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Do Randal Grichuk's stats indicate the St. Louis Cardinals outfielder has improved as a hitter?

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Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

After going 0-for-4 in the St. Louis Cardinals' 2-1 win over the Dodgers on Friday night, outfielder Randal Grichuk had posted a .276 batting average, .304 on-base percentage (OBP), and .526 slugging percentage (SLG), which equals a .350 weighted on-base average (wOBA). Adjusting for the pitcher-friendly confines of Busch Stadium that Grichuk and the Cardinals call home, Grichuk owned a 123 weighted runs created plus (wRC+). Put otherwise, Grichuk's hitting through his first 79 plate appearances of the 2015 season had resulted in a batting line 23% better than the MLB average.

In Derrick Goold's Chat To Be Named Later at stltoday.com this week, the Post-Dispatch's senior beat writer gave an interesting answer in response to a question about Grichuk:

QUESTION: Barring injury, who gets the most playing time the rest of the year: Jon Jay, Peter Bourjos, or Randal Grichuk? I say Grichuk!

GOOLD: So do the numbers. But here's a warning: Grichuk profiles as a streaky player, especially as a young player. So there's going to be some time when he's not the "hot hand," as Matheny calls him, and the opening will be there for one of the other outfielders to get a run. Grichuk has improved as a player and even defied some of the trends that so many folks keep throwing at me.

I find it fascinating that there is a subset of fans who are willing to accept a player getting worse and dismiss their chances of ever reaching past performances, while they seem skeptical that a player can improve and outpace previous projections. Grichuk has improved. But that doesn't mean he won't have tough stretches, spiced with strikeouts.

I find the question and answer interesting because each appears to rest on the conclusion that Grichuk has improved as fact and I'm not so sure that there's much reason to believe that to be true. Lest you think I'm a moran who should get a brain, I recognize that Grichuk's batting line to date is excellent and an undeniable improvement over the one he posted last year during the regular season (RS) and postseason (PS). Just look:

Year

PA

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

wRC+

‘14 RS

116

.245

.278

.400

.678

.155

.299

90

‘14 PS

36

.171

.194

.343

.537

.171

.237

48

‘15 RS*

79

.276

.304

.526

.830

.250

.350

123

*2015 stats are through play on Friday, June 5, since I'm wrote this on the afternoon of Saturday, June 6.

Going by the mainstay stats, Grichuk's hitting has improved markedly. Of course, such a cursory assessment as that has never satisfied me. Especially when a batter's stats reflect the results over a mere 79 PAs.

A confession: I hate writing analysis about the Cardinals in April and May because there's not much in the way of stats that isn't ephemeral. There's nothing concrete upon which to base a conclusion. It's almost all noise and very little signal, to borrow from Nate Silver.

Grichuk notched 116 PAs last year with St. Louis during the regular season and 36 more in the playoffs. Grichuk has 79 PAs so far this year. Neither sample is remotely close to being large enough from which to draw any conclusions about Grichuk's major-league talent. Small sample sizes can and often do mask a player's true hitting talent.

For more context, Matt Holliday took his 80th PA on April 30. It's June, but Grichuk's batting line has been generated over roughly the same number of PAs as an everyday player's at the end of April. That's why an 0-for-4 performance like Friday night's against the Dodgers will lower Grichuk's BA and OBP by 16 points each, SLG by 30 points, and wOBA by 12 points. Grichuk's 2014 and 2015 are each a tiny sample size.

An example of how a hot start does not mean that a player has improved in terms of true hitting skill can be found in Grichuk's 2014 performance with Memphis. Grichuk got off to a torrid start with the Redbirds. At the time the Cardinals demoted Kolten Wong and Shane Robinson to Triple-A in order to create space on the active roster for Grichuk and Greg Garcia to help goose a struggling St. Louis offense, Grichuk had posted a .313 BA, .356 OBP, .542 SLG, and .387 wOBA over 90 PAs in Memphis. Grichuk finished 2014 with the following Triple-A line in 588 PAs: .259 BA, .311 OBP, .493 SLG, and 345 wOBA. It turned out that the hot start that earned him an early-season promotion to St. Louis was not indicative of much if any increase in skill. Grichuk's 2014 Triple-A line was in line with what one would expect given his .256/.306/.474 (.341 wOBA) Double-A performance. Grichuk's batting talent hadn't changed.

With the fact that everything Grichuk has ever done at the major-league level should be taken with a huge grain of salt in mind, I thought we might take a look at Grichuk's hitting peripherals to see if they give us any indication that the 23-year-old has undergone a change in batting talent. Unfortunately, we do not have plate discipline numbers from the postseason, so we'll confine this inquiry to regular season numbers over tiny sample sizes. The following chart compares Grichuk's peripherals from the 2014 regular season and the 2015 season through play on Friday, June 5 for the following stats from Fangraphs:

  • Swing Rate: Sw%
  • Zone Swing Rate: Z-Sw%
  • Zone Contact Rate: Z-C%
  • Outside Zone Swing Rate: O-Sw%
  • Outside Zone Contact Rate: O-C%
  • Contact Rate: C%
  • Swing Strike Rate: SwStr%
  • Walk Rate: BB%
  • Strikeout Rate: K%

Grichuk Plate Approach Stats: 2014 vs. 2015

Year

Sw%

Z-Sw%

Z-C%

O-Sw%

O-C%

C%

SwStr%

BB%

K%

‘14 RS

51.1

69.1

75.9

35.7

62.1

70.7

15.0

4.3

26.7

‘15 RS

55.4

72.5

87.4

41.1

46.2

70.6

16.3

3.8

25.3

Diff.

