Coming into the 2015 season, Randal Grichuk found himself on the outside looking in when it came to a starting spot in the St. Louis Cardinals outfield. Due to projected depth at the beginning of the season, I wrote about how Grichuk could likely benefit from more time with the Triple-A Memphis Redbirds. Not surprisingly, though, after a solid spring training, Grichuk predictably outpaced a demotion and became the big league club's fourth or fifth outfielder (depending on how you believe Mike Matheny views Peter Bourjos).
Because of the aforementioned depth, Grichuk started one time during the team's first eight games of the season and accumulated a grand total of 10 plate appearances before being placed on the disabled list due to a weightlifting-related back injury. Exactly one month later, a healthy Grichuk returned to the active roster, and as a result of injuries to Matt Holliday (quad) and Jon Jay (wrist/thumb), the 23-year-old slugger began to receive starter's playing time, to the tune of 49 starts in the team's 57 games since. Needless to say, Grichuk has made the most of the regular playing time thus far.
What simply cannot be denied is that Grichuk has had a productive season at the plate thus far—comfortably leading the Cardinals offense in ISO, SLG, and wRC+—but what can be questioned is his sustainability, highlighted especially by a BABIP that is 79 points higher than the non-pitcher league average and sixth highest in baseball behind speedsters Anthony Gose (.380) and Dee Gordon (.403), sluggers Paul Goldschmidt (.388) and Miguel Cabrera (.394), and surprisingly pretty good Chris Colabello (.413). While some hitters, like Jon Jay, have made a career out of high BABIPs, it is never as high as Grichuk's. In fact, since 2010, the league's highest cumulative BABIP belongs to Yasiel Puig, and it is considerably lower at .362.
Batted Ball Velocity
With a minimum of 80 at bats as the qualifier, Grichuk is third in baseball with an average batted ball velocity of 93.65 MPH, behind only Giancarlo Stanton of the Miami Marlins and Joc Pederson of the Los Angeles Dodgers (per BaseballSavant.com). With the narrative persisting that the ball just "sounds differently" off Grichuk's bat, it is assuring to see that early returns on batted ball velocity give substance to such lofty claims. Going back to Grichuk's extremely high BABIP, it is possible to surmise that because he hits the ball much harder than most, the ball is more likely to fall in for a hit (i.e. hard-hit grounders will reach the outfield, gap shots will fly past ranging outfielders). That being said, with batted ball velocity being a brand new tool available to the public via @statcast, the sample size is not yet big enough to provide statistical backing to this notion. As Grichuk's and statcast's samples grow, this will definitely be something to keep an eye on in the future.
Strikeout Rate, Whiffs Per Swing, Pitch Recognition
At the other end of the spectrum, Grichuk strikes out rather frequently. The 2015 league average strikeout rate for non-pitchers is 19.6%, as compared to Grichuk's 30.9%, which is 11th highest in the majors. While he swings at a lot of pitches out of the strike zone (O-Swing% of 36.6%), 51 major leaguers do it more often than him, including Yadier Molina at 39.2%. What is particularly telling, though, is Grichuk's rate of "whiffs per swing" on breaking balls out of the strike zone.
Grichuk has faced 184 out-of-the-zone breaking balls in 2015, and the above graph shows that he hacked at 68 of them (37%) and came up empty on 45 of these swings (66%). Now, if he is swinging and missing consistently but having success on pitches he is able to connect with, the flaw is something he can endure and possibly overcome. Well, Grichuk has exactly one extra base hit (a home run) on breaking balls out of the zone, and it was on a hanger, so it is clear that pitchers have had success against Grichuk on breaking balls out of the zone (particularly down).
Going forward, Grichuk will have to make an adjustment because as his big league experience grows, so does the book opposing pitchers can utilize against him. Now, is the ability to recognize a breaking ball out of the pitcher's hand an acquirable skill? I am torn because I like to think that it is something that can develop with increased experience, but as we have seen with Matt Adams, he is still prone to swinging and missing at breaking balls down, despite more time in the big leagues plus two consecutive offseasons of working tirelessly to become more effective against breaking balls.
I won't get into this too much because it correlates with Grichuk's propensity to swing at too many pitches out of the zone, but this is definitely an area where the young outfielder needs to improve. Should his BABIP regress even slightly (read: it will), his on-base percentage will soon follow. Does his walk rate need to get to 10% or higher? No, but league average (7.7%) is a pretty reasonable benchmark for him, especially considering the raw power he possesses.
We do not have an adequate sample size to draw any concrete conclusions, but we do know is that Grichuk has the ability to be a plus defender at either corner outfield spot while being nothing short of above average in center. Of course, we should have known this about his center field defense, though, as he was candid in his response to our question last February: "I get good jumps and have good enough speed to cover the gaps. I have played some center the last two years and feel good out there." While I consider the arm the least necessary tool for an outfielder, it is not a deficiency for Grichuk as he has the second best outfield throwing arm on the team behind Jason Heyward.
Statistically and visually, Grichuk has been a fun player to watch in 2015. While it is not fair to expect him to maintain his current hitting pace, we just may be getting close to the point in the season where he is a better major league hitter than we projected. Now, it is obviously still too early to tell, but his high batted ball velocity plus his ability to knock the ball out of the yard are two skills possessed by few in today's game. Given his above-average to plus outfield defense, he does not have to hit as well as he has thus far and still be a valuable major league ballplayer.