Wednesday, December 12, 2012

2013 Top Prospect List: #5 Didi Gregorius, ss

MARIEKSON "DIDI" GREGORIUS
DOB: 2/18/1990
HEIGHT 6-1, WEIGHT 185, B/T: L/R
Courtesy: MILB.com

Evaluating prospects requires balancing projected ceiling with the probability of reaching it. Didi is a pure probability play. He doesn't have the projected ceiling to be an impact offensive player, but his defense, when coupled with declining performance baselines for MLB shortstops, makes him a high probability prospect. The days of Larkin, Jeter, A-Rod, Nomar, and other well rounded players patrolling the 6 position are over, which once again gives rise to the legitimacy of relying on defensive minded shortstops, like Didi Gregorius. 

The Reds organization has done a tremendous job of rebuilding both their amateur and international scouting capabilities after Marge Schott eviscerated the scouting budget to save a few dollars. Recently, the organization made aggressive, and expensive, international free agent signings of outfielders Yorman Rodriguez and Juan Duran, but they are getting much better returns on the unheralded, and massively less expensive, signings of Johnny Cueto and Didi Gregorius. The Reds signed Didi out of Curacao for a paltry $50,000 back in 2007, a prime example of both the type of value signings that exist only in Latin America and the absolute importance of smaller market teams being active in the international market.

As MLB salaries continue to escalate, the potential return on investment with the Latin America players is just too high to ignore, especially since the newly implemented MLB rules put a cap on signing bonuses for international free agents, ensuring that international signing bonuses won't increase at the same rate as MLB free agent contracts. So, the value of these signings will continue into the foreseeable future. Organizations just to have to use their allocated international budget wisely, selecting the right players to bring into the organization.  

Part of what made Didi intriguing was his athletic bloodlines, as his father and brother both played professional baseball internationally. Didi himself spent some time on the international stage, holding down the shortstop position for the World Cup winning Dutch national team. 

Didi arrived in the organization with little fanfare, but with a solid bundle of skills and abilities that he would soon put on display.  



2012 SEASON

Didi started out the season at double-A Pensacola. For the Blue Wahoos, Didi hit .278/.344/.373/.717 with 11/8/1 2b/3b/HR, 49/29 K/BB ratio, and 3 steals in 7 attempts over 316 ABs and 81 games. He hit line drives at an 18% clip. Didi's performance earned him a promotion to triple-A Louisville.

For the Bats, Didi posted a .243/.288/.427/.715 slash line with 10/3/6 2b/3b/HR, 31/12 K/BB, and 0 steals in 2 attempts. He hit line drives at a 21% clip and impressed the organization enough to earn a late season promotion to the majors.

For the Reds, Didi logged 20 ABs, posting a slash line of .300/.286/.300/.586 with 5 strikeouts against 0 walks. He hit line drives at a 13.3% clip, swung a very aggressive 59.7% of the time, saw only 3.19 pitches per plate appearance, and 41.2% of the pitches at which he swung were outside the strike zone. His time at the big league level was indicative of his aggressive, early-count hitting approach. 

Didi finished out an extended 2012 season with a spin around the Arizona Fall League, posting a .284/.333/.392/.725 with 3/1/1 2b/3b/HR, 4/6 K/BB ratio, and 2 steals in 3 attempts over 74 ABs and 20 games. His performance level was a bit disappointing given that the AFL is such a hitter friendly environment, but it was at the tail end of a long season, so fatigue was likely a factor. 

Throughout his 2012 season, Didi's slash line was fairly consistent, continually exhibiting limited on-base skill and power production.  



SWING MECHANICS

At the plate, Didi utilizes a significantly wider than shoulder-width stance and a vertical bat waggle. As the pitcher sets to deliver, Didi utilizes a two-step stride, drawing his foot back, landing with a toe tap, before striding forward to meet the ball. The first step of the stride triggers a hitch to drop his hands down from up by his left ear and back into hitting position. As he strides forward, he transfers his weight forward, which triggers the swing. Didi gets good extension out through the pitch and uses a two-handed follow-through the finish of his swing, which brings the benefit of increased bat control and balance. Didi maintains good balance throughout his swing, but also doesn't generate that much force that has to be kept under control.

