Toronto Blue Jays: Grichuk’s comps point to a positive future

 

Jays From the Couch delves into the kind of hitter new Toronto Blue Jays OF, Randal Grichuk is and what we can expect from him

 

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In the ten days since the Randal Grichuk trade, Blue Jays fans seem to have taken reasonably well to the addition. There is an understanding that, at the least, he can be a very useful everyday player. Over his career, he’s provided slightly above-average hitting, base running and defence—with his defensive versatility an added bonus. Together, those traits result in a very productive player. He’s also a player with a lot of upside remaining, a Smoak conversion away from getting his strikeout rate down and unlocking his elite contact quality.

 

His profile has been well-reported, but it’s worth reiterating, given its extremeness. His walk rate is well below-average and his strikeout rate is well above-average. On the other hand, his power is surpassed by only the most elite hitters in the majors, while his ability to turn balls in play into base hits is itself better-than-average. The result is a batter who has been more productive than most over the last four seasons.

 

 

What I’ve been curious about is how Grichuk’s batting profile will develop as he enters his prime. Obviously, we will have to wait and see in order to get a definitive answer. That said, I am not going to write a 200-word post saying, “nobody knows what will happen for sure, so let’s just patiently wait and see.”  It’s me. I need some (speculative) answers. Now.

 

I thought I’d find some comps for Grichuk using a couple of different approaches. First, I’m going to replicate the approach I used to find comps for Josh Donaldson. I’ll look at all batters who played their age 22 to 25 seasons from 1950 to 2014, focusing on those with a similar amount of playing time as Grichuk (1000 to 1500 PA). Statistically, I’ll compare them to Grichuk via BB%, K%, ISO, BABIP and wRC+ (with the first four stats adjusted for the league average during a particular player’s era). As I discussed in more detail in the linked post, these four stats are useful in this sort of exercise as they account for every part of a hitter’s production at the plate: walks, strikeouts, extra base hits and base hits. As I did with Josh, I’ll also replicate these comps with a focus on more recent players (those whose age 22 season was no earlier than 1995).

 

Then, I’ll switch focus to a set of stats that capture a player’s underlying plate discipline—the rates at which batters swing at pitches outside (O-Swing%) and inside (Z-Swing%) the strike zone and the rates at which batters make contact with pitches outside (O-Contact%) and inside (Z-Contact%) the strike zone. Grichuk has an extreme profile based on these stats, as well. He swings a lot more than most, whether the pitch is inside or outside the strike zone. Unsurprisingly, that aggressive approach results in him missing a lot of pitches too, producing relatively low contact rates. In addition, given Grichuk’s extreme power ability, I will also control for ISO. As the plate discipline stats are only available back to 2002, my focus will be on a smaller sample size of very recent players.

 

 

The first set of comps we’ll examine comes from the largest sample size: players since 1950. As a group, Grichuk’s comps performed very similarly to him in his early 20s (just as we’d hope). The group walked a little more often than Grichuk and struck out a bit less often, but their league-adjusted power, ability to get on base on balls in play and overall production were nearly spot on. Richie Sexson, Grichuk’s closest comp, performed very similarly to Grichuk in their age 22 to 25 seasons—while Sexson walked a bit more often, the two are virtual equals in the four other stats.

 

 

This set of comps developed into even better hitters during their age 26 to 28 seasons. Plate discipline was the biggest area of improvement—seven of ten improved their walk rates from well below-average to above-average, with generally modest improvements in strikeout rates, as well. These batters saw their power numbers increase, without any change in their ability to get on base. Cumulatively, the gains led to a decent increase in overall production—while a 108 wRC+ gets you into the Top 100, a 124 wRC+ is good enough for Top 30 in the majors. These comps imply that Grichuk can develop into a very solid hitter.

 

The second set of comps provides more recent examples. However, the smaller sample size of potential comps results in less accurate matches. In particular, this group of comps diverges from Grichuk in the three outcome stats that best tell his story as a hitter (BB%, K% and ISO). These batters had better plate discipline and less power than Grichuk over their age 22 to 25 seasons. The comps were a good match in terms of ability to get on base and overall production.

 

 

As such, the numbers this group put up in their age 26 to 28 seasons are secondary in importance to the changes experienced by the group of hitters. Once again, Grichuk’s comps saw improvements in plate discipline, though the magnitude was smaller for this group compared to the previous. Moreover, power and ability to get on base diminished a little bit, resulting in a small decline in overall production. These comps imply that Grichuk should maintain his slightly above-average production level.

 

Finally, the last set of comps focuses instead on a batter’s power and underlying plate discipline numbers. This is the smallest sample size, as these plate discipline stats are only available back to 2002. Again, the smaller sample leads to imperfect matches. In particular, this group had much less power than Grichuk. In terms of plate discipline, the comps were actually fairly similar to Grichuk, the biggest difference being his propensity to chase. While I didn’t control for wRC+ in this case, it worked out that the group had an average wRC+ identical to Grichuk.

 

 

In their age 26 to 28 seasons, this group saw their wRC+ fall to league average. The main cause appears to be a modest fall in power. Positively, they did chase less frequently and made contact more often.

 

These different comps can help us project some potential futures for Randal Grichuk. In particular, they help us think about the number of wins above replacement Grichuk might be worth based on different levels of hitting production. In each scenario, I assume that Grichuk gets 550 PA per season (about 130 games) and produces league average defence and base running, pretty reasonable assumptions. Limiting his projected PA somewhat bakes into the projection the various injuries and knocks any player can expect to deal with—over the last three seasons, his 1650 projected PA would’ve ranked 91st in the majors. Over his career, he has produced 8.7 defensive runs above average (Def) and 5.8 base running runs above average (BsR), so I’m also being a little conservative by assuming that he only produces league average defence and base running over the next three seasons.

