Randal Grichuk’s Successful Unadjustment

Last season, a 23-year-old Randal Grichuk put together a tremendous rookie campaign. He posted a 137 wRC+ on the strength of a terrific .272 isolated-power mark. Add into the mix that he could handle all three outfield positions and, on the surface, it looked like the Cardinals had themselves a solid young contributor to build around. However, his performance was not without red flags, the most prominent among them being a 6.3% walk rate, 31.4% strikeout rate, and .365 BABIP. If Grichuk wanted to sustain his success into the 2016 season, it was reasonable to expect he’d need to improve his plate discipline to balance the likely BABIP regression.

The good news is that Grichuk was up for the challenge. He practiced his pitch identification using methods outlined by Derrick Goold of the St. Louis Post-Dispatch back in April. The early results showed that adjustments had, in fact, been made. Jeff Sullivan wrote at the time about the impressive decline in Grichuk’s swing rate on pitches out of the zone. A promising young player with a glaring weakness addressed and improved on that weakness! Fantastic! What could possibly go wrong?

In the first half, Grichuk’s strikeout rate fell all the way to 22.7% and his walk rate was up to 7.3%. Unfortunately, these improvements coincided with a massive drop off in his ability to crush baseballs. He hit just .226 in the first half thanks to a BABIP that cratered to .255 — and he posted a notably diminished .199 ISO — all of which left him with a terrifically disappointing 89 wRC+. In response, Grichuk has been demoted to Triple-A twice, once June and once at the start of August. Since his most recent return to the majors on August 11th, however, something has changed.

Grichuk has recorded 90 plate appearances since being recalled and the results are either alarming or tremendous upon first glance, depending on where your gaze falls. If you start with plate discipline, you’re likely to find yourself alarmed. Since August 11th, he’s struck out once every three plate appearances and walked just twice. A 33.3% K and 2.2% BB? Oh no! Grichuk lost all the progress he made at the beginning of the season and has fallen apart.

Of course, if you start with his actual overall production at the plate, it would be difficult to ask for better results. Grichuk is batting .284/.300/.750 thanks to 20 of his 25 hits coming in the form of extra bases. Sure, the on-base percentage isn’t exactly ideal, but it still all adds up to a 172 wRC+, which is among the best in baseball over the past 30 days. Grichuk has been a tremendous asset at the plate of late and, given that the Cardinals are currently clinging to a wild-card position, the timing couldn’t have been much better. Can he keep it up, though? What should we make of a player who seems to demonstrate an inverse relationship between patience at the plate and offensive production?

The progress in laying off pitches outside the zone that Grichuk showed at the start of the season has vanished.

Rolling Graph O- Z- Swing%

With his O-Swing% trending up and his Z-Swing% trending down, he’s actually swinging at more balls out of the zone while simultaneously laying off pitches in the zone more regularly. This seems to be the exact opposite of what you want to do and the reasons for that are very much apparent in his recent strikeout and walk rates.

Rolling Graph BB K

Swinging at pitches out of the zone is truly the ideal way to strikeout and not draw free passes, which is exactly what’s happening to Grichuk. But when things aren’t going right — and things were decidedly not going right for Grichuk for the majority of the 2016 season — sometimes the best thing to do is go back to what worked before. Grichuk is an aggressive hitter and, after spending much of the season tinkering with that aggression, he’s gone back to embracing it. The heat maps below show his Swing% prior to his most recent demotion on the left and since his August 11th call-up on the right:

Grichuk Swing%

Whether a happy coincidence or a direct result of the change in approach, Grichuk’s power stroke has finally made its presence known after laying dormant for much of the season. Even though his on-base percentage has remained below average, the power surge has been enough to fuel Grichuk’s return to productivity.

Rolling Graph ISO OBP

Baseball is a game of adjustments. Grichuk went into 2016 with an idea of an adjustment he wanted to make. It’s wonderful that he demonstrated a willingness to make that adjustment and actively tried to improve at the plate, especially given his status as a guy coming off an impressive rookie season. However, that adjustment did not lead to positive results, so he abandoned it. Right now, he’s a masher who strikes out a lot and walks rarely. It’s not a superstar profile, but it is a workable profile. Unfortunately, the concern now is the same as it was entering the 2016 season — namely, that pitchers will be able to adjust to Grichuk’s free-swinging ways and find an approach to effectively neutralize him. The challenge for Grichuk is not to let this bad experience with an adjustment impact his ability to make future adjustments in response going forward.

Corinne Landrey writes for FanGraphs and MLB.com's Cut4 site. Follow her on Twitter @crashlandrey.

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Raoul Raoul
Raoul Raoul

Over the last month or so, I’ve often thought the worst thing a pitcher could do would be to fall behind Grichuk in the count; it stands to reason that since he’s declared baseballs enemies of the state to be destroyed, putting those enemies where they could be found would be a bad idea.

And then I’ve had a second thought, borne out by the swing graphs above: How does a pitcher fall behind Grichuk in the count? I know I’ve seen it happen, but my mind blocks out the circumstances. Every time I look up, Grichuk has fallen behind 0-2 or 1-2.

Don’t give him a first-pitch strike, though: he’s hitting .467 / .457 / .967 on the first pitch for the season.