JUPITER, Fl. (KMOV.com) -- There was a time when most people in St. Louis had no idea how to say Randal Grichuk’s name.
When the Angels swapped him to the Cardinals as part of the David Freese deal in 2013, his first name was still written with two Ls more often than not.
He’s come a long way from his days as Double-A prospect, rising fast to the majors and thrilling fans with a home run off the greatest pitcher on Earth in his first ever postseason game in 2014.
But there were the injuries. A back hurt in the weight room. An arm problem that led to him infamously starting a game in center field without being cleared to throw. The back again. Then knee surgery this offseason. For every promising moment, a check and balance seemed to follow.
As the calendar rolls through March, Grichuk remains fully healthy. He's coming off a two-month finale in 2016 that saw him hit 12 homers and slug .579. His transition to left is still in progress, but the long-haired 25-year-old still has the strength of Paul Bunyan and the face of Prince Eric. He still feels like a star.
“We keep talking about his potential right? I think last year it came to fruition to a point. Not to the peak, but he’s a guy with big, big power that should be able to put together consistent at bats,” manager Mike Matheny said. “This guy, he finds the barrel over the ball even if it’s not a violent swing. He never looks out of control That’s the thing about his power and his strength, it’s almost effortless.”
A couple seasons ago, Hall of Famer Red Schoendienst talked about Grichuk’s swing in terms of sound, not sight. He described the noise of him connecting with a ball as something special, something different.
“I’ve only ever heard it sound like that a few times,” he said.
For someone who’s been with baseball as long as Red, that’s a tough statement to forget.
Grichuk has always embraced that aspect of his game. He once laid out his offensive philosophy as, “hit ball hard, you win.”
It’s served him well thus far. A few days ago, he belted a home run that left Roger Dean Stadium like a rocket seeking low Earth orbit. It might have achieved exit velocity had it not smashed into the building beyond the left field wall.
But for every titanic blast he’s capable of producing, there’s a grounder or a line drive that’s just as eye-popping. A ground ball from Grichuk isn’t a standard ground ball. It moves faster, arrives earlier. His power can steal hits on balls that, for almost any other batter, would be outs.
“He just has that ability. That’s part of the understanding, when he needs to just get a ball in play hard here and when he can try to do big damage,” Matheny said. “I think he’s found that base. Not just his physical foundation but the base of his swing to build off of. We’re really pleased with what he’s doing right now and I know he is as well.”
What’s new this season is the consistency in his at bats. Grichuk is working hard to avoid the chase; the tendency to be too free-wheeling and get goaded into swinging at pitches outside the zone.
Last year he was among the 25 worst hitters with at least 400 at bats when it came to zone discipline. For someone whose strength is basically a BABIP cheat code, saving those swings for balls he can put in play is essential.
His building-bombarding blast was proof patience pays.
“That first at bat, going down 0-2, then taking it to 3-2 and battling for a knock, it felt good,” he said with a smile, pleased with his more polished ability to wait for a mistake.
But his offensive progress is only half of the puzzle. After a smattering of somewhat discreditable play in center last year, the Cardinals moved to acquire a center fielder with plans to move Grichuk to left field. While his speed and arm are both above average, the team pursued a more steady presence in center in the form of Dexter Fowler.
Grichuk contends left field is the toughest of the three outfield stations play, principally because of how the ball comes off the bat. He’s gotten dozens of hours of work in left, but he’s still finding his footing, helped along by Fowler’s tutelage.
“I’ve played out there enough to feel alright but I definitely can’t wait to get more reads out there,” Grichuk said. “It’s definitely good to get out there and get some innings with him. See how he moves, see how he talks and get a feel for each other out there.”
Fowler is no stranger to talk. The exuberant 30-year-old has been comfortably vocal since he joined this team this winter. In the same game in which Grichuk belted his bomb, the young outfielder made a highlight reel catch thanks to immediate help from the ex-Cub.
As the ball soared out to left, Fowler quickly read the trajectory and bellowed “Back!” taking any hesitation out of Grichuk’s reaction. He sprinted all-out toward the wall, and would not have made the play otherwise.
Just like his approach at the plate, Grichuk’s play in the field is reliant on his comfort. He says Fowler makes that easy.
“I think the team has embraced him really well. Obviously he’s a very vocal guy and he likes to keep things loose. I think that’s something we’ve needed in years past,” he said, noting how much friendlier camp has felt in 2017. “Just the team, the unity. It feels like a family. Everybody getting along, communicating, joking, having a good time. Keeping things light and still working hard and getting after our business.”
There's no uncertainty any more when it comes to pronouncing 'Grichuk' these days. Everyone knows his first name has just one L. He's an exciting talent, one the Cardinals think could bat .275 AND hit 30 homers if he stays disciplined at the plate. He's a fan favorite, famous for slaying Clayton Kershaw like Prince Charming felling a dragon. He's a talented, if raw, outfielder. One Mike Matheny thinks could soon be among the best at his position.
Most importantly, Randal Grichuk is a man with purpose. He knows exactly where he wants to go.