The Week of Randal Grichuk

This past week among players who played in five or more games Randal Grichuk led baseball in just about every offensive category. Home runs, RBIs, isolated slugging, slugging, wOBA and wRC+ were all dominated by Grichuk. Not Fernando Tatis Jr., or Mookie Betts. Blue Jays outfielder Randal Grichuk. And while it’s still early in a short season, Randal has begun to climb out of his perennial pedestrian performances.

Even if it’s not what he’s known for, it should be. Reflecting on each of Randal’s StatCast seasons (only his rookie season is omitted from the era) his exit velocity has varied just 3.1 miles per hour and his launch angle 2.7 degrees (0.3 if we ignore 2018). He’s been a model of consistency, sporting slashes about as similar as can be throughout his career:

xBAxSLGxwOBA
2015.244.491.340
2016.235.469.323
2017.247.507.339
2018.245.490.340
2019.239.436.308

Even his batted ball profile doesn’t show a lot of variance year to year. He’s always been a pull hitter, topping out at 47.7% in 2017 and less so in 2016 and 2019, when he pulled the ball 43.5% of the time. His ground ball rate has never ventured beyond somewhere between 35 and 40%. He has had some different seasons in terms of barrel rate, notably in 2015, 2017 and 2018 when his barrel rate surged to 16.6% 16 and 14.4% respectively, while 2016 and 2019 sat below 10%.

Overall, Grichuk has been one of the league’s most consistent hitters. It’s difficult to maintain any level of stability in such a sporadic game, however, Randal’s done as good a job as anyone. But that only thickens this week’s plot.

Those consistent numbers are strong. Randal’s been a contributor to his team’s cause each year. But he’s taken a massive step forward to start 2020. This past week being the driving force behind that production.

PAsBAOBPISOwOBAwRC+
July 24th – August 1243.289.372.000.30694
August 13 – August 1927.423.444.769.655331
Season70.344.400.313.441186

Those numbers are a far cry from the uninspiring production Grichuk has previously offered. So what’s changed? For one, after seeing 36 Randal is hitting off-speed pitches better than ever. In the past, he’s struggled to succeed against the pitch as much as he had against breaking balls. Now, he’s hitting off-speed better than any other pitch. If you ignore the sample size, it’s an output unmatched against any pitch across his career.

What is especially fascinating is he’s seeing even more of those off-speed pitches. Pitchers are going off-speed against Grichuk 2.3% more than last year to total 13.8% of the time – the most since his rookie campaign. Fully aware of his tear, pitchers are avoiding the fastball when they should be doing the exact opposite. Even his performance against breaking balls – his “worst” pitch split – is better this year than in any other.

Plate discipline is something else Randal has struggled with in the past. Carrying a career 28% strikeout rate with a 406th out of zone swing and miss rate ranking in 2019 it’s fair to say that Grichuk’s production would benefit from a diminished number of wasted plate appearances. Enter 2020. 

Cred. Kim Klement/USA-Today Sports

Consistent with a continuously decreasing strikeout rate Grichuk has achieved a new level of plate discipline. His chase rate is down to 26.2%. And his contact on chased pitches is up to 69.7% – again, a career high. So far, he’s put together a more robust profile in 2020 than ever before. His first pitch swing rate is also down, which, similar to strikeout rate, has fallen steadily across Randal’s career.

Perhaps the most influential element to Grichuk’s hot first half is where he’s put the ball. Not changing much directionally, Randal has made huge strides with the angle he’s put the ball in the air at. Staying stagnant in his ground ball rate, he’s shifted roughly 10% of fly balls to line drives. And the productivity of line drives is well-publicized. This has resulted in a launch angle nosedive, almost 50% – with no change in exit velocity – fueling spikes in all expected stats.

Ultimately, the question is whether or not this is the new Randal Grichuk or a 2020 hot streak. There is a blemish on Grichuk’s profile that doesn’t forecast positively. And it’s the same thing that is backing his success: Launch angle. Taking a look at its distribution Randal obvious hasn’t exactly eradicated his old ways.

Cred. Baseball Savant

It appears he’s achieving as many hits (and outs) with an increased launch angle, more familiar for Grichuk, as he is with the 2020 reduced angle. Thus, is it realistic to expect him to continue to blaze a new trail? Or will he revert to his old self when the law of large numbers kicks in? It’s hard to imagine someone who’s been historically consistent altering his career trajectory now.

That doesn’t mean there’s no reason for hope. His strikeout rate has continued to fall and his walk rate has spiked. The merit here is that those improvements fit Grichuk’s career curve nicely. But due to their nature, it’s just as easy to discredit those improvements citing them as byproducts of the reality that Randal is unquestionably seeing the ball better.

As with any player, it’s impossible to project their future direction. But when it’s a player who offers consistent upside, someone who always produces below his ceiling, the outcome becomes even more intriguing.

All data sourced from fangraphs.com and baseballsavant.mlb.com.