It’s quite a title to throw on someone, “most patient.” It’s rewarding someone for not doing instead of doing. And, as a singular skill, unless you’re Eddie Gaedel, “not swinging” isn’t quite enough to make a major-league career. So maybe it’s not that surprising that the name here — Robbie Grossman, an outfielder for the Twins — isn’t particularly well known. And that he’s struggled to scratch out an everyday role. And that some of his good work this year has come from being more aggressive, even.
Nobody reaches at pitches outside the zone less than Grossman. Not this year, at least. And if you relax the requirements (1000 plate appearances minimum), he’s among the five best by out-of-zone swing rate since he entered the league in 2013. He knows the zone.
Let’s call him elite at that fundamental skill and admit that he has it. To the player, it’s no big deal. “A walk is a pitcher’s inability to throw three strikes,” pointed out Grossman. “That’s the biggest thing I’m trying to teach the young guys, that they can stand there and the pitcher couldn’t throw three straight strikes.”
But for a guy with an elite skill, it’s taken him a long time to get a regular role. Even on the way up, he wasn’t mentioned as a prospect, even if Carson Cistulli featured him in a series that served as a precursor to the Fringe Five. “I’ve always been that guy on the outside looking in, trying to prove myself,” confirmed the Twins outfielder, “and I’ve always used it as a chip on my shoulder, to kind of prove myself, that I belong among the best baseball players in the world.”
To provide a greater understanding of his approach, he discussed specifically a difficult lefty he’d recently faced, James Paxton. “I had an at-bat against Paxton the other day and I didn’t swing once,” he remembered. “He can’t throw three strikes in… He’s trying to throw the ball in to right-handed hitters, but he can’t consistently do it, so you look for the pitch away and get that pitch, because the one in is a low-percentage play for him and for you.”
We can be forgiven for missing Grossman on the way up, maybe. A high walk rate, in the absence of other positive indicators, doesn’t typically translate to major-league success. If a prospect doesn’t show much power when he does swing, major-league pitchers will fill the zone and that walk rate will plummet. Perhaps that’s why KATOH creator Chris Mitchell found that walk rate is one of the least important single statistics when trying to predict a minor leaguer’s major-league success using purely numbers. The size of each dot below denotes a variety of metrics’ influence on a player’s KATOH projection.
Notice walk rate there, on the left side. The dots are quite small. And while Grossman might have exhibited a little bit of power and glove and speed as a minor leaguer, his walk rate was his “carrying” skill.
Part of why he’s been more successful this year is because there’s been some maturation of his work from the left side of the plate this year. He’s swinging even less from that side. Grossman only started switch-hitting at 17 and has recently started to treat his swing from each side of the plate slightly differently. You can see that he’s finally become himself this year, with a career-low reach rate as a lefty.
While Grossman is reaching less outside of the zone, it’s not as though he’s traditionally swung all that much at pitches in the zone. He’s fifth lowest in overall swing rate, yes, but he’s also currently 24th lowest by zone-swing rate. In the context of Grossman’s career, however, that’s a lot. “I think I’ve been more aggressive this year than I ever have been,” Grossman said, and it’s true that he’s swinging at strikes at almost a career high rate. “I still have the same eye, and I’m still doing the same things I did last year, but I might have taken a pitch that was a pitcher’s pitch last year instead of trying to put a good swing on it.”
He’s also become more aggressive with two strikes. He wouldn’t say what his two-strike approach is, but it looks like it’s about making contact with two strikes in particular.
So we can call Robbie Grossman the most patient hitter in baseball if we want. Nobody reaches less, at least not right now, and very few swing as rarely. But if it weren’t for his above-average power and decent defense, we probably wouldn’t even get to appreciate this skill. It’s even taken him some (selective) aggression to unlock his best work, particularly with two strikes. You can’t just stand up there and let them try to throw three strikes in a row, after all.
With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.