The ball didn’t come off the bat hard, so Didi Gregorius sat back and played it on a hop. But it took a wicked bounce, and as it caromed off his body and rolled away, the Phillies shortstop removed his glove from his left hand and raised it over his head as if he was going to chuck it clear into left field.
Watching from home, Larry Bowa wasn’t crazy about Gregorius’s technique. But he loved his reaction.
“He was frustrated,” said Bowa, the longtime Phillies shortstop and former coach and manager. “He feels he’s letting people down by not making routine plays.”
Gregorius’s defense has improved lately. Entering this weekend’s three-game series in Atlanta, he hadn’t made an error since that April 25 gaffe at Coors Field in Colorado, a span of 11 games. He even turned in a glove save on a smash by Milwaukee’s Luis Urías in the eighth inning Thursday that would have made Carter Hart blush.
But Gregorius grades out among the worst shortstops in baseball, according to various metrics. Statcast had him tied for second-to-last in outs above average (minus-5) and runs prevented (minus-4). Sports Info Solutions ranked him dead last in defensive runs saved (seven runs worse than average).
The Phillies knew in January that they would give up some defense for offense when they brought back Gregorius on a two-year, $28 million contract. They explored shortstop alternatives but decided they were better off with Gregorius’s middle-of-the-order left-handed power than Andrelton Simmons’s four-time Gold Glove. They chased offense at a premium up-the-middle position, which was fine as long as Gregorius’s defense didn’t slip.
After one-fifth of the season, it’s worth wondering if it has.
Early observations from multiple scouts have been as unkind as the analytics. Ever self-aware, Gregorius offered this evaluation two weeks ago: “I feel like I have to work on everything. I’m not where I want to be. I’m not feeling the way I want to feel.”
But if the Phillies are looking for reassurance, they can turn to Bowa. The owner of two Gold Gloves as a player and nothing short of an infield savant in his long coaching career, he has the ears of manager Joe Girardi and infield coach Juan Castro in his front-office role as a senior adviser. Bowa also assisted Castro in working with Gregorius and the other infielders for six weeks in spring training.
His assessment of Gregorius: “I would not be concerned about Didi. I think Didi’s going to make all the routine plays. I really do. He’s got a good arm. He’s very smart. I would just say, ‘Look, be a little bit more aggressive at times. Don’t get caught flat-footed.’”
Bowa cited two plays, in particular, where Gregorius could have been more aggressive. The first was the play in Colorado. If Gregorius had attacked C.J. Cron’s grounder, Bowa believes he might have avoided the short hop.
The other came in the first inning of an April 11 game in Atlanta. Gregorius took what Bowa described as a “false step back” on Ronald Acuña’s scorching grounder. Acuña, who runs well, sprinted to first base and beat out a hit, earning praise for his hustle.
For Gregorius, it looked bad.
“Right away everyone said, ‘Didi’s losing it,’” Bowa said. “He’s not losing it. He might’ve taken a false step there. If he doesn’t take that false step, he throws Acuña out at first.”
Gregorius’s arm has mostly bounced back after Tommy John elbow surgery in 2019. Of his five errors this season, only one is a throwing error.
But Gregorius probably doesn’t cover enough ground to be imprecise with his footwork or his positioning. In spring training, Phillies president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski candidly described Gregorius’s range as “not one of the better ones in the league,” adding that “he catches what he gets to.”
Indeed, Bowa’s fondness for Gregorius stems from his reliability, which doesn’t tend to get high scores in defensive metrics. Dombrowski compares Gregorius to Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts for making most routine plays but fewer spectacular ones than more highly rated shortstops such as the Mets’ Francisco Lindor.
“Didi is definitely better than the defensive metrics rate him,” Bowa said. “This is my opinion, but to me, if you watch him -- just watch him; don’t watch anybody else -- I think those defensive metrics don’t do him any justice. It’s very difficult to grade infielders because there’s so much positioning, there’s so many shifts involved. To me, there’s a lot of gray area in that.”
Positioning is critical for Gregorius. At age 31 after a decade in the majors, he’s unlikely to improve his range, according to Bowa. But the Phillies can help him get to a ball that he might not otherwise reach by moving him even a step or two in either direction.
Like every Phillies infielder, Gregorius keeps in his pocket a card that is prepared by the research-and-development staff. The card outlines his optimal positioning against specific hitters and in specific situations. But Castro and Bowa agreed that Gregorius has the freedom to deviate from the card based on his instincts and experience.
“Didi will look in and say, ‘I want to go this way,’ and Juan will say, ‘Yeah, go that way,’” Bowa said. “Didi’s good at that. Didi reads swings.”
There are other ways that Gregorius can help himself. Castro emphasizes what he calls “pre-pitch,” the actions that an infielder must take to be as ready as possible at the moment the ball is hit. It sounds basic, but with strikeout rates rising and fewer balls being put in play, Bowa said it’s difficult for an infielder to stay on his toes.
“Now all of a sudden, a guy hits you a ground ball that’s hit crisp, and you don’t get a good jump on it because, ball one, ball two, ball three, strike one, strike two, strike three,” Bowa said. “You get lulled to sleep.”
Maybe the last week has been a defensive awakening for Gregorius. Maybe he’s paying more attention to detail. Or maybe he’s finally just playing up to his capabilities.
The Phillies don’t need Gregorius to be Ozzie Smith. But given the ground-ball tendencies of Aaron Nola, Zack Wheeler, and Zach Eflin, they can’t have him giving away outs on the ground, either.
“People forget sometimes that infielders go into slumps just like hitters go into slumps,” Bowa said. “He was going through a little period where weird stuff happened. But the fact that he told you, ‘I need to get better,’ that’s a great attitude to have. He knows in his mind that he wasn’t playing the type of ball that he’s capable of. That tells you all about Didi. He’s going to do what he has to do to improve.
“To me, Didi’s not an issue. Didi’s going to be just fine.”