NEW YORK — For Aaron Boone, it all starts with Didi Gregorius‘ feet.
Whenever the New York Yankees manager sees his shortstop making subtle yet firm, controlled turns of his feet while still uncoiling the rest of his body into his patented long and violent swing, Boone knows there’s a chance the baseball will travel far and out of reach of any defender’s glove.
On Tuesday night in a 3-0 win over the Washington Nationals, Gregorius blasted two such baseballs, dropping them well over Yankee Stadium’s outfield wall.
For a hitter who has spent the better part of the past month struggling to get anything to fall — let alone any home runs — the solo shots to right and right-center were clear signs that some semblance of the Gregorius who stormed out with a monster April to open the season might be back here in June.
“When Didi is at his best, he really is — the way I would say it — he’s into the ground. His feet really drive into the ground,” Boone said.
Balance is primarily what Boone is referring to. Even on some of the shortstop’s hardest swings, his feet have a way of staying planted in the ground that allows him to hit the ball with even more authority. The more grounded his feet are, the better his balance is. The better his balance is, the more likely it is that he gets a base hit.
In the opener against the Nationals, Gregorius went 2-for-4 with his two home runs. One came off a hanging 75 mph curveball that he knocked into the Yankees’ bullpen, and the other was a 361-foot shot that landed in the second deck seats down the right-field line. The homers were his first since May 23, which until Tuesday night had been his only home run since April.
Often in recent weeks, Boone has seen Gregorius’ in-swing balance fail him. That, combined with some poor luck that saw him hit numerous balls right at defenders, sent Gregorius into a slump that made his April nothing but a distant memory.
“I was hitting the ball hard and [wasn’t] getting the success that I want, and that’s base hits and to get on base for the team,” Gregorius said.
After hitting .327 with 10 home runs through the Yankees’ first 28 games, Gregorius earned American League Player of the Month honors and was an early MVP candidate. In the weeks since, he has looked like a completely different player.
At one point in the middle of May, Gregorius had only one hit in 10 games. That hit came as part of a 1-for-42 stretch that was one of the worst of his career. At its lowest point during the slump, just less than a month after he had hit .327, his batting average dipped to .230.
Entering Tuesday, Gregorius’ .243 batting average ranked 111th out of 159 qualified hitters, according to ESPN Stats & Information. The .327 average he posted by the end of April ranked him 13th out of 176 qualified hitters. He had become a completely different hitter.
“It was just getting to know myself through that slump,” Gregorius said. “I was always battling. Hits weren’t coming.”
Boone saw the battles Gregorius was putting up in the batter’s box and applauded them.
“At times when he was scuffling, you get into that chasing hits a little bit,” Boone said. “And because he’s so good hand-eye at touching the ball, sometimes he was putting balls into play that maybe he shouldn’t have been putting into play.”
Lately, though, Gregorius is putting the right pitches into play. Though his average is much lower than he’d like at this point, he’s starting to see some light at the end of this dark hitting tunnel. Since May 28, Gregorius has gone 15-for-45 (.333). He also has had five multihit games within that 12-game stretch.
It was a few hours before Tuesday’s game when Boone saw something that let him know Gregorius’ balance and bat were about to have a big night.
“Actually said something to [hitting coach] Marcus [Thames] in batting practice. I just thought it seemed even crisper,” Boone said. “He had a really good batting practice. The ball was really jumping off his bat.”
The Yankees’ hope is that baseballs continue to leave Gregorius’ bat. Now that the hits are starting to fall, he says he believes better days at the plate are coming.
“We’ve been working in the cage and doing the same thing we were doing,” Gregorius said. “We’ll try to put some extra work in there, and try to help the team.”