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Why Didi Gregorius should not start in the playoffs

If you are reading this, it is very likely that you already hate me. Just another nerd trying to take the joy out of baseball, you’ll say. And I don’t blame you. I fully understand the disdain lifelong fans hold for the younger generation such as myself, throwing an “x” in front of already confusing abbreviations and claiming to know the truth.

But I, like you, am a diehard Yankee fan. Though you may believe I have a calculator for a heart, I live and die with every pitch like the rest of you. And I love Didi Gregorius. Who can forget what they felt when Didi crushed that ball to right in the 2017 Wild Card Game, or his transcendent performance against Kluber in the ALDS that same year? Didi is a fan favorite, and for good reason. He has delivered some of the most memorable Yankee moments of recent memory.

He also should not start for the Yankees in the 2019 playoffs.

For the more devoted readers, you may remember I touted him to start against righties in the playoffs as recently as a week ago. I convinced myself that his slightly better splits against righties than Edwin Encarnacion justified putting him in the starting lineup. Mostly, I was desperate to find a reason to insert Didi into the playoff lineup because he’s earned the adoration of every fan.

But I made two mistakes, both born out of my blinding love for the way he has made me feel as a Yankee fan since the retirement of Derek Jeter. The first mistake was looking only at Edwin’s stats as a Yankee in 2019, not his combined splits with the Mariners as well. Doing so skewed the fact he has actually far outperformed Didi against righties.

Secondly, I neglected to look at his fielding stats, because my eyes and brain tell me Didi is a solid, if not above average shortstop. That was wrong too. He has never been a particularly good shortstop, and has fallen off precipitously since his offseason Tommy John surgery.

So that left me in the perplexing position of defending Didi to my fellow sabermetric nerds without valid justification. And in looking more deeply at the numbers, I have found myself fully converted to the position that Didi, much as I may love him, does not put the Yankees in the best position to win their 28th World Series title.

The three most common arguments I hear are this:

1) Didi is a great hitter having a bad year, and he’ll figure it out in the playoffs.

2) Didi is super clutch, so even if he’s not hitting well overall he should start to get the big hits in the big October moments.

3) Didi is a far better defender than Voit or Edwin, so our defense is better with him at SS, Gleyber at 2B, and DJ at 1B.

All would be fair arguments, if only they were actually correct. If you haven’t already closed the article to angrily tweet at me, let me walk you through each of the three defenses of Didi and why they don’t hold water upon close scrutiny.

Didi is a great hitter, he’s just having a bad year

Throughout his career, Didi is a .265/.315/.430 hitter, which comes out to a .319 wOBA and 98 wRC+. In simpler terms, he has been an exactly average MLB hitter during his time in the major leagues. Some say he’s turned his entire career around with the Yankees. Well, in truth, he has hit .272/.315/.448 as a Yankee, amounting to a .325 wOBA and 102 wRC+.

So, yes, he has been better as a Yankee than his career numbers. But not by any significant amount! He is a perfectly average hitter who is plagued by his very low OBP. That makes for a decently valuable player, but not one that you look at and say should be guaranteed a starting role in the playoffs.

This year, Didi has been even worse at a .253/.285/.458 line, coming out to a .308 wOBA and 89 wRC+. He’s been 11% worse than a league average hitter over the course of 2019. We have an average career hitter now struggling in a below average season.

And his batted ball metrics don’t suggest he is getting unlucky this year, or throughout his career. If anything, the opposite is true. In 2019, Didi has a .293 xwOBA, meaning that he is actually lucky to be hitting as “well” as he has. There is absolutely no evidence that Didi will overnight turn into the above average hitter that some Yankee fans perceive him as being.

Didi is clutch, and you need clutch in the playoffs

Once again, you could convince yourself that he deserves to start if he is “clutch”, outperforming his ability in the most important situations. Most fans focus on performance with runners in scoring position, and us saber nerds love to look at high leverage performance. Both of these capture how a hitter does when the game is on the line, a valid metric for measuring the “clutchness” of a batter.

