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The Cardinals strange handling of Randal Grichuk

Grichuk appeared poised to be the everyday center fielder for the Cardinals this season, but has been demoted twice. What happened?

St Louis Cardinals v Houston Astros Photo by Bob Levey/Getty Images

Randal Grichuk’s current hitting line on the season is .226/.282/.455 with a 28% strikeout rate, a seven percent walk rate and a 94 wRC+ to go along with 15 home runs. That line really shouldn’t be too surprising. ZiPS and Steamer projected a little bit better with wRC+ of 106 and 101, respectively, but the walk rate, strikeout rate, and ISO are all pretty close. Given Grichuk’s .270 BABIP this year, being slightly below average instead of slightly above it is pretty reasonable. Assuming average defense in center field, that makes Grichuk an average player and a good player to have on a league-minimum salary.

What is surprising is that Grichuk has started 72 games, which means he has not started 51 games despite being healthy all season long. The Cardinals went to great lengths to give the starting job to Grichuk, announcing it at the end of last season and then reinforcing it by giving away both Peter Bourjos and Jon Jay so that the position would be free of obstacles. Grichuk’s high strikeouts and low walk rate are likely obstacles for the long-term, but this season, he still managed to find an obstacle in his manager. Mike Matheny has been adamantly in Grichuk’s corner in past seasons, but has since admitted he might not have handled Grichuk well this season.

Grichuk rewarded his manager’s previous faith in 2015 by having a fantastic season, hitting 17 homers with a .276/.329/.548 line and a 137 wRC+ in 350 plate appearances. That line was aided by an unsustainable, atmospheric-level .372 BABIP, but even with the big strikeout rate and the lack of walks, projections baked in a reasonable BABIP and thought Grichuk would be an average player.

So what did Grichuk do? He started the season one for 15 with eight strikeouts. After a slider machine fix, Grichuk hit a bit better for a while. Taking out that horrific start, over his next 206 PA, Grichuk hit .222/.296/.427 with a 92 wRC+ and a 9% walk rate and a 22% strikeout rate. It seemed like he was doing much of what the Cardinals asked of him, walking more, striking out less, and the power was there with the .200+ ISO. That pesky BABIP that treated him so well in 2015 was not treating him as kindly, however, as the .248 number over that time made him below average instead of slightly above average.

While the numbers weren’t great, there were positive signs that probably didn’t merit ending the Grichuk experiment. After hitting a homer on June 12, Grichuk was benched for the next two games, which, with two off days, amounted to a four day break. He got the start on June 17 after four days off (save for one pinch hitting opportunity), went 0 for 3 with a strikeout as Cole Hamels and Sam Dyson shutout the Cardinals. Grichuk was then sent to the minors.

The story at the time was the hope of providing Grichuk with an everyday opportunity would help him fix some holes, and the P-D’s story mentioned a slump (he was 1 for his last 21), and he was 6 for his last 40 with a wRC+ of 19, although he did have a reasonable 24% strikeout rate. Of course, in the 63 plate appearances before those 40, Grichuk was hitting .333/.397/.561 with a wRC+ of 157, a 10% walk rate and a 19% strikeout rate. Grichuk had been benched and subsequently demoted for a mini-slump.*

*Such is the danger of trying to look at too narrow of a time period to find a slump or a streak. From July 26 through August 11, Stephen Piscotty, in a period of 60 plate appearances, had a wRC+ of 23 with a 5% walk rate, 33% strikeout rate and a weak .107 ISO. It happens.

So Grichuk went down the minor leagues and in 43 plate appearances he hit .293/.302/.634 with nine strikeouts and just one walk. It’s hard to say whether he fixed anything, had a random good blip, or if he just performed better against weaker competition, but he got good production and returned to the majors. Over the next month, he struck out 35% of the time with walks just 6% of the time, but he posted a .333 BABIP and .234 ISO which helped him to a .250/.294/.484 line good for an above average 105 wRC+. Then he got demoted again.

On July 24, Grichuk had worked his wRC+ on the season up to 90, and if you take out his first 15 plate appearances, he was an average 99 over his last 267 plate appearances. His walk rate was at 8%, his strikeout rate was at 24% and his ISO was a healthy .218 and he was an average performer even with a low .266 BABIP. On July 26, he went 0 for 3 with two strikeouts. He was then benched for three straight games, wore a golden sombrero as the Marlins shutout the Cardinals 11-0, and after being benched the next day, Grichuk again found himself in the minors.

The buzzword was again at bats, although Stephen Piscotty found himself playing center field a few times in Grichuk’s absence. He was there only a week, garnering one walk, one strikeout, and one home run in a fine, but uneventful performance. Back up once again, Grichuk has struck out in 39% of his 33 plate appearances without a walk, but has nine extra base hits and one single, causing a lot of damage.

Perhaps lost amid the Cardinals rout on Sunday, Grichuk went 0-4 with four strikeouts. Last week, Mike Matheny insisted he was going to stick with Grichuk this time and acknowledged his own role in potentially thwarting Grichuk’s development, from Derrick Goold’s piece:

Matheny agreed that his lineups may have played a part in putting Grichuk in between. The pressure to produce wasn’t “self-induced,” Matheny said, when today’s performance would influence tomorrow’s start. It may not provide a young player confidence, the manager acknowledged.

With just 39 games to go, it’s difficult to see what the Cardinals will learn about Grichuk that they didn’t know in May or June. I’ve long been skeptical that Grichuk’s power would be able to overcome his inability to identify breaking pitches given his strikeout and walk totals. However, that is something very difficult to find out given the way his small slumps have led to pronounced benchings and demotions. Making adjustments at the big league level is one of the most difficult aspects of being a major league hitter, and the Cardinals have helped to prevent that learning process from taking place this season.

On the whole, Randal Grichuk has performed almost exactly as he was expected to. That performance is generally good enough to be a starter at the major league level, particularly in center field. While Tommy Pham has certainly earned the playing time he has received, there are ample ways to spread playing time given the Cardinals’ injuries and personnel. Right now, the 25-year-old Grichuk looks to be a solid contributor. It’s possible he could be more, and it’s possible he could be less, but 2016 was a missed opportunity in trying to find out.