The first two months of the 2016 season have not gone as planned for St. Louis Cardinals center fielder Randal Grichuk. First and foremost, considering it is still only June 6th (and the Cardinals have played a total of 57 games), we must remember that there are 105 regular season games left on the schedule for the 24-year-old outfielder to turn things around at the plate. That being said, here is where Grichuk currently stands nearly 200 plate appearances into his sophomore campaign:
Two weeks ago, Grichuk appeared "poised to breakout," but unfortunately, this breakout has yet to happen as he has slashed .190/.190/.381 in 42 plate appearances since Ben Markham's well-reasoned article. After starting the season with an uncharacteristically high amount of walks (16 in his first 40 games; Grichuk didn't have his 16th walk until his 70th game last season), Grichuk has not seen four balls in one plate appearances since pinch hitting in the seventh inning on May 20th. Further, since the slugging outfielder's last walk (54 plate appearances), he has struck out 13 times -- a rate lower than last year's number (24.1% versus 31.4%), but still above the league-average non-pitcher rate of 20.6%.
Mechanical Adjustments Made
Grichuk provided the following information in Derrick Goold's "Cardinals notes" article yesterday:
"I feel like I'm still trying to put together everything and understanding the mechanics and understand the way they're pitching me and attacking me," Grichuk said. "I feel like I've been laying off pitches outside the zone (which is why Friday) leaves a sour taste. I feel like I'm swinging at pitches in the zone but haven't been consistent making that good contact on them."
The young center fielder said he and hitting coach John Mabry have discussed some changes at the plate. He wants to be more direct to the pitch, and thus has elevated his bat back to a familiar antennae position and not the flat, windshield wiper-like starting point. He has felt better identifying pitches since that first week of the season, but some opponents still test him with hard sliders.
On the surface, what Grichuk has provided Goold can be viewed as quite promising. The center fielder, with the help of a second set of eyes in his hitting coach, realizes he has struggled at the plate thus far in 2016, has identified a few concrete changes that can be made to his batting stance, and has worked on incorporating these adjustments into live action.
However, before taking each of Grichuk's words at face value, one of the takeaway messages can be readily fact-checked using several publicly-available websites, with my favorite being BrooksBaseball.net. Grichuk may "feel like [he has] been laying off pitches outside of the zone," but is this feeling a reality? Let's take a look at Grichuk's approach to breaking balls (slider, curve, and slow curve) in 2015 versus 2016:
Swing Rate on Breaking Balls, 2015 Versus 2016
Based off Grichuk's quotes, the zone I chose to emphasize is the bottom row below the strike zone (boxed in yellow), an area that is consistently pounded by breaking balls. Grichuk may want us to believe he is laying off more pitches out of the zone in 2016, but as you can see (I apologize for the numbers being so small and tough to read), this just is not the case as he has posted an equal or higher swing rate for each individual box within the zone in question.
To make things clearer (especially if one is reading on a mobile device), I will provide the numbers from the zones boxed in yellow in an easier-to-read table:
|2015||50.00% (13/26)||69.23% (9/13)||62.07% (18/29)||62.96% (34/54)||29.03% (27/93)|
|2016||50.00% (7/14)||90.91% (10/11)||80.95% (17/21)||63.89% (23/36)||32.56% (14/43)|
To be as fair as possible, and largely due to Grichuk directly stating that he had trouble laying off pitches the first week of the season, I ran a modified swing rate search to exclude this tough week to see if the first six games of the season inflated his out-of-zone swing rates (since we are still dealing with a fairly small sample size). Unfortunately for Grichuk and the Cardinals, excluding this week did not really make much of a difference as his swing rate was higher virtually across the board in 2016 compared to 2015 (as already shown above).
All of this discussion leads to the following question: Is pitch recognition an inherent skill or is it something that can be developed with practice and further experience? If you follow me on Twitter, I have probably already annoyed you with my stance on numerous occasions. And if you do not follow me on Twitter, know that I strongly believe pitch recognition is a skill you either have or you don't. Some development may occur, but not enough to make a consistent difference.
While I understand and appreciate both practice and experience, the time allotted to react to a pitch being thrown roughly 55 feet away is minuscule. Possessing the ability to recognize what is being thrown immediately out of the pitcher's hand is a primary factor in distinguishing consistently effective hitters from streaky ones. Up to this point in Grichuk's young career (still only 661 plate appearances in), it does not appear that pitch recognition is a skill in his ballplayer toolbag.