One of the consequence of Didi starting from a wide spread position that gets even wider through his stride is that he struggles to incorporate his lower body into his swing. The obvious problem that creates is in power production, as power in the swing is generated substantially by the core, specifically the rotation of the hips. Didi doesn't effectively cock his hips to generate load for his swing. As a result, he has minimal potential energy stored to unleash through his hip rotation. Further, his foundation is so wide and his swing so driven by the upper body that he doesn't always execute a full and complete weight transfer, seemingly hitting off his back leg like Mark Teixeira (...without the power). His limited hip rotation means he doesn't generate enough force to drive his lower body into proper hitting position by rotating up onto the toe of his back foot. Another issue that occasionally plagues his swing is that he doesn't consistently hit against a firm front leg, rather his front knee has a tendency to leak forward toward the pitcher (a much less extreme version of Dustin Ackley's problem). Instead of a firm front leg, his knee has the occasional tendency to bow out towards the pitcher, making effective hip rotation even more difficult, as this position frequently leads to the hips sliding forward towards the pitcher. Hitters need a firm front leg as an anchor around which the momentum can rotate.

As a result of his inconsistent, inefficient lower body action, Didi fails to both build and unleash force in the swing. This lack of rotational momentum leaves Didi with an underpowered upper body and arm swing.

Here's a look at Didi in action, courtesy of MetsgeekTV on YouTube: 






While Didi struggles to consistently incorporate his lower body into the swing, at times he also seems to extend his arms too early in the swing, further limiting his ability to drive the ball. As a hitter, you want to stay as compact as possible, keeping your hands in close to your body until you fire the swing. The main reason relates to the generation of force, as the rotational energy of the body imparts greater force to the swing if the hands are in closer to the body. The best example as to why was offered up by Chris O'Leary (and it's so good and drives home the point so effectively that I have to give him full credit): spinning figure skaters. If you watch a figure skater spin, they rotate much faster with their arms in close to the body than they do when they extend their arms out away from the body.


Courtesy: Unknown




It's the same principle in hitting, the rotation of the body imparts more force to the swing when the hands are kept in close to the body until extension is needed. If the arms extend too early in the swing, then they slow down the rotation of the body. Didi occasionally gets extended too early, reaching for the ball due in part to limited lower body action, as evidenced in the photo below (note: arms extended too early, slight drift of the front knee towards the pitcher, not rotating up onto the back toe):


Courtesy: Unknown
    
While I have largely focused on the red flags in his swing mechanics, he does have the ability to do it right (see photo below and note: firm front leg, stronger hip rotation improving the drive of the body up onto toe of back foot, though it still happens too late). He's just inconsistent. If he can refine his swing mechanics, then the chances of sustainable success against MLB pitching will improve. If he continues to utilize a largely upper body swing, then he can still be an effective contact hitter. A high contact rate is the key to batting average and typically generates singles at a high rate. And, given his defensive position and skills, a high batting average would be enough to cement his status as an MLB starter. But, he'll need to be able to drive the ball consistently in order to develop into more than just a bottom of the order, glove-first player.


Courtesy: Alan Diaz/AP

While Didi's swing mechanics effectively limit his power, his hitting approach limits his ability to get on-base. At the plate, Didi uses a very aggressive, early-count approach, which limits both strikeouts and walks. A hitter has to see at least 3 pitches in order to strikeout and 4 pitches in order to draw a walk, so any hitter who consistently forces early outcomes to his At Bats will limit both of those outcomes.

The clear problem with this type of approach is that it leaves the hitter with a batting average driven OBP. And, if a player has limited base stealing ability and minimal power, then the early-count approach means the value of his entire offensive game is predicated on an empty batting average.

On the plus side, Didi does exhibit good pitch recognition, allowing him to identify the pitch before making the swing/no-swing decision and reducing the number of times he gets fooled. He also has good hand-eye coordination, enabling him to get the barrel of the bat on the ball and increasing his contact rate. All factors that could enable him to post a solid batting average at the MLB level.

Didi's lack of power precludes him from hitting in the middle third of the order. His limited on-base and stolen base ability will make it difficult for him to be an effective table-setter, though the standards for a second place hitter seem to have fallen over the years. So, Didi will likely hit 2nd, 7th, or 8th, to be determined by the height of his batting average. If Didi can hit for a good average, then his contact skills and batting average driven OBP will slot in nicely in the 2nd spot in the order. If not, then he will bring nothing but an empty batting average to the 7th or 8th slots in the order.  


DEFENSE AND POSITIONAL VALUE 

Gregorius is likely to be a glove-first player for his entire career, a comment on both his offense and his defense. His defensive skills are built on quickness, athleticism, and body control. Gregorius moves very well laterally and has good first step quickness, enabling him to cover a lot of ground. His body control also him to make the acrobatic plays and get to his feet (or whatever position needed) to throw accurately and complete the play.

Didi's best tool is his arm, which allows him to convert a good percentage of those far ranging plays into outs. He can make the plays from deep in the hole because both his arm strength and accuracy are strong. On the downside, Didi still struggles with his hands, as he doesn't cleanly field as many balls as he should. He needs to refine his fielding actions and soften his hands in order to reduce his error totals. Overall, there is a great deal to like about his defensive skills.  

