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What happened to Randal Grichuk in 2019?

I saw this thread on Twitter last week about Randal Grichuk and how good he was in 2018.

It’s easy to forget in that lost 2018 season just how good Grichuk was. He was one of the lone bright spots, tying for the team lead in WAR with Luke Maile. So what did Grichuk do in 2018 after he came back from injury on June 1st, which gave him success and what changed in 2019? When comparing his batted ball profile and plate discipline nothing major jumps out.

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Year LD% GB% FB% O-Swing% Z-Swing% Contact% SwStr%
2018 (June 1st-) 20.7% 34.9% 44.4% 36.3% 72.6% 70.9% 14.9%
2019 18.8% 39.1% 42.1% 36.4% 70.6% 74.3% 12.9%

Stats courtesy of Fangraphs

There are some minor changes, a few more line drives and flies and fewer grounders in 2018, some more contact in 2019, but overall similar. There is nothing that really explains the .061 drop in wOBA he saw between the two seasons. His strikeout and walk rates are very similar, as is his hard hit rate. His launch angle dropped just two degrees and his exit velocity was virtually unchanged. One small difference was where he hit the ball. His pull percentage dropped from 51.3% to 47.1%. He also hit fewer balls to the opposite field (22.6% to 20.5%). This of course lead to a jump in balls hit to centre, which rose from 26.1% to 32.5%.

This is typically not something you want to see. You want players, especially ones with the power of Grichuk to be pulling the ball and driving balls out. Grichuk made a slight altercation to his swing which is likely behind this directional change.  John Metzler of Blue Jays Beat noted the swing changes Grichuk had made in his article on June 27th. He compared a swing from April 2019 and June 2019, and as you can see Grichuk made a substantial change to his pre-pitch stance.

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Looking back at swings from the 2018 season, they are the same as the ones from April. The hands up high and the bat tilted towards the ground. What this did was change the angle of the bat as the pitch was coming in.

 

I highlighted his bat in red to make it a bit easier to see the difference. In the first image, one from a swing in 2018 his hands are lowered, the top part of his right hand is in-line with the bill of his helmet. In the second image from a swing in 2019 his hands are higher. That small change in hand positioning made a big difference in where the bat is.

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Players change their swings all the time, this is nothing new. Typically though players make a change after something has happened, whether it be joining a new organization, recovering from an injury, or being sent down to the minors. As Grichuk did when he was hurt in 2018. This change however, happened seemingly overnight.

Here is the last pitch to Grichuk on May 2nd, 2019:

And the first pitch to him on May 3rd, 2019:

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On the swing from the 2nd there is a little movement in the bat but it still mostly on that downward angle. The next day that is completely gone. John noted in his piece that Grichuk contact rate was up and I believe this was the intended purpose for this swing adjustment. Grichuk has a ton of swing and miss in his game, by shortening up his swing just a little bit he should be able to make more contact and still tap into his power.

As the cliché goes, baseball is a game of inches, and in the batter’s box it’s a game of milliseconds. His new swing and up the middle approach leads me to believe his swing is fractions of a second slower than before. It’s not much but it is the difference between the first screen grab against Baltimore going for a home run to left centre to the second one against Oakland going for a right centre double. In those two examples both pitches were fastballs down the middle. The one against the Orioles was a first pitch while the one against Oakland was a 2-2 pitch, so the count could certainly be a factor. If we extrapolate this out, look at how Grichuk performed from June 2018 to the end of the season compared to 2019 on fastballs down the middle.

Year wOBA xwOBA SLG xSLG Exit Velocity
2018 (June 1st-) .650 .640 1.143 1.107 97.6
2019 (Total) .430 .484 .714 .764 98.4
2019 (May 3rd-) .400 .474 .694 .746 98.9

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

This is a pretty substantial drop in production on what should be a good pitch to hit. Grichuk went from being one of the best hitters in baseball on fastballs down the middle (his .650 wOBA from June on ranked 7th in the league), to merely average (his .430 wOBA ranked 104th). Just because you aren’t doing a ton of damage on fastballs down the middle doesn’t make you a bad hitter. There are plenty of star hitters below Grichuk, including Rafael Devers, Tommy Pham, and Josh Donaldson. The new swing didn’t help either, as the chart shows.

This is a concern as Grichuk is fastball hitter. Per Fangraphs for his career he has a 134 wRC+ against fastballs, including a 170 and a 123 against sinkers and cutters, respectively. He has just a 73 mark against the slider and a 49 against curveballs. His career against change-ups looks good with a 123 wRC+, but he struggled last season with a 56 wRC+. If we expand our prior chart to include all fastballs, we get a similar story.

Year wOBA xwOBA SLG xSLG Exit Velocity
2018 (June 1st-) .441 .408 .698 .619 91.2
2019 .385 .374 .570 .541 92.5
2019 (May 3rd-) .381 .367 .573 .527 93.1

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

A 0.56 drop in wOBA is substantial. The new swing added a tick to his exit velocity but not much else. This not what you want to see, especially when it came with no improvements against breaking balls or off-speed pitches.

2018 (June 1st-) BA Hard Hit% K% BB% SwSTR% EV (MPH)
Breaking Balls .231 50% 38% 11% 37.2% 91.9
Off-Speed .206 34% 37% 4% 47.4% 88.8

 

2019 (May 3rd-) BA Hard Hit% K% BB% SwSTR% EV (MPH)
Breaking Balls .161 29% 25% 10% 36.6% 85.6
Off-Speed .177 28% 32% 2% 26.2% 85.6

Data courtesy of Baseball Savant

Grichuk with his new swing was able to significantly cut down on his strikeout rate on breaking balls and his swinging strike rate on off-speed pitches, but at what cost? His hard hit percentage and exit velocity are down and he saw no improvement in his walk rate. His reduced strikeout rate seems to be entirely from taking more pitches out of the strike zone.

Looking at where he swings on these pitches, not too much has changed. As John alluded too, Grichuk is a low ball hitter; he offers at that those pitches a lot and that didn’t change with the new swing. What did change was his approach on two-strike breaking balls and off-speed pitches.

In 2018 Grichuk was offering a lot at non-fastballs below the strike zone, which he stopped doing in 2019. This explains the substantial difference in strikeout percentage. Pitches down in the zone like that tend to be pitchers pitches. Ideally laying of those pitches down is good, but Grichuk likes the ball down and had some success there.

This is the same as the chart above only now showing Grichuk’s batting average by pitch location. On the left we have red throughout the middle part of the plate extending to just below the strike zone. This lines up with the image above. Grichuk swung at pitches he could hit middle down. Anything up top would likely be a hanger, and he didn’t do anything with pitches outside. In 2019 Grichuk seems to have made more of an effort to hit that outside pitch, and in turn has stopped hitting pitches down. This leads me back to John’s post. He noted how Grichuk was seeing more shifts this past season and perhaps in an effort to avoid the shift, he was hitting more balls up the middle.

Its true Grichuk was shifted on much more in 2019. With the bases empty Grichuk saw a shift 49.7% of the time, which is up from 29.7% in 2018, and ranked ninth among all right-handed batters. This lines up with what we’re seeing. He was looking for more balls away that he could take up the middle or go with to the opposite field.

Grichuk is not a player who should be worried about the shift. When he is at his best he hits the ball really hard. As long as he doesn’t hit it directly at an infielder he is the type of batter who can blast balls through and over the righty shift. He needs to get the shift out of his head and get back to doing what he did in 2018. Hunt for pitches down and crush fastballs.