+4.3

+3.4

+11.5

+5.4

-15.9

-0.1

+1.3

-0.5

-1.4

These stats suggest:

  • Grichuk is being more aggressive at the plate in 2015 than he was in 2014. He has swung at more pitches both inside and outside the strike zone this year than he did last.
  • Grichuk is making contact at an almost identical rate in 2015 as 2014. This is because he is making contact with more pitches inside the strike zone (+11.5 percentage points) this season. Grichuk is both chasing more pitches outside the zone (+5.4 percentage points) and coming up empty on those swinging excursions (-15.9 percentage points).
  • Despite Grichuk's increased tendency to swing at offerings outside the strike zone and whiff, his strikeout rate has decreased a bit.
This information brings up the cat-and-mouse game of adjustments versus adjustments. How much longer will pitchers continue to give Grichuk pitches in the zone to hit given his apparently growing propensity to chase offerings outside the zone and come up empty when doing so? Will Grichuk continue his aggressive chasing ways? In yet another example of why baseball is so fun to watch, only time will tell.

Now let's examine the results of Grichuk's contact.

Grichuk Batted-Ball Stats: 2014 vs. 2015

Year

LD%

GB%

FB%

IFFB%

HR/FB

Soft%

Med%

Hard%

BABIP

‘14 RS

15.2

39.2

45.6

16.7

8.3

15.0

40.0

45.0

.316

‘15 RS

17.9

41.1

41.1

17.4

8.7

14.3

39.3

46.4

.352

Diff.

+2.7

+1.9

-4.5

+0.7

+0.4

-0.7

-0.7

+1.4

+.036

Jeff Sullivan noted at Fangraphs this week with respect to hard-hit rate (Hard%) that "it hasn't been clear yet how hitting the ball hard impacts other rate and counting statistics, and that seems to be a hole in our understanding of a statistic that is undergoing a moment in the spotlight." Sullivan went on to compare the correlation between Hard% and HR/FB%, ISO, SLG, and wRC+. While there's a relationship between Hard% and those stats from 2002-2014, using Hard% as a predictor is problematic.

With respect to LD rate (LD%), the batted-ball type that produces the highest batting average on balls in play (BABIP), Sullivan's research finds that there's virtually no connection to a batter's Hard%. I found this intriguing. Could a player's batted-ball profile be largely unrelated to Hard%? If so, could BABIP function without much correlation to Hard%? It appears so:

Grichuk's BABIP in the high minors and majors seems to jibe with this. Grichuk has hit the ball hard a large share of the time this season. He hit the ball hard last year, too, and had a BABIP of .316 to show for it—higher than average but not absurdly so. Moreover, in Double-A, Grichuk posted a .272 BABIP and with Memphis last year, it was .289. Presumably Grichuk hit Double-A and Triple-A pitching hard, too, yet he doesn't have a stratospheric BABIP to show for it like he does so far in 2015.

Moving onto Grichuk's batted-ball profile: The increase in liners is good, but his increase in grounders and decrease in fly balls cuts against his spike in power. What's more, the change in his batted-ball profile does not in any way support the 36-point increase in BABIP that is the foundation of his .276 BA. That's not to say that Grichuk's BABIP will perfectly align with the league-average BABIP (which is usually around .305 or so for non-pitchers) in the months to come. Grichuk's 2015 batted-ball profile doesn't provide any reason to project Grichuk to have a BABIP as sky high as it has been so far this season moving forward.

What does all of this mean? Grichuk's peripheral stats don't give us much reason to believe that a switch has been flipped and he is now an above-average MLB batsman in terms of true talent. Neither his .356 BABIP, .279 BA, .304 OBP, .526 SLG, nor .350 wOBA is likely to maintain at its current levels. That's why the ZiPS rest-of-season projection for Grichuk isn't too far off the system's preseason forecast for the outfielder.

Grichuk 2015 ZiPS Projections: Preseason vs. Rest of Season (Entering Play June 6)

ZiPS

BB%

K%

BABIP

BA

OBP

SLG

OPS

ISO

wOBA

OPS+

wRC+

Pre

4.0

21.4

.287

.248

.285

.429

.714

.181

.310

95

-

RoS

4.0

21.7

.291

.251

.286

.437

.724

.187

.312

-

97

This is not meant to opine that Grichuk is a bad player. He hits for power when he's able to make contact. And even though he is likely to make an out more than 70% of the time moving forward, with Grichuk's base-running and fielding skills, he can still be a nice player for the Cardinals even if he has not turned into a superstar over the offseason. Which is to say that Grichuk's early-season stats haven't changed my assessment of him as a ballplayer in the least.

Editor's Note: RB and I switched VEB Daily slots so that he could give you a proper MLB Draft preview on Monday, June 8, the first day of the 2015 amateur draft.

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