ST. LOUIS (KMOV.com) -- The Cardinals, besieged by questions about their strengths, limitations and ultimately, their future, are rapidly running out of time for debate.
Their path forward will be defined by their action- or inaction- in the coming weeks. Of all the questions, no singular uncertainty best represents the 2017 Cardinals as well as Randal Grichuk.
The 25-year-old has been many things to St. Louis. He was a Double-A trade chip, grew into a potential five-star talent and, of late, has been a confounding mix of elite power-hitter and flawed approach.
His recent run, a four-game stretch in which he’s gone yard in every contest, is the very best of what Grichuk can be. He has undeniable power; a thunderous bat which turns pitchers’ mistakes into towering blasts and which turns even mis-hits into extra bases.
That has always been the Texan’s value proposition. His power is such that even ground balls are viable avenues for reaching base, because he hits them so much harder than everyone else. That strength is what the Cardinals coveted back in 2013, when they sent David Freese and Fernando Salas to Los Angeles in a trade. Peter Bourjos was the MLB return, but Randal Grichuk was the real prize. The guy drafted ahead of Mike Trout, with the kind of juice in his bat that turned baseballs into intercontinental ballistic missiles. Lou Brock described it using his ears, saying he hadn’t heard a batted ball sound like that in decades.
And when Grichuk is rolling, as he is right now, that sound almost feels familiar. It becomes a part of the ballpark tapestry, melting right into the pop of a glove and the shouted solicitations of hot dog vendors. When will The Stallion launch one into low orbit? Each time his spot in the order comes up, the cameras come out.
But Grichuk’s flaws make the valleys much deeper than the peaks are high. He has a strikeout rate of 30%, a number which has remained consistent season after season for four years.
That number is largely due to poor plate discipline, which the numbers glaringly reflect. Grichuk’s swinging strike percentage is 13.3 percent, well above the overall National League rate of about 10 percent. Worse, his O-swing percentage, which calculates how many of his swings are on pitches outside of the strike zone, is 34 percent. In short, that means he racks up a lot of strikes chasing bad pitches. He’s especially vulnerable against breaking balls (40 percent whiff rate) and high heat.
The NL average on O-swing percentage is less than 30%, but a fellow Cardinal offers a more striking comparison. Matt Carpenter’s O-swing percentage this season is 17%, and his career rate is 21%.
The Cardinals sent Grichuk down to High-A Palm Beach to fix his plate discipline, but injuries to the 25-man roster forced them to recall him before any lessons really had time to take root. There is a common mistake made in ascribing a lack of plate discipline to a player’s personality. It’s not that Grichuk is a reckless youth, unable or unwilling to mature enough mentally to lay off a low curveball. Pitch recognition is a skill, just like anything else in baseball. Hitters have about three-tenths of a second to pick up a pitch, calculate the spin and ultimate location and make a decision to swing or not- less if it’s someone like Aroldis Chapman throwing. Some are inherently good at