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Taking the Lamborghini into the shop

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Going under the hood with Randal Grichuk

MLB: Chicago Cubs at St. Louis Cardinals Jeff Curry-USA TODAY Sports

About two years ago, I wrote a post titled The pros and cons of a Lamborghini. John Mabry had recently likened Randal Grichuk to the Italian supercar, and I argued that the comparison was apt because Grichuk was both capable of superhuman feats and almost completely impractical.

After an offseason shuffle in-part to move Randal into the starting left field job, he has now been sent down to A-ball. The Lamborghini is in the shop again.

As for what Grichuk has been sent down to work on, I’ve heard and seen several people outside the organization suggest it’s to focus on “pitch recognition.” I can’t imagine that’s right. For one thing, Grichuk’s 2017 K% actually sits just below his career average. His walk rate is the best of his career, up a half-point over last year. He’s swinging at fewer pitches outside the zone, though taking a few more strikes in the zone...

The point is this, Grichuk’s eye looks about like it has every year of his career: Poor.

Where he’s really fallen off is in the power department. His HR/FB rate is just half what it usually is. His Isolated Power sits 100 points below where it was the past two seasons.

As GM John Mozeliak told the Post-Dispatch, “All of us... know he’s got that type of power, that game-changing type swing. Right now, it’s just not working.”

So there you have it. The Lambo is up on blocks and Mechanic George Greer is going to try to get more power out of it. He’ll call whenever the work is done. Is this the best number for you?

This periodic minor-league tune-up has become an annual thing for Grichuk. If you listen to the narrative-chasers on TV, it’s also often been responsible for fixing whatever was wrong. And then the next season, the same story plays out again, with the same peaks and valleys.

For me, when I wrote that original post, I still thought there might be a way for Randal to balance his skills - elite power, good base running and slightly-below-average defense in a premium position, against his major flaw - the strikeouts. A few things have changed since then.

If he’s hitting with that elite power, you can stomach the 30% strikeout rate. But as soon as the power flags, his value absolutely tanks. Yes, he’s a good base runner, but as litle as he’s on base, that skill doesn’t add a whole lot of value.

When I wrote the original post, I was still optimistic that Grichuk could hang around as a slightly-below-average center fielder. Managing to hang around in a premium defensive spot would have been another way to retain value even if his power dipped, his Ks surged a bit, etc. A big part of that ship sailed when the team acquired Dexter Fowler and moved Grichuk to left.

Before the season, I noted that it has been routine defensive plays that have been most problematic for Grichuk, and wondered if that would temper his performance even in the less-demanding corner outfield spot. In the first two months of the season, that has materialized, with his defensive value in LF even negative.

I don’t feel like Randal has changed greatly or tanked as a player or anything like that since 2015, but his success was always going to be a precarious balancing act, and the one thing we do have now is two more years of evidence that striking that balance consistently may not be feasible.

I looked for players similar to Grichuk, at least over the first four years of their career, and I did find two interesting comps: Chris Carter and Chris Davis. Each showed elite power, struck out like crazy, and struggled to maintain even a .300 OBP over their first four years.

Davis managed the herculean feat of raising his walk rate - at least over a few peak years - and turned himself into a very valuable player. Carter, on the other hand, showed it was possible last year to lead the league in home runs and still barely be worth more than replacement value. Power - even elite power - is not enough.

The Cardinals probably aren’t ready to put the Lamborghini on Craigslist just yet, but the move to Palm Beach suggests they may be looking at more of a re-build than just a tune-up. Maybe they can help Grichuk rediscover his power. Maybe - though I really doubt this - but maybe they can make improvements somewhere in his strikeout or walk rates. But however they do it, they need to determine if they can make this thing run for an entire season, or just in fits and starts.