But, again, Didi is actually not as clutch as people think. With Gleyber, Gio, and DJ locked into starting roles, Didi is effectively competing with Edwin Encarnacion and Luke Voit for a starting spot. How does he stack up in terms of “clutchness” against these guys?

In his career, Didi is a .267/.321/.439 hitter in high leverage situations, good for a .321 wOBA. Very respectable! But Voit and Encarnacion are both significantly better, at .267/.389/.433 (.360 wOBA) and .265/.374/.438 (.351 wOBA) respectively. This is also my chance to get in a jab at “clutchness” in general, as all three guys perform in line with their career statistics. In other words, Edwin and Voit are better hitters, and that continues to be true in high leverage situations.

If you prefer good old fashioned RISP numbers, that’s great too! The pattern still holds with Didi at .260/.317/.425, or a .309 wOBA. Encarnacion and Voit? .272/.378/.498 (.367 wOBA) and .309/.424/.581 (.418 wOBA) respectively. If anything, Voit is the most “clutch” of the three!

So sadly, Didi is not the big moment hitter of most people’s fantasies. He’s significantly worse than both guys he’s competing with, both in general and in the biggest moments.

For the crowd that probably hates me, I’ll throw in one last nugget. Giancarlo Stanton, the alleged king of the choke in big moments? He has a .342 wOBA in high leverage situations, and a .352 wOBA with RISP. Didi is simply not that clutch, which means he is offensively inferior to both Voit and Encarnacion.

Didi makes the infield better defensively

This one was by far the most surprising to me, but also puts the nail in the coffin of the arguments for Didi starting. Effectively, you are looking to fill two roles here: DH and an infield spot. If Didi plays, Gleyber shifts to 2B and DJ goes to 1B with Voit or Edwin at DH. If Didi sits, you have Gleyber at SS, DJ at 2B, and Edwin at 1B, with Voit DH. Seems pretty close, if not advantage Didi right?

Wrong. In 2019, Didi is at -7 DRS, the same as Luke Voit! Edwin comes in significantly better at an even 0 DRS at 1B. Moreover, Didi has actually never been a very good SS. In his career, he has -12 DRS at the position through 7000+ innings, more than a large enough sample size to know he’s a below average SS. And while the -7 this season may seem like an outlier, it also makes sense in context. His best asset was always his strong arm, and after the surgery it seems that last bulwark against his below average defense is gone.

Add the fact that LeMahieu has an insane 71 DRS in his career at 2B, but is a merely 0 DRS player at 1B, and it becomes clear the better defensive arrangement excludes Didi. For good measure, Gleyber is even better at SS than 2B (and better than Didi), at -1 vs. -6 DRS.

LeMahieu being allowed to play 2B alone makes the second alignment the far superior one defensively. But the reality is that Didi himself is not a particularly good fielder. All told, it becomes obvious that Encarnacion should play 1B and Voit should be allowed to DH, shifting Gleyber to SS and DJ to 2B to optimize the playoff defense.

Final thoughts

Look, I get the perceived Didi bashing gets exhausting. I desperately want Didi to succeed for us, and I will always remember him fondly for his heroics in 2017. But the job for the 2019 Yankees is not to reminisce over past failed seasons. It is to win the World Series this year and add number 28 to the trophy cabinet.

There is no way to look at the team we have today and find a place for Didi Gregorius in the playoffs. If injuries come up or other players fall off a cliff in terms of performance, I will be out there rooting for Didi harder than anyone. But above all I want to win, and if everyone is healthy, Didi does not give the Yankees the best chance to win.

Love me or hate me, these are the facts as they exist right now for the Yankees and Aaron Boone. While I doubt if they will actually sit him in the playoffs, the choice to me is clear. Stash Didi on the bench and allow Edwin and Voit to mash, turning the lineup into a legitimate murderers’ row and making the defense better at the same time. Then go out and win another world championship.