The Depreciating Randal Grichuk

A few days ago, the Blue Jays picked up a new, young, cost-controlled starting outfielder. They got him in exchange for a reliever, and for a pitching prospect with lousy peripherals. It’s not hard to see how you could spin this as a big positive for Toronto. The other side, of course, is that the Blue Jays are taking a chance on a guy who the Cardinals couldn’t make better over a number of years. It’s fine for any team to express faith in its own player-development system, but if the Cardinals can’t get a guy polished, what hope might another club have?

As is generally the case, all three players in the trade are interesting. High-level baseball players are always interesting. Randal Grichuk is interesting, because of his track record and skillset. Dominic Leone is interesting, for the way he reemerged in 2017. And Conner Greene is interesting, because of the raw quality of his stuff. The Cardinals hope they just made their bullpen better. I don’t mean to ignore their side of this. But I’d like to focus on Grichuk, and, specifically, I’d like to focus on how he hasn’t progressed. The era in which Grichuk plays today isn’t the same as the era in which he debuted.

The easiest way to sell Randal Grichuk is like this: He’s 26 years old, and he’s averaged a career WAR per 600 plate appearances of 3.2. Now, that’s inflated because of a 2015 season in which Grichuk performed over his head, but even over just the last two seasons, that average has come out at 2.3. Grichuk is capable of playing every day, and he’s one of those guys who can make a difference in multiple categories. He has enough power to rank as a decent hitter. He’s a capable defensive outfielder at all three positions, and he’s a fast runner, even if he’s not much of a threat to steal. Grichuk has one of those desirable skillsets, and just as a rule, it’s a good idea to take a shot on similar players at such a point in their careers.

In St. Louis, Grichuk had been squeezed out of a regular job. The same thing happened to Stephen Piscotty. That’s a consequence of the acquisition of Marcell Ozuna, and the breakout of Tommy Pham. The Cardinals would’ve also grown frustrated by Grichuk’s lack of obvious development, and that’s something of a red flag, but to the Jays’ credit, they just got a career-best season out of the perennially frustrating Justin Smoak at the age of 30. The Cardinals can’t be the answer for everyone. Don’t want to appeal that much to authority.

So just to re-state the position: The Jays aren’t wrong to give Grichuk an opportunity. He’s annoyed his own coaches, but then, Greene has annoyed his own coaches, and while losing Leone is bad for the bullpen, he has his own record of inconsistency. Grichuk is fine. And yet, my sense is that Grichuk has also seen his value depreciate. Not just because he was at his best in 2015. I think we’re seeing a problem of era.

Grichuk can play all three outfield positions. I’ve already mentioned that. His athleticism gives him a high floor. In each of his last three major-league seasons, he’s walked in about 6% of his plate appearances. In each of his last three major-league seasons, he’s struck out in about 30% of his plate appearances. Over those three years, 379 players have batted at least 500 times, and, in terms of BB-K%, Grichuk ranks 370th. He’s there between Jimmy Paredes and Tim Anderson. Another appropriate comparison would be Hunter Renfroe.

How has Grichuk compensated? How has he managed a career wRC+ of 108? It’s all been a matter of his power. I’m going to borrow some data from Baseball Savant, again spanning the last three years. Looking at just batted balls, and leaving aside walks and strikeouts and everything else, Grichuk has ranked in the 95th percentile in wOBA. He’s ranked in the 92nd percentile in expected wOBA. Grichuk, in short, has hit the snot out of the ball, and although he’s not exactly Aaron Judge in that regard, the power has been there just often enough. Grichuk isn’t the only one of these players around. In the past, it’s what’s gotten me excited about Keon Broxton.

Yet, remember where we are now. When Grichuk first played in 2014, home runs were few and far between, relatively speaking. Now there’s more power in the game than ever, while Grichuk hasn’t shown his own progress. The home-run era hasn’t meant all that much to the highest tiers of power hitters. They were already clearing the fence without too much trouble before. What this era has done is lift the lower classes. Guys who were never thought to have too much power are hitting the ball out 15 or 25 times. Grichuk still hits the ball harder than most other players do, yet, such quality of contact is no longer so necessary.

Three years in a row, Grichuk has finished with an isolated-power mark over .200. That used to mean more than it does now. In 2015, there were 64 players who batted at least 250 times, with an ISO of at least .200. The next year, there were 84 players. The next year, there were 116 players. Power, obviously, has taken off, while Grichuk’s power has not. He’s remained something of an all-or-nothing hitter, but he just hasn’t hit the ball in such a way to take advantage of this new environment. He was never a warning-track hitter, and he hasn’t yet meaningfully moved to exchange swing power for contact.

None of this is entirely Grichuk’s fault. He can’t control the era in which he plays. But his skillset would’ve meant something different, only a few years ago. Now, his power isn’t so special anymore, because more players than ever are able to go deep. Grichuk’s approach has never improved, not for more than a couple weeks at a time. As his power has gone, so has his wRC+, and, Jake Marisnick just posted an ISO of .252. Grichuk just no longer appears quite so special.

