He’s a Lamborghini. He’s got all the skills in the world. You look at his skill set and every person on this field and every person in this league would look at him and go, ‘Yeah, I want that.'- John Mabry, Spring 2015
I want to see this kid free. It’s like we’ve got this stallion that we’ve got all pent-up in the stable. I want to see him run. - Mike Matheny, August 2016
Say what you will about Randal Grichuk, he certainly inspires lofty comparisons... at least among the current St. Louis Cardinals coaching staff. And yet the context around those accolades has varied widely.
After being dubbed a Lamborghini by Mabry, Grichuk went on to post some gaudy numbers in 2015, including a .370 wOBA (with a .365 BABIP). After coming into 2016 the presumptive starting center fielder, The Stallion has twice been demoted to AAA and, after his recent surge, just pushed his wOBA north of average to .312 (with a .267 BABIP).
The production has varied widely, tied closely to that BABIP. A few things have remained constant. When he makes contact, he crushes the ball - his average exit velocity is in the Top 25 in MLB. He strikes out a lot (27.5%) and he walks very little (7.5%).
So what is Randal Grichuk?
Last year, I wrote that I liked Mabry's Lambo comp, but only if you considered the totality of a Lamborghini - fast and sexy, sure, but also often unrealistic or impractical. After a year of up-and-mostly-down results, my feelings on Grichuk are essentially unchanged.
Given how little he walks, and with guaranteed outs in nearly 30% of his PAs from the swing-and-miss, Grichuk's offensive production is going to vary widely based on his BABIP. The good news there is that his 2016 year-to-date is probably about as bad as he could be. Given his still-elite exit velocity, I'm willing to believe there's a fair amount of bad luck baked into his .267 BABIP, and he's due for some positive regression - which we are already seeing in his most recent promotion.
That said, I do worry that the significant increase in infield shifts against Grichuk this season is also taking a toll. He bangs a lot of ground balls to the left side of the infield, and when they're going 90+mph, quite a few of them still manage to get through. But when you put a third infielder over there...
But while Grichuk's offensive production has varied widely along BABIP lines, coming into this season, he had always provided plus (though by no means elite) defense and base running. That consistent value in the field and on the bases gave me confidence that even with fluctuations at the plate, he would remain at least a serviceable option in the outfield.
If anything, Grichuk's defensive lapses have been the most alarming thing to me about his game in 2016. Anecdotally, I feel like he still has the raw skills to be a decent defender at a premium position, but has made a surprising number of mental errors / misplays this season. I don't know how that's going to shake out, but here's hoping it's just random weirdness.
Put it all together - the low BABIP, the defensive lapses, and I'd say this season is pretty much the floor for Randal Grichuk. Last season, with it's elevated BABIP, might well be the ceiling. That gives you something like a 1-3 win center fielder under team control through 2020 (arbitration-eligible in 2018). That's a valuable asset, but maybe not one I would go so far as to compare to a sports car or a thoroughbred.
And frankly, I feel like all the hyperbole, all the efforts to will RANDAL into something more than he is right now is doing the player a disservice.
At least in my Twitter feed, the Lambo/Stallion comps are balanced out by people who have grown to resent The Greek God of Flow. In his first game after Matheny's "stallion" comments, every time he made an out was followed in my feed by a flurry of Tweets along the lines of "way to be a Stallion, you stupid not-a-Stallion guy!!!"
And then Grichuk jacked a grand slam, and the haters subsided, only to rise again when he opened his next game with a strikeout. Rinse, wash, repeat.
I can understand the impetus to lionize Grichuk. The man is a physical specimen. He possesses an elite power tool, good speed, and makes the occasional highlight-reel play in center field. You could edit together a sizzle reel of Grichuk that made him look like an MVP in a way that you could not for, say, Greg Garcia. But that is a selective and misleading representation of who he is right now.
One argument is that Matheny and Mabry are trying to motivate the youngster with their high praise, but I guess I question the tactic of repeatedly likening the player to an ideal they will fail to live up to. A seemingly more constructive approach comes from Brandon Moss, described in a great piece by Derrick Goold.
According to Goold, Moss loaded his phone with statistics from guys like Grichuk, and even like Moss himself - guys who started their career with great power but mired by high strikeouts - and then went on to greater success. Moss tags the key for these guys as ignoring their batting average, but raising their OBP (presumably through walks).
For Grichuk, there are glimmers of hope along those lines. His walk rate has ticked slightly up every season. He is maintaining a .225+ Isolated Power which Fangraphs would categorize in the great to excellent range. Can he continue those trends and realize his potential along the lines of a Brandon Moss or a Chris Davis? Moss thinks so.
"He wants stardom," Moss told Goold. "He needs the patience for it, but it will come."
Here's hoping Moss is right, that the coaching staff can tone down the hyperbole and help him become the productive or even very-productive player that he can be. For now, he is a talented player whose skill set will produce inconsistent results. Let's just accept that inconsistency and not attach a narrative to every upward or downward swing.