NEW YORK -- Didi Gregorius was right: The comparisons to Derek Jeter really never are going to go away. The difference now, as compared to when the shortstop first arrived on the New York scene, is that the connection between their respective performances is more favorable than ever.
Having aced the daunting challenge of replacing a future Hall of Famer, the 27-year-old Gregorius developed into an exciting and dependable player on both sides of the ball. For that reason, as his team prepares for the month in which Jeter cemented his reputation as a clutch performer, Gregorius may well be the Yankees' "X" factor in the postseason, which begins when they host the Twins in the American League Wild Card Game.
Gregorius achieved something this year that even Jeter never did, belting 20 or more homers in back-to-back seasons. Having set career highs in homers (25) and RBIs (87), Gregorius has come a long way since his first spring in pinstripes, when he carried an unpolished reputation and questions about his ability to hit left-handed pitching.
"He's consistent," Aaron Judge said. "That's the big thing about him, he's a consistent part of this lineup. He never has those 0-for-4 days and then 4-for-4 days. He's always getting on base, always making something happen; talking about his defense, always making plays. It's solid having a guy like that up the middle."
Gregorius never expected to be the Yankees' cleanup hitter, but he has blossomed in the role -- one of many that he serves, including "interviewing" teammates after homers in the dugout and sending celebratory emoji tweets minutes after each victory. Manager Joe Girardi said that the catalyst in Gregorius' rise can be traced to getting a chance to play every day.
With the D-backs, Gregorius had been utilized mostly against right-handed pitching, so he never got the consistent at-bats to erase the concerns about his performance against lefties. More reps and innings have also helped smooth Gregorius' defensive play, with the help of infield coach Joe Espada.
"When you look at his at-bats against right-handers, they were good," Girardi said. "We knew that he had power against right-handers. I think we weren't quite sure how he was going to adjust against left-handers. To me, that's been the biggest difference in Didi. He's an everyday player and he hits for power against lefties as well. I'm not surprised."
The Yankees were able to rattle off a 21-9 start even without Gregorius, who missed most of April with a right shoulder injury sustained during the World Baseball Classic. Had Gregorius played a full season, Girardi believes that the Yankees might have even won more games, and that Gregorius would be on the cusp of a 100-RBI campaign.
"For me, it's about trying to make improvements, trying to get better," Gregorius said. "If I hit home runs, I hit home runs, but I'm not going out there to try to hit them. It's nice to have them."
Bryan Hoch has covered the Yankees for MLB.com since 2007. Follow him on Twitter @bryanhoch and on Facebook. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.