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Finding comps for Randal Grichuk

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Randal is an outlier among outliers, and his unique profile creates divisive opinions on how his future will play out.

Jasen Vinlove-USA TODAY Sports

Randal Grichuk had an amazing 2015. In just 350 PA he was worth 3.1 fWAR, largely because of his bat. Randal  slashed .276/.329/.548 line good for a 137 wRC+.  The slugging percentage you see there was entirely the reason for his value at the plate. Grichuk pounded the ball when he made contact to the tune of a .278 ISO. Grichuk didn't qualify as a full-time player, but if he did he would have placed 8th in the stat, sandwiched in betweeen known sluggers Edwin Encarnacion and Josh Donaldson. Among hitters with at least 350 PA (Grichuk's total) he placed 9th among 278 players. That places him just outside of the top 3%. Is Randal's true talent one of the best power hitters in the game?

The problem that I see, is that ISO is a rate stat, calculated with at-bats as the base. Randal because he strikes out a lot. Among players with as many PA as Grichuk in 2015, Randal had the 5th largest strikeout percentage (31.4%). Looking back at the players with higher ISO's than Grichuk, only Chris Davis has a similar K% at 31%. The second closest was Trout at 23.2%, quite a ways off. You have to get all the way to Coby Rasmus at 19th to find another hitter with a similar K%. Quality of contact has a much bigger affect on ISO, but it looks like it's really hard to put up an elite ISO without also making a lot of contact.

To get an idea of how much better Grichuk had to be on quality of contact, I took each player with at least Randal's level of plate appearances in 2015 and calculated an ISO on Contact stat. I did this by totaling each player's extra bases and dividing that total by the amount of times a player made contact in fair play. Here is the top 10:

ISO on contact
Chris Davis .471
.426
Randal Grichuk .413
.400
Mark Teixeira .375
.374
.371
.367
.366
.361

Now don't get me wrong, Randal did something incredible this year, and he should be proud of that. But  going forward, should we expect Grichuk to do as much damage on contact as Bryce Harper and Mike Trout? That would be amazing if true, but we certainly can't assume that to be true at this point. The prudent thing to do is regress those numbers back.

The good news is that Grichuk is starting from so high, he can still regress quite a bit and still be impressive at contact quality. I don't doubt at this point that he simply is one of the harder hitters in the league, it's just a matter of how much better than average he is. The same goes for his BABIP. Grichuk had the 13th best BABIP of that same 248 player group, just outside the top 5%. 350 PA simply isn't enough to assume that is true talent level yet. So his BABIP has to be regressed as well.

As superb as Grichuk has been on contact, his plate approach is rated one of the worst. Not only does Grichuk strike out at a well above-average rate, he walks at a below average rate.

So what I wanted to see if there were other players who had as extreme K and BB numbers as Grichuk. I took each player's K% minus their BB% to get K-BB% (on fangraphs this stat is available for pitchers but not position players). Here are those results in graphs form:

Grichuk2

Grichuk is the dot is the in the top-right corner with his 137 wRC+  and 25.1 K-BB%. It was the second highest mark, the only player with a higher mark was Mike Zunino, which is represented by the bottom-right dot. The best fit line implies some relationship, but not a damning one. While there is some Survivor Bias there it shows that a player can theoretically be an above average hitter if he makes up for it in other parts of his game.


But what we really want to see here is how sustainable Grichuk's profile is. Let's look at the same graph, but instead every qualified season from 2012 to 2015. I chose 2012 because that is when strikeouts started to increase, and 2012 is seen as the first year of our current low Run Scoring Environment. Anyways, the graph

Grichuk1
Grichuk's dot isn't on this graph because he didn't have a qualified season, but even if we mentally place it where his 2015 numbers were we see that it has little company. No one in the last four years has had a qualified season with as high of a K-BB% as Grichuk's 2015. That to me is worrying. Let's see the 10 qualified seasons with the highest K-BB%:

