Randal Grichuk's stock is rising. Over the winter, conventional wisdom saw him likely starting the season in AAA or maybe moonlighting as a 5th outfielder. Now he's on the major league roster, with talk of potentially getting starts in center against lefties.
Both in print and via podcast, Derrick Goold has said that Grichuk is the player who most changed how the organization viewed him in spring training. In an appearance on Buster Olney's Baseball Tonight podcast last week, Goold said the organization gave Grichuk a list of areas they wanted to see improvement. At the top of that list was contact.
"They needed to see more contact, more success against righties, and just an overall approach that was more mature and more aware of the strike zone," Goold said.
It's clear the Cardinals liked what they saw from Grichuk in spring training, but it's hard for us to know what exactly that was. Most of what happens in spring training happens where we can't see it. The "games" that do take place feature a vast range of talent, veteran players who are "just getting their work in," etc. It would be foolish to put any stock in spring training statistics.
So let's look at spring training statistics...
Strikeout rate normalizes faster than any other offensive statistic, in only 60 plate appearances. Randall Grichuk got 52 plate appearances in Florida. That's not 60, but it's within spitting distance. So maybe, if we squint, we can believe the spring numbers are telling us something.
Grichuk struck out ten times this spring, good for a 19% rate. That's compared to a 26.7% rate in the majors last season and a 22.9% rate in AAA.
There is a stat at Baseball Reference called Opponent Quality which tries to contextualize the competitive muddle that is spring training. A major league pitcher is rated 10, a AAA pitcher is rated 8, and so-on, down to a 40-year-old Dad kneeling at the front of the mound, who is probably worth 2 or something.
Grichuk's opponent quality was 8.2, meaning the average quality of the pitchers he faced was just slightly better than AAA level. By comparison, Matt Holiday's opponent quality, playing those earlier, more competitive innings, was 9.1. (Also worth noting: Spring Training MVP Kris Bryant's opponent quality was only 8.5.)
So what does this mean? In just a bit fewer plate appearances than we can really trust, facing mostly AAA calibre pitching, Randal Grichuk's strikeout rate was a solid tick better than his rate in the majors last year and a bit of an improvement on his AAA numbers.
Grichuk also walked eight times, good for a 15% rate, nearly triple what he posted last season, but with less than half the plate appearances necessary for walk rate to normalize, we really, really shouldn't buy into that just yet.
The bottom line is, there's reason for optimism. Mostly, we should be encouraged by the evaluations of the Cardinals staff. But even in the tiny, probably insignificant spring training statistics, there's nuggets to suggest that The Man Who Was Drafted Before Mike Trout might be improving that terrifying strikeout rate.
It was easy to get down on Grichuk last season, particularly in the playoffs, as Mike Matheny kept throwing him into the deep end and Randal struggled to keep his head above water. But with his prodigious power and Popeye forearms, if he can sustain a lower strikeout rate once the games really matter, things could get exciting.