The Rangers’ Outfield Gets a Little Less Gross, and a Little More Gross… man

Robbie Grossman
Joe Nicholson-USA TODAY Sports

The Rangers have made it rain in free agency for two years running. Corey Seager, Marcus Semien, and Jacob deGrom highlight their haul, but Andrew Heaney, Jon Gray, and Nathan Eovaldi are no slouches either. Texas shopped in bulk in the luxury aisles of free agency, and that shopping vaulted the expectations higher. The team hasn’t won 70 games since 2019 but is broadly projected, whether by playoff odds or betting lines, to end up in the 80s this year and to compete for a playoff berth.

Until late last week, the Rangers were expected to do so while attempting the team-building equivalent of playing with one hand tied behind their back. Baseball teams are required to use nine different batters, but the Rangers were short a few. Their left field plans involved Bubba Thompson, Brad Miller, Ezequiel Duran, Josh H. Smith, non-roster invitees, duct tape, and a ouija board. There’s no polite way to say this: that’s bad. But the Rangers knew it, and they acted to address their shortfall by signing Robbie Grossman to a one-year deal worth at least $2 million, and up to $5 million depending on incentives.

I’ve enjoyed using some marginal signings in the past few weeks to investigate the way teams make decisions, from Cole Irvin as a lesson in volatility to Michael Wacha’s contract teaching responsible risk transfer. What lesson can we learn from Grossman? Well, to paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a minor transaction is just a minor transaction, and that’s just fine.

The deal here is simple: if you pay Robbie Grossman money, he’ll stand at home plate and draw walks for your baseball team. Walks aren’t worth anything specific, and fiat currency has no inherent value, but the rules that we live by in baseball and society give both value. Walks turn into wins via conversion into runs, and money can be exchanged for goods and services. The Rangers want to win, and Grossman would like to procure comfy pillows and nice meals, or maybe a sweet mountain bike and the occasional massage. Either way, it’s a deal that works for everyone involved.

Grossman isn’t as exciting a signing as the six players I named at the start of this article, but he’s a tremendous fit nonetheless. That sampler platter of uninspiring options is a bad look on a playoff contender. Sure, the Braves will probably get away with running out Eddie Rosario and Marcell Ozuna in left field, but have you seen the rest of their roster? They can afford a weak spot given the strengths they have elsewhere.

The Rangers were middling on offense last year, and their left fielders were a major reason why. That group posted an aggregate 68 wRC+, a gruesome line that weighed down the offense. Grossman is a career .246/.346/.377 hitter, good for an OBP-heavy 103 wRC+. He was abysmal last year, his worst full season in the majors — and produced an 82 wRC+, comfortably better than the group he’s joining.

If you’re looking to Grossman for anything more than those walks, you’re likely to be disappointed. He popped 23 homers in 2021, but that was more than double his prior career high, and he finished with only seven last year. But oh, those fabulous walks. He debuted in 2013 and has exactly one major league season where he accrued 100 plate appearances and posted a single-digit walk rate. Sure, he doesn’t have much defensive value, and he strikes out a decent amount without doing much damage when he connects, but he has one of the best batting eyes in the business, and he’s capable of doing it from both sides of the plate.

Well, he’s kind of capable of doing it from both sides of the plate. Grossman is a switch-hitter, but he’s put up better results as a righty; he walks more and strikes out less there, and he’s hit for more average and similar power from the right side. Case closed… except, maybe not. He actually boasts a higher barrel and hard-hit rate from the left side. I’d call Grossman a better righty than lefty, but I think his career splits overstate his true talent. He’s a competent batter from both sides of the plate, even if he’s a hair better as a righty. Texas could use him as a platoon bat (Smith and Miller are lefties), but he could also just play every day in left.

If you offered the Rangers “competent batter” as a left fielder, they’d accept in a heartbeat. It’s a lot easier to ride a hot pitching performance to the playoffs if you’re scoring at least an average number of runs. Otherwise, you’re liable to lose a bunch of 3–2 and 3–1 contests, no matter who you’re running out on the mound.

There’s a real chance that Grossman can’t deliver the level of performance he’s achieved over the course of his career. His peripherals were as bad as his batting line last year; he hit the ball with less authority, chased pitches outside of the strike zone more often, and made less contact even when he swung at something in the zone. That’s basically all the things that hitters do. He’s also a 33-year-old in a young man’s game; there’s a decent chance that last year’s decline presages more of the same.

Luckily for Texas, that risk is baked into the contract. Two million dollars won’t get you much these days, whether you’re talking about Bay Area real estate or MLB free agency. The heavily incentive-laden structure tells you what Texas is thinking: if Grossman locks down an everyday job, he’ll be paid like a fringe starter, up to $5 million. If he looks like toast early in the season, well, there’s always that ouija board I mentioned earlier.

Ben is a writer at FanGraphs. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.

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1 year ago

Well, now I know Grossman’s favorite Bowie record.