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For Randal Grichuk, it's all about launch angle

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...when he makes contact, of course.

Scott Kane/Getty Images

As a rookie last season, outfielder Randal Grichuk would have found his name in the top ten of a handful of offensive categories had he collected enough plate appearances to qualify. He may have struck out at a near-league-leading rate (fifth highest among those with at least 350 plate appearances), but when he made contact, good things often happened. Because of this offensive production and the belief that his above-average right field defense would adequately transition over to center field, the Cardinals disposed of one center fielder (Peter Bourjos) and traded another (Jon Jay) in the offseason. Unfortunately, Grichuk's hitting performance has not yet carried over to his sophomore season -- a season in which he was demoted one month ago for a Triple-A stint consisting of 55 plate appearances over games.

2015-2016 Statistics

Year PA BB% K% AVG OBP SLG wRC+ fWAR
2015 350 6.3% 31.4% .276 .329 .548 137 3.1
2016 260 7.3% 23.8% .227 .288 .437 92 0.5

If interested, here is a link to Daren Willman's full primer on Launch Angle (LA) and a very informative article from Rob Arthur at FiveThirtyEight on the topic, but the following table provides us with the values necessary to get a preliminary grasp of the charts found later in this post:

Ground Ball Less than 10 degrees
Line Drive 10 to 25 degrees
Fly Ball 26 to 50 degrees
Pop Up Greater than 50 degrees

2015 (Left) Versus Pre-Demotion 2016 (Right)

Grichuk 2015 v 2016

The sample size is obviously larger on the left (350 PAs versus 225 PAs), but the chart on the right shows a player lacking consistency from a launch angle standpoint. In 2015, Grichuk made a habit of finding the 10 to 25 degree zone, meaning that he was launching line drives all over the park. This is definitively different from his performance prior to his demotion this season, where we see a bunch of ground balls (less than 10 degrees), paired with lazier fly balls and popups (40 degrees). All of this matters even more considering his average exit velocity in 2016 (92.4 MPH) is virtually identical to what it was in 2015 (93.1 MPH).

2016 Since Returning from Triple-A on July 5th

Grichuk Post Return

This chart includes the smallest sample size of all (31 PAs), so no real conclusions can be drawn from it, but at the very least, Grichuk has experienced positive results since his return from Triple-A Memphis, with five hits falling into the desired 10 to 25 degree launch angle, and another just outside at 30 degrees. Plus, up until yesterday's golden sombrero (four strikeouts), Grichuk had put together an eight-game hitting streak with exactly half of his hits (six of 12) going for extra bases.

2015 (Left) Versus Pre-Demotion 2016 (Right)

2015 2016 spray chart Grichuk

It is clear that Grichuk has been a pull-first hitter up to this point in his MLB career. His spray chart from 2015 (on the left), a year in which he posted a 137 wRC+, contains a litter of yellow dots (line drives) and home-run distance green dots (fly balls) in left field. However, as you can see, his power also existed up the middle, especially, and even to right on occasion. Thus, after a quick glance at Grichuk's spray chart prior to his demotion, one thing stands out in particular: Where are his line drives up the middle and into right center? The multitude of ground balls and pop ups also stand out considering the chart on the right displays 125 fewer plate appearances than the one on the left.

2016 Since Returning from Triple-A on July 5th

Grichuk Spray Chart Post Demotion

Again, I understand that this chart possesses the smallest sample size (31 PAs), but still, check out the location of the yellow dots -- two up the middle and two deep into right. If Grichuk can turn small-sample-sized spray chart into a trend, he will be taking a valuable first step in the process of returning to 2015 form. By depositing more pitches up the middle and to right, it means that Grichuk is working to move on from lunging on outside pitches, a process that almost always leads to weak contact, either on the ground or in the air on the infield.

Where is Grichuk being pitched, you ask? As this theoretically could be playing a role in his hitting performance, especially from a launch angle standpoint. Don't worry, I have you covered there as well. The heatmap on the left is 2015, and the heatmap on the right is 2016 thus far:

Grichuk heamaps

While relatively similar, the approaches of opposing pitchers have been much more defined in 2016 as compared to 2015. Pitchers have shifted their inside target point upward in the zone and their outside target point downward. Most importantly, pitchers are doing a much better job avoiding the center of the plate so far this season. However, one would think that both locations seen in the 2016 heatmap would still allow for desirable launch angles. It is just a matter of adjusting, something I hope Grichuk was able to do while in Triple-A, and something that will ultimately carry over at the big-league level.

Bottom Line

Admittedly, "it's all about launch angle" for just about every MLB hitter, but over the last two seasons, Grichuk still serves as a prime example for the matter. In 2015, a year in which he experienced a great deal of success, he was consistently launching balls out of the 10 to 25 degree line-drive angle. So far in 2016, this has not yet been the case. Let's hope the small-sample-sized success described above continues as he works to launch balls up the middle and deep into right, instead of simply rolling over on outside pitches to the shortstop.

Credit to Daren Willman and his site, baseballsavant.mlb.com, for the charts used in this post.