ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The Cardinals wasted no time putting Randal Grichuk’s reworked swing to the test, plugging the 25-year-old into the cleanup spot his first night back with the team.
Grichuk just finished a run at Memphis in which he hit six homers in his final 10 games, hitting .295 over that final stretch.
The power is nothing new, especially at the Triple-A level. Grichuk has Barry Bonds-ed his way through PCL pitching during previous trips to Triple-A, and always returned to the MLB carrying the same deficiencies that necessitated his demotion.
This time, he was charged with improving his plate discipline and maximizing his power by not wasting hacks on unhittable pitches. He began in Palm Beach, working with hitting coach George Greer.
“For the first week we didn’t play in any games. We just went and hit,” Grichuk said.
He’d report in the morning and head into the cages with Greer. He’d swing for an hour and a half, maybe two. He’d swing until his hands blistered and bled and he had to quit for the day.
He was searching for something, anything, that felt comfortable.
“I think a lot of this is about confidence and finding his swing,” Cardinals GM John Mozeliak said Sunday. “I feel like when he was up here last time, he was going down a path that just seemed somewhat endless. It was really more of a time out, and allow him to go work on some things without the pressure of the big leagues.”
As Grichuk continued to swing, both interpreting Greer’s instruction and searching his body for what felt right, he found some harmony.
“A few days ago, I felt like I got out of my head and a lot more feel for my swing. I just felt like I was going up there swinging and having fun and not thinking too much. Just kind of hitting what was thrown to me. Staying with my approach that I have up there and not venturing away from that due to thought process,” he said.
That would be a major change from what was going on in his head earlier this season. As his strikeouts mounted and the power subsequently dropped, his mind began to lose focus. He knew his stats, and those of players looking to take his place. He knew who was coming off the disabled list soon, and how their strikeout rates compared to his.
“You could kind of see writing on the wall whenever you’re struggling and you have guys playing well, guys coming off the DL, whatever it may be,” he said, explaining how he heaped more and more pressure on himself and was all over the place in the batter’s box. “It causes you to swing at bad pitches, causes you not to swing at good pitches, causes you to not have the normal swing you would. Your body doesn’t react the same. I put a lot of that on myself.”
While in the minors, he also returned to some physical things that worked in the past. In both his pre-swing load and hand placement, Grichuk reverted back to where he was in 2015. He said the change made everything smoother and cleaner, and given that was his best offensive year so far, he’s likely to stick with it.
“I feel a lot more confident, my swing feels a lot better. It was kinda good to take a step back and breathe. To be able to work on some things in a less intense atmosphere and really be able to simplify things,” he said.
While Grichuk feels better and the power was eye-popping, there is still the issue of plate discipline. He had a 20:4 strikeout to walk ratio, a rate not meaningfully improved from his time in the majors.
“I think when you look at sort of what his performance was down there, it really wasn’t all that different than what he’s done in the past,” Mozeliak said. “I think when you look at strikeout rate as a whole, there can be a tradeoff if you’re hitting enough balls out of the ballpark. But it’s a very fair observation that it didn’t change dramatically – one percent. I get it.”
Dexter Fowler’s move to the disabled list Sunday meant the Cardinals couldn’t wait for Grichuk to show the discipline they were hoping for before they promoted him. They needed help, and he was it.
Given that just weeks ago Grichuk’s return to the MLB was talked about as a ‘sink or swim’ moment, Sunday has a very high-stakes feel. But the Texas native seemed unfazed by the early call up and cleanup assignment, instead focusing on the lessons that brought him back to Busch.
“Really, the way I’m seeing it is just getting an opportunity to go out there and play. I’m not going to put too much pressure on myself in the sense of sink or swim,” he said. “I know I can play. I’ve played up here, I’ve put up good numbers. It’s just a matter of staying out of my head, going up there and simplifying things. Seeing the ball and reacting to it. That’s what I’m going to do.”
Though he returns with a clear head, there’s no denying this is a critical juncture for Grichuk’s career. The Cardinals are at a crossroads, unable to solve a litany of problems and heading into a trading deadline that could determine the future direction of the club. Grichuk’s place within the franchise- and within the league at large- is up in the air.
“At some point you have to lose the label of prospect,” Mozeliak said. “At some point, you have to decide if you’re an every-day player in the big leagues. Performance drives that.”
Grichuk narrowed in on the cause of that performance gap Sunday. For him, it was a matter of millimeters; a whisper’s difference between success and failure.
“[In the majors] I was fouling off my pitch. I wasn’t hitting it. Up here you get that one- that one pitch, really. If you miss it, you’re probably going to get some sliders in the dirt, fastballs up, you’re not going to get a good pitch over the plate. I felt like down there I was hitting that pitch and I wasn’t missing it.”
Unfortunately that difference has been the undoing of a great many baseball players. Those millimeters, the ones that separate Triple-A from the majors, are perhaps the most difficult to overcome in all of sports. Grichuk believes he can, and in so doing, re-start the hype machine that revved to life when he arrived in St. Louis three years ago. He just has to get out of his own way.