Column: Diagnosing Randal Grichuk

This has to have been a frustrating season for Randal Grichuk on many levels. He gets demoted last year to work on his swing and then comes up and hits .269/.300/.554 with 16 home runs in 70 games and seems to solidify his hold on center field with fielding metrics that allow you to make the case that he is one of the top-10 center fielders in baseball.

Then you find out two months later that your team has signed Dexter Fowler to play center field and move you to left field. And then late in spring training you hear to this crazy idea to try out Matt Adams in left field and that crazy idea turns into a fairly regular thing to open up the season, at least for a little while.

You run into a snag again in May and slump hard and find out the team’s going to send you to the minors to work on your approach and pitch recognition. All the way down to single-A.

So in the span of about six months you’ve been moved from center field by a player you can make the case is worse defensively, you lost your starting left field job to a career first baseman, and then got busted back down to single-A. Ouch.

Yes, I’m aware that Grichuk was sent there specifically to work with Palm Beach’s hitting coach, but the point remains. Single-A still hurts.

Grichuk returned triumphantly on June 25th, batting cleanup against the Pirates where he went 2-for-5 with a home run in the win. And the next night, he batted second against the Reds and went 2-for-5 again, adding another home run. He batted sixth the next two nights against the Diamondbacks and went 0-for-8. Then was back in the second spot for the series finale where he went 3-for-5 with 5 RBI as the Cardinals romped to a 10-4 victory.

That victory would make the Cardinals 11-0 this season when Grichuk starts and bats in the front half of the lineup (4th or higher). Dating back to last season, the Cardinals are 27-7 when Grichuk starts and bats in the front half of the lineup.

This season, we see a completely different Grichuk in the front half of the lineup. He has hit .291/.314/.563 with 3 home runs in those 11 games in the front half this season and just .198/.266/.346 with 4 home runs in 46 games in the back half of the lineup (5th or lower). That’s a stark difference, even for the small sample size.

Common baseball strategy suggests that you see better pitches when you bat higher in the lineup because you have better hitters around you. The last thing a pitcher wants to do is walk you with a good batter coming to the plate. But if you’re in the back half and the next batter is Greg Garcia or Eric Fryer, there is little fear, so there is no need to go after you with the same directness. They can try to make you chase.

And after about a week of compiling data, I’m about as frustrated as he has to be because I can’t find an obvious reason why Grichuk struggles so much.

Sixty percent of the pitches Randal Grichuk has seen this season have been balls, and 37% of those have been down and away. But when I look at some other players, this does not seem to be a ridiculously high figure. In fact, it’s slightly lower than the percentage of balls that Matt Carpenter sees.

But there doesn’t seem to be an enormous difference over the whole season sample as far as how he much opposing pitchers ask him to chase based on lineup position.

So on to pitch mix. And Grichuk actually sees more breaking pitches when hitting in the front of the lineup versus the back. Not what I expected to find. In the back of the lineup he sees more fourseam fastballs, in the front he sees more sinkers. Those are his biggest differences in pitch mix.

However compared to last year, he is seeing more sliders compared to previous seasons. He saw sliders 20.2% of the time in 2015, 20.4% of the time in 2016 and now 21.8% of the time this season. And based on Fangraphs’ Pitch Type Linear Weights, he’s struggling against the slider worse than ever. And the curveball too.

Maybe now we’re getting somewhere, so this is about where I suggest something as simple as he just needs to stop swinging at balls. But he’s actually swinging at fewer pitches than ever before. His overall swing rate is down from 53.9% last year to a career low 50.4% this year. And last year he swung at 39.7% of pitches out of the zone compared to 37.2% this year.

He’s not even fooled by those sliders down and away we all talk about him being a sucker for. Last year he swung and missed on sliders down and away 31% of the time. This year it’s just 25%.

So all this to say that I don’t know what the answer is. Maybe the Cardinals should just tell him to swing away and bet on his talent. It is what got him here and is what put together incredible stretches the past couple seasons.

With the way he has hit in the front half of the lineup this season and the Cardinals’ lack of reliable bats in those lineup spots, I’d think really hard about slotting him in third and betting on his power to make a difference more often than not. Mainly because, even while I can’t find any evidence of it, I think the lineup protection is doing him some good.

Grichuk is one of many players the Cardinals have that needs to develop his plate approach. And that’s not going to change in a day or a month regardless of whether he’s working with Mark Budaska, George Greer or John Mabry.  Aledmys Diaz is in this same boat right now and I expect Paul DeJong will join him at some point. Behind them, Harrison Bader looks like the same kind of player. Enough talent to tantalize in short spurts, but ultimately lacks a plate approach for sustained success.

When I wrote on Tuesday about how the Cardinals should approach Kolten Wong‘s return, I never mentioned Grichuk and suggested Stephen Piscotty as the team’s fourth outfielder. It was intentional.

If the Cardinals are unwilling to let Grichuk bat where he has demonstrated the ability to be successful, they need to send him to Memphis to complete his development. And not call him back up until he’s proven himself ready.

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