As they grew up, with Simmons playing shortstop and Gregorius playing second base, they shared ambitions of reaching the big leagues.
“When you’re a little kid and you’re one of the two best players on your team, you think it’s easy, you think it’s possible,” Simmons said. “You think: ‘Yeah, I can be that guy.’
“As you get older, you see more talent and you start playing against them, you start being more realistic and you know how hard it is. Once you actually make it and you look back, it’s pretty special.”
If their big hits on Friday night were poignant on a personal level, they were also emblematic of their emergence among the game’s best shortstops in what might be considered a golden era for the position, with young stars like Carlos Correa of the Houston Astros, Francisco Lindor of the Cleveland Indians, Corey Seager of the Los Angeles Dodgers and Manny Machado of the Baltimore Orioles.
It was their gloves that got Gregorius and Simmons, both 28, to the big leagues at early ages — they each debuted in 2012 — but they both improved greatly at the plate last season, a jump that has continued this season.
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Gregorius has had a torrid April and has firmly established himself in the heart of what may be baseball’s most fearsome lineup, surrounded by Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton and Gary Sanchez. He was hitting .356 entering Sunday, second best in baseball behind Machado; his 10 home runs were tied for first with Mike Trout of the Angels; and he led the majors with 30 R.B.I. His .800 slugging percentage was by far the best in baseball.
Simmons, who won his third Gold Glove last season, is considered in this era of advanced defensive metrics to be one of the best defensive shortstops ever. He’s hitting .315 with a slugging percentage of .483 — more than 100 points above his career average — and he has done even more damage in crucial spots, batting .417 with runners in scoring position.
A midcareer blossoming is not unexpected from players who grew up in Curaçao, where facilities — and access to them — are not what they are in the United States. The sport is also not as ubiquitous in Curaçao as it is in countries like the Dominican Republic, Puerto Rico or Venezuela.
“Generally when guys haven’t played a lot of baseball, regardless of where they’re from, it gives you some level of belief — cautious optimism let’s call it — that there’s a high amount of upside there,” Angels General Manager Billy Eppler said.
That belief helped drive the Yankees’ pursuit of both players when — unable to develop a shortstop to replace Derek Jeter — they went scouring the market for one when Jeter retired after the 2014 season. Unable to reach an agreement with the Atlanta Braves for Simmons, the Yankees swung a three-way deal to land Gregorius from the Arizona Diamondbacks.
Eppler, who was an assistant to Yankees General Manager Brian Cashman, was hired by the Angels a year later. His first trade was to acquire Simmons.
“We saw a young, elite defender who had some process characteristics on the offensive side that were attractive to us,” said Eppler, who might have been describing Gregorius as well. “I have always been a big believer in the up the middle defense, kind of a throwback to traditional scouting.”
Besides their backgrounds, stellar defense and bowlegged gait, Simmons and Gregorius share a trait that some believe has contributed to their late-blooming bats.
“These guys — they have a special drive in them,” said Hensley Meulens, the bench coach for the San Francisco Giants who paved the way for Curaçaoans when he reached the major leagues for the Yankees in 1989.
That purpose has been particularly tested for Gregorius, who was blocked at shortstop by Zack Cozart — now Simmons’ teammate — in Cincinnati, and considered superfluous with the Diamondbacks, who had Nick Ahmed and Chris Owings at shortstop. When Gregorius got off to a poor start with the Yankees, fans at Yankee Stadium jeered his mistakes, sometimes chanting Jeter’s name.
“You learn from struggles,” Gregorius said. “When you have your struggles, you’d better find a quick way out of it.”
Credit Jae C. Hong/Associated Press
At the plate, that has meant tightening up his swing — keeping his front shoulder closed against left-handed pitching — and, specifically this season, being more selective. Gregorius had taken 18 walks entering Sunday — he took 25 all of last season.
“He used to be like a chicken wing against left-handers with fastballs,” said Meulens, pointing his left elbow up in the air. “The front arm goes up, the barrel drops and you filet balls. Now you keep that down and all of a sudden the bat head is out front and you’re back-spinning balls into the seats and keeping them fair, which is not easy to do.”
Meulens gets to see the work Gregorius puts in each winter at the workouts he helps organize for the growing number of professional and collegiate players from Curaçao, where Gregorius lives during the off-season. There is also the occasional barbecue and a weeklong clinic that serves 1,300 Little Leaguers around the island.
Simmons, who returns home for a week or two each winter, joins the workouts and tries to time his visits with the clinic. Angels Manager Mike Scioscia traces Simmons’s improvement at the plate to when he returned from missing five weeks with a thumb injury in 2016. He came back with a shortened swing.
“I had a little time to really look at what I was doing and be more critical of my technical stuff when I finally came back,” said Simmons, who batted .315 with a .774 on-base-plus-slugging percentage the final three and a half months of the season.
In the fourth inning on Friday night, Simmons and Gregorius had a chance to catch up at second base after Gregorius hit a blooper just over the head of first baseman Albert Pujols.
Simmons, standing near the bag, told Gregorius he had a bad feeling he was going to get a hit.
“He was like, ‘Oh, I haven’t gotten a hit in so long,’” Simmons said, rolling his eyes at the comment from Gregorius, who had been hitless in his previous five at-bats. “I’m like, ‘You’re hitting, like, four hundred and seventy thousand.’ He was saying he wasn’t getting any hits. I think that’s why he laughed.”
If others are surprised that Gregorius and Simmons have made such a transformation into potent hitters, the two boyhood friends are not — well, mostly.
Simmons said he knew Gregorius was a better hitter than he showed with the Diamondbacks because he had seen how hard he could hit the ball growing up.
“But hitting third and fourth in a lineup with Stanton, Sanchez and Judge?” Simmons said with a chuckle. “I didn’t see that.”
“Me neither,” Gregorius said in the other clubhouse, once again enjoying the last laugh.