K-BB% wRC+
2013 Chris Carter 24.2 112
2015 24.1 69
2012 Chris Davis 23.5 121
2014 Marlon Byrd 23.5 109
2014 22.9 84
2012 22.8 65
2013 22.5 112
2015 22.2 83
2014 22.2 83
2014 Chris Carter 22 122

This isn't a horrible list, all things considered. But with the exception of pre-breakout Chris Davis, who improved his walk numbers drastically after this season, this doesn't contain any stars. Chris Carter and Pedro Alvarez were non-tendered this year, Michael Taylor will only be with the major league club if the Nationals don't find a replacement for Denard Span. Castro, Stubbs, and Johnson are certainly not someone worth getting excited about. Desmond's year was his worst in the majors. It shows about what I was expecting: A player can be an above-average hitter with Grichuk's K and BB numbers, but the margin for error is very low. Perhaps Grichuk is one that can pull it off. It just goes back to how much you end up having to regress his 2015 ISO and BABIP.

I also looked at Grichuk's plate discipline numbers. As you are probably aware, Grichuk has a problem making contact. Going back to those 248 players who had at least 350 PA in 2015, Randal was 13th worst at making contact (69.8%). But here's what's interesting: Randal's contact on pitches in the zone is 83.2%, relatively close to the league average of 86.9 among non-pitchers. The bane of his contact rate is entirely the result of his swings at pitches outside the strike zone. His O-contact% ranked second worst out of those 248 players, at just 47%. His O-swing% at 35.1 was below average as league average was 31.2. It placed him 65th or just outside the highest quarter of the sample of players used here. Below average, but not disastrously bad.

So Grichuk is in the middle of the pack when it comes to making contact on pitches in the zone, it's just that he chases at an above average rate and is incredibly bad at making contact when he chases. This is what racks up the strikeouts and limits the walks.

What I wanted to see next is how much Grichuk's weakness ranks. Specifically, Grichuk walks little and strikes out a lot because of how often he swings and misses at pitches outside of the zone. Fangraphs doesn't have exactly that stat but you can use the stats they do have to create one. Taking the inverse of O-contact you get O-missed or the percentage of pitches you missed outside the zone relative to pitches outside the zone that you swung at. Multiply that by the pitches you swung at that were outside the zone and you get the percentage of pitches outside of the zone that the player swung and missed. Here's the top 10 for the 2015 group with 350+ PA:

Chase-and-miss wRC+
Avisail Garcia 21.0% 83
Jimmy Paredes 20.9% 96
Marlon Byrd 20.2% 100
Randal Grichuk 18.6% 137
Ryan Howard 18.4% 92
17.8% 96
17.1% 114
16.7% 88
Eddie Rosario 16.6% 98
16.6% 117

Again, not great company for Randal to be in, even if there is a couple other above average hitters here. Now let's switch back to qualified seasons from 2012 to 2015. Randal's 2015 figure would have put him as 6th highest in chase-and-miss. Let's take the five qualified seasons worse than his mark as well as the next five better marks:

Chase-and-miss wRC+
2012 21.7% 141
2014 Chris Johnson 21.4% 83
2015 Avisail Garcia 21.0% 83
2015 Marlon Byrd 20.2% 100
2014 Marlon Byrd 19.0% 109
2015 Ryan Howard 18.4% 92
2013 18.2% 115
2013 Marlon Byrd 18.2% 138
2013 Pedro Alvarez 18.1% 112
2014 Chris Carter 18.0% 122

This is a much better list. Interesting that three of Marlon Byrd's seasons make this list. His 2014 season also made the K-BB% top 10 for 2012-2015. On that list his 2015 season ranked 15th and his 2013 season ranked 26th. He's the most consistent chase-and-miss hitter over this timeframe, but he's managed to put together a good run over those three years. Bryd isn't quite as prolific as Grichuk in terms of chasing and missing or in terms of his gap between his K and BB numbers. But he seems like one of the better comps available being how much of an oddity Grichuk's 2015 was. Let's compare the two in those terms. We'll use Byrd's 2013-2015 numbers since those years were most similar to Grichuk's:

O-Swing Z-Swing O-Contact Z-Contact K% BB% wRC+
Randal Grichuk 2015 35.1 % 73.6 % 47.0 % 83.2 % 31.4 % 6.3 % 137
Marlon Byrd 2013-2015 43.0 % 77.6 % 55.5 % 82.9 % 26.9 % 5.4 % 115

Byrd may not be an interesting comp, but it's good to see that he does indeed have a long track record as an above average hitter. Byrd doesn't strike out as much, but he walks less and walks are more important anyway. Both players strikeout at above-average rates and walk at below average rates, and that's what I was looking for. He's not of the exact same mold; Byrd swings at more pitches out of zone, with a better ability to make contact with those pitches. But that's a good thing for Randal really, if you're going to swing and miss it might as well be on pitches out of the zone anyway.

But this may be as close as we can get. From 2013 on Byrd has had a .200 ISO and .332 BABIP. Among players with 1000 PA over that time frame, the ISO ranks 33rd and the BABIP ranks 36th. That's out of a player group of 233, so we're talking about top 14% in both categories, or about the top seventh. Is that attainable for Grichuk? Certainly something reasonable to hope for with Randal. Perhaps he falls a bit short of that, and is more of a 110 wRC+ hitter. It gives us some guidance on how good Grichuk has to be in order to be a solidly above average hitter: the top 7th of contact quality. Perhaps more like the top 6th if your hoping for a ~110 wRC+.

If you're bored with that comp, let's try one that is quite a bit more interesting:

O-Swing Z-Swing O-Contact Z-Contact K% BB% wRC+
Randal Grichuk 2015 35.1 % 73.6 % 47.0 % 83.2 % 31.4 % 6.3 % 137
Chris Davis 2012 39.8 % 77.6 % 56.0 % 82.5 % 30.1 % 6.6 % 121
Chris Davis 2013 35.7 % 74.5 % 55.1 % 79.6 % 29.6 % 10.7 % 168
Chris Davis 2014 31.6 % 70.4 % 49.1 % 77.7 % 33.0 % 11.4 % 94
Chris Davis 2015 31.0 % 72.2 % 50.9 % 76.5 % 31.0 % 12.5 % 147

2012 was Davis' last season before his breakout campaign, and that version of Davis is fairly similar to Grichuk. Davis managed to lower his O-swing without lowering the amount of contact he made on those pitches or his K rate. Decreasing his O-swing caused his BB% to balloon to well above average rates. Less swings against out of the zone pitches could very well been a crucial part of boosting his ISO; pitches in the zone are going to be easier to square up. 2012 Davis had a .231 ISO, whereas 2013-2015 Davis had a .292 ISO, which lead the majors over that time frame.

OK, so Grichuk probably isn't going to change that much. Davis had a breakout year, by definition a season you couldn't have reasonably predicted. Most players don't drastically improve their strike zone judgement after reaching the majors. But some do, and wouldn't that be the most "Cardinals Devil Magic" thing ever? I can hear it  now: "The Cardinals didn't want to pay Chris Davis the big contract he wanted, so they just turned one of their own players into Chris Davis". OK, probably not going to happen, but I love the possibility.

But even if that doesn't happen, Grichuk can be an above average hitter. Randal looks above average on defense and base running. If he's an average centerfielder, and worth +2.5 runs above average on the base paths, and he can hit like Marlon Byrd has the last three years, he's a 3.5 WAR player. Even if he doesn't hit quite as well as Byrd, a 3 WAR average seems attainable based on this analysis.

But players with his profile certainly have their pitfalls. Pedro Alvarez, Chris Carter, and Josh Hamilton were celebrated sluggers who's value has since dropped dramatically. While most player are who they are in regards to their plate approach, Grichuk would boost his chances by improving them just a little bit. It will be a lot of fun to follow Grichuk's continued development as we get a better picture of what time of hitter he will become.