Here is a look at Didi's athleticism, body control, and arm strength, courtesy of MILB.com:   





And, here's another look at his range and body control, courtesy of MLB.com:







Finally, here's a look at Didi's range and arm, courtesy of MLB.com:





Overall, Didi has the tools and skills necessary to be an above average defensive shortstop at the MLB level. I don't see him as being an elite, impact player with the glove (in the Ozzie Smith, Adam Everett mold), but he can legitimately handle the position and could be better than average. For a point of reference, I would rank recent Reds shortstops, based solely on defensive ability, as follows:

Paul Janish > Zack Cozart > Didi Gregorius

All three are, or have the ability to be, above average at the position. For me, Janish is the best combination of range, arm, and hands. Cozart has the best hands, giving him the advantage on the chances he reaches, but falls a tick short of Janish in range and quite a bit short in arm strength. As for Didi, he has good arm strength and range, but not the best hands.

While Didi's value is driven by his defensive tools, he also gets a big boost from the watered down shortstop position at the MLB level. Simply put, there is a real scarcity of legitimate options at the shortstop position. Whether that's merely cyclical, spurred on by new revelations and advances in defensive metrics, or driven by the crack down on IPED usage, shortstop isn't quite the offensive position it used to be. There are still a few impact hitters around, but both the quantity and quality of shortstops seems to be in a down cycle. And, ultimately, scarcity drives value.  



FINAL THOUGHTS

At the beginning of the offseason GM Walt Jocketty proclaimed that the Reds weren't trading Didi. After I had already started working on this write-up, Jocketty wisely changed course and traded Didi. The merits of the trade itself are best left for another post, but it was clear that Didi represented surplus talent. And, smaller market organizations like the Reds, who are in win-now mode, don't have the luxury of surplus assets. If the Reds are going to get over the hump, then they need to throw everything they have into productivity at the MLB level.

It came down to who was the better option for the Reds: Zack Cozart or Didi Gregorius. For me, they chose wisely. Didi is a flashier player, but his limited current offensive production and lack of further projection to his game made Cozart the better choice. Cozart is not only a very capable defender at shortstop, but he also provides solid pop (even if GABP aided), a combination which simply makes him more valuable and reliable than Didi. Cozart's presence and the limited offensive projection to Didi's game made him more valuable to the Reds in trade than between the lines.

In the end, Didi has a chance to be a legitimate MLB starting shortstop, but his position on this list has more to do with positional scarcity than the quality of the aggregate production he is likely to provide. Overall, I much prefer Zach Cozart and have significant questions about Didi's hit tool. That said, 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, a fact which lands him at #5 on this list.   

4 comments:

  1. I'll take Gregorius over Cozart going forward, hands down. Better speed, greater range, just an altogether better athlete, but perhaps most importantly....he bats from the left side. Left-handed hitting shortstops with great defense are a rare commodity in this game.
    Furthermore, I think you are under-selling Didi's project-ability for an improved swing, thus power. He has the frame for improvement and I wouldn't be surprised if he someday exceeds Cozart's single season SLG high-water mark.

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  2. Hey Wander,

    I would agree that Didi is a better athlete, but I think Cozart is, and will continue to be, a better player. Didi has good speed, but how effective is he in translating it into production? At this point, does it elevate his offensive game at all???

    I rated him 5th overall, so it's not like I don't see value in what he provides. I do have concerns about his swing mechanics, but he does do it right on occasion. It's possible he can refine his mechanics, but it's not going to be easy to do against MLB pitching. If he doesn't drive the ball more consistently, then he is, at best, an empty batting average hitter who provides little power or speed.

    As for hitting left-handed being a point in his favor, I've seen that cited in several other places, but I largely discounted it. I care more about his ability to hit than the side of the plate from which he does it. I just don't understand how his lefthandedness is a significant plus. Sure, there are a higher percentage of righthanded pitchers, but he still needs to hit, which is what's in question.

    Anyway, time will tell if you're right. Thanks for the comment!

    Best,
    Lark

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  3. What happens to the rankings now that Didi is a D-Back?

    ReplyDelete
  4. Anon,

    Well, everyone would just move up a slot. Trades after the list is already underway are one of the challenges. I had already put in all the research and the write-up was basically complete when the rumors began to circulate that he had been traded. If I hadn't already done all the work, I wouldn't have included him, but since it was already basically done I decided to keep him in the rankings.

    Even if he's no longer in the organization, the write-up still felt relevant because of questions regarding what we were giving up and what type of value he would likely bring to the organization.

    Anyway, thanks for the comment!

    Best,
    Lark

    ReplyDelete