Again, it hardly makes him bad, and he’s worth taking a chance on. As much as I’m fond of Teoscar Hernandez, the Jays can find room for everyone. But maybe the thing to watch here isn’t so much the walk rate. The Cardinals could never improve Grichuk’s batting eye. Maybe the Jays need to focus on getting Grichuk to exchange some pop in the name of making more contact. Grichuk doesn’t need to generate that peak exit velocity, not now, not in this era. That’s not what’s required to hit the ball out. If you just hit the ball, then damage may come. It’s still an adjustment that needs to be made. But it’s a little bit different from what one might’ve assumed.

Some years ago, in a vaguely similar move, the Blue Jays picked up Colby Rasmus. Rasmus had a 110 wRC+ with the Cardinals, and that fell to 97 with the Blue Jays, but, on the other hand, as a member of the Blue Jays in 2013, Rasmus was good for a 5.1 WAR. Rasmus and Grichuk don’t have much to do with one another, yet there are at least similar downsides and upsides. It’ll take something different for Grichuk to get to his upside. Changes of scenery have worked out before, I suppose.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

It is interesting that Smoak’s big change was striking out less and not changing much else. If they think they found that secret formula it could be a big win. But that seems unlikely.

6 years ago
Reply to  jerkstore

At some point Smoak learned to recognize breaking balls. Seems a similar situation w Grichuk.

Shirtless George Brett
6 years ago
Reply to  jerkstore

I have serious questions about whether Smoak actually changed anything or he just kind of had way better luck last year. He hit 12 HR’s when down 1-2 or 0-2. He had almost as many HR’s in 1-2 counts (8) as 2-0 counts (9). He had a .158 ISO in 0-2 counts and .207 ISO in 1-2 counts. That all seems crazy unsustainable.

I’m very interested to see what he does this year.

6 years ago

I believe it was widely reported by Blue Jays beat guys that Smoak worked with a sports psychologist (or something like that) and ended up figuring out that he didn’t need to try and hit the ball 500 feet and that 420 would also be a HR.

6 years ago
Reply to  jucojames

Hey Joc. Joc Pederson. Did you hear that? 420 feet is enough distance (in most parks) for a home run. Wow, what a concept!

Jeff Quattrociocchi
6 years ago

His xwOBA says he wasn’t lucky.

Shirtless George Brett
6 years ago

I honestly have not done too much reading on it but isnt xwOBA just basically exit velo and launch angle? In other words its simply looking at the result (IE the contact) not the situation (IE; the count, pitch location etc). Not sure how that really disproves luck.

EG: If a player hits a pitch at his eyes for a HR it is going to register a high exit velo and good launch angle because it was a a HR so its going to reflect well on his xwOBA. I dont think that means you should expect a the guy to hit alot of HR’s on pitches at his eyes going forward.

Same thing with Smoak. His HR’s in bad counts were actually HR’s so they had good velo and angle. That doesnt mean its not very unusual for a guy to do so well in bad counts. The league avg ISO in 1-2 counts last year was .108. Smoak’s was pretty much 100 points higher. Even if you narrow it down to 1B he was still a good 70 points above the avg.

But I could be wrong.

Keyser Soze
6 years ago

I understand your skepticism about Smoak but believe me, he made a significant change in his approach at the plate last year. Particularly hitting LH which was most of the time.

Going into 2017 I was convinced he wouldn’t be with the team all season. He was so vulnerable to pitches in the dirt, especially with two strikes. Then last season he suddenly started to spit on those pitches and waited for pitches closer to the zone instead. It was a stunning adjustment and he held it up all season.

Take a look at Smoak’s strike zone heat maps (swinging and pitch%) and compare 2016 and 2017, especially with two strike counts. You will see a dramatic reduction in swings at pitches in the dirt and low and outside. Those pitches owned Smoak in past but he turned it around so well last year pitchers stopped throwing them, so he got better pitches to hit. Simple, right? That’s why his numbers were so high as you indicated above.

Hopefully he can influence Grichuk with his success and it rubs off on him as well. This trade will work out very well for the Jays if he makes a similar kind of adjustment as Smoak.

6 years ago

ya i’m not entirely sure about Smoak, but i’m not sure this business of counts matters much at all.

Shirtless George Brett
6 years ago
Reply to  ice_hawk10

Does it matter? Well consider this;

nearly 35% (219 of 637) of Smoak’s PA’s went to either a 1-2 or 0-2 count last year and he posted a 39 wRC+ in said counts.

In 2015 and 2016 he had 236 PA’s in those counts and posted a -8 wRC+ in said counts.

That is a pretty substantial improvement in a pretty substantial amount of PA’s. If that is just a fluke (or something inbetween fluke and skill) that could be a pretty big deal. If he goes back to being basically worthless in a 3rd of his PA’s like he was in 2015 and 2016 you can bet that is going to effect his overall value.

(In case you are curious MLB as a whole posted a 25 wRC+ in 0-2 and 1-2 counts last year.)

Like I said, I’m super interested to see what Smoak does this year.

Travis Lmember
6 years ago

Data discipline requires a similar analysis of count-based luck for 3-0, 3-1 counts, before anything useful can be said about projection regression. I also would like to see foundational research on the stability over time of count-based PA outcomes.

Otherwise, this feels like the Sharpshoot Fallacy at work.

(Note: I’m not saying anyone is incorrect about Smoak, but that the analysis is incomplete.)

6 years ago

well, he posted the lowest o-swing% of his career (4% loeer than the previous year), and posted positive values against sliders AND curves for the first time ever, too, when the prrvious 2yrs he was absolutely disastrous vs those breakers.