 

 

On the low end of lies Grichuk’s 2017 hitting production (.315 wOBA). While this would make him a below-average hitter, he would still be useful if he maintains league average defence and base running. His projected 4.4 fWAR (1.5 fWAR per season) would’ve ranked 150th in the majors over the last three seasons.

 

The third set of comps we examined (based on ISO and plate discipline data since 2002) saw their hitting production fall from a bit above-average to average, right on the dot. If Grichuk were able to produce league average hitting, defence and base running, while remaining healthy enough to see 550 PA per season, he projects to produce 5.7 fWAR (1.9 fWAR per season) over his age 26 to 28 seasons. Over the last three seasons, that kind of production would’ve ranked him 113th in the majors.

 

The second set of comps we looked at were, as a group, able to maintain their age 22-25 production through their age 26-28 seasons. If Grichuk can maintain a slightly above-average bat, he projects to be a very useful player for the Blue Jays—over the last three seasons, a 6.6 fWAR would’ve ranked 93rd in the majors. A 2.2 fWAR per season player seems like a good baseline scenario for Grichuk, assuming reasonably good (but by no means perfect) health. It basically requires him to be the same hitter he’s been thus far in his career (warts and all), while allowing him to regress a little as a defender and base runner. The key ask from Grichuk would be doing this with increased playing time relative to his first four seasons.

 

The first set of comps were very similar to Grichuk during their age 22-25 seasons and were actually able to increase their hitting production during their age 26-28 seasons. If Grichuk were to replicate the group’s average improvement, his projected hitting production (.359 wOBA) would approach his 2015 career-high levels (.370 wOBA). That kind of hitting would power him to 10.5 fWAR (3.5 fWAR per season), which would’ve been good for 41st in the majors over the last three seasons and put him alongside coveted outfielders like Odubel Herrera, JD Martinez, Adam Eaton and Dexter Fowler (over a similar amount of playing time as them).

 

Randal Grichuk has been open about working to improve his vision, which I learned more about by reading Laura Armstrong’s excellent article on the topic. He’s spent the off-season taking a vision training course and spending hours watching pitches delivered by “a machine that can throw sliders, curveballs, cutters and sinkers.” What was particularly relevant to this post was a study that Armstrong’s article cited, describing a NCAA baseball team that had engaged in vision training. I found the team’s results and calculated that they improved their team wOBA from .317 to .346 (+9%).

 

What if Randal Grichuk’s vision training improves his wOBA by 9%, from his career mark of .331 to a new and improved .361? That would cause his fWAR to rise to 10.8 (3.6 fWAR per season), up past Brandon Belt for 40th and right behind Edwin Encarnacion.

 

Let’s end off with a projection that is about as optimistic as you can get, without being completely impossible. First of all, let’s assume that Randal Grichuk stays healthy enough to start 150 games per season (about 625 PA per season). 1875 PA would have been the 36th highest mark in the majors over the last three seasons, just ahead of Jose Bautista (1869 PA). Let’s also assume that he reproduces his 2015-17 defence (Def of 4.2) and base running (BsR of 7.3).

 

If Grichuk were to improve as much Richie Sexson did, his closest comp by far, he could be even more valuable to the Jays. After maintaining a 108 wRC+ over his age 22-25 seasons (just like Grichuk), Sexson improved to a 129 wRC+ over his age 26-28 seasons. In 2017, for any batter playing his home games at the Rogers Centre, a 129 wRC+ would’ve equated to a .367 wOBA.

 

The extra playing time and improvements across the board increase Grichuk’s production up to 14.3 fWAR (4.8 fWAR per season). That mark would’ve ranked 13th in the majors over the last three seasons, clearly a best-case scenario for Randal, the Blue Jays and their fans.

 

Is this last projection likely? No, but as you can see, the ingredients for such an outcome aren’t individually ridiculous. He’s been quite healthy thus far and didn’t play often enough to get physically burned out, lending confidence to his ability to avoid injury and be a truly everyday player. Moreover, not only does a .367 wOBA reflect the kind of improvement experienced by Grichuk’s closest comp, it’s a mark Grichuk himself has surpassed before (.370 wOBA in 2015). Finally, there’s no reason to expect his defence and base running to start to regress until his early 30s, after the Jays’ three years of team control come and go.

 

Taking a step back and processing the various comps gives us a window into Randal Grichuk’s future as a Blue Jay. If his 2017 batting performance is the new norm, he’ll still have a surplus of value thanks to his affordable contract, solid base running and defensive quality and versatility. If he can hit around or slightly better than league average, he’d be about the fifth most productive position player on the team, a key part of the 2018-20 Blue Jays. If his hitting takes a step forward—thanks to some combination of the normal maturation process, vision training and some chats with Justin Smoak and Josh Donaldson—he’d likely be among the Top 50 position players in baseball over the next three seasons. I optimistically look forward to seeing what happens.

 

 

 

*Featured Image Credit: Minda Haas Kuhlmann UNDER CC BY-SA 2.0

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I’m an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.

Jeff Quattrociocchi

I'm an economics professor in the GTA whose lifelong love for the Jays was reignited by that magical August of 2015 and the amazing moments since.