: “His career is still in its infancy, but the potential is undeniable.” An other Reds minor leagues website lists him in their prospect rankings as: 23 (2009), 17 (2010), 12 (2011) and 7 (2012). By the time he gets involved in the trade rumour mill in 2012, Barry Larkin on his own baseball blog ranks him as 5 in his prospect list, providing a very detailed analysis of Didi in which stands out.

[...] despite Didi’s limited offensive game, it’s difficult to overlook the probability that he will become a multi-season starting shortstop at the MLB level

- Analysis on Didi Gregorius by Barry Larkin for his 2013 prospect list, article, December 12, 2012 (English)

Trade to Arizona

Larkin’s article was apparently already in the pen when the trade around Gregorius took place. And although there was consensus on various scouting websites that Gregorius would be able to become an MLB regular, none of them repped of a comparison with Derek Jeter, as the late Kevin Towers would justify his trade decision back then. Rather, Reds fans agreed that they traded from a surplus of shortstop options, with Zack Cozart being the preferred option because of the better batting skills and stats. D-backs fans were believed to be furious about the trade. Reading comments from various articles published on the AZSnakePit back then, fans thought the D-backs gave up too much in especially Trevor Bauer.

As expected Didi would start the 2013 season in Triple A, also because of an injury, but soon got a call up after an injury to Aaron Hill. In his first at bat in Yankee Stadium he would hit a homerun and start the season with an unreasonable high batting average and BABIP. Struggling against left handed pitching he would finally end up with a 91 WRC. Steven Burt wrote an interesting trade review piece on Gregorius who, at that time, was favoured because of Trevor Bauer not making an impact in Cleveland.

But heading into 2014 Gregorius is not a lock for the shortstop position. In September 2013 top prospect Chris Owings was called up and makes an impact, creating the first signs of a possible logjam at that position with Owings, Gregorius and Pennington, as analysed perfectly by Jim McLennan in November 2013. Trade away Gregorius? Trade away Owings? Trade away Hill?

Nothing happens and Kevin Towers says to “let them fight it out” in spring training 2014, where eventually neither Gregorius nor Owings make an impact. However, a few games into 2014 and Gregorius loses the starting job to Chris Owings and gets demoted to Reno where he coincides with another interesting shortstop prospect: Nick Ahmed. Apparently the club wants to turn him into a superutility man, but when Chris Owings hits the DL later in the season Gregorius gets called up again. Again, he is not able to leave an impact. The AZSnakePit community is divided over Gregorius and the situation seems to be unsustainable from a baseball point of view.

In 2014 a new front office led by a certain Dave Stewart takes over and is eager to trade away one of its young shortstops to resolve the logjam. The New York Yankees are looking for a young arm with high upside on its shortstop position and in a low-level three team trade it acquires Gregorius as successor to Derek Jeter (Robbie Ray and Domingo Leyba are sent to Arizona from the Tigers).

Although there is now, in 2022, some doubt about his performance and the Yankees decided to let him walk in 2019, Gregorius was quite successful in New York, especially in 2017 and 2018, and one of the fan favourites. It is a remarkable feat for Gregorius, having stepped into the tough task of being Jeter’s successor and finding success with what is probably the biggest baseball club in the world. The reason for his success? Probably his discipline:

Curaçaon Major Leaguers are all disciplined. Especially thanks to their mothers: “the Antillian mothers are the toughest of the entire Carribbean”.

Some Major Leaguers still have to prepare their beds at home when they celebrate their holidays in winter time, others have to do the dishes. Modesty and being down to earth is the basis for a successful sports career [...]: “is the person well developed, than sports has a chance”.

- Norval Faneyte, school principal and baseball coach in an article in newspaper “De Volkskrant”, July 25, 2015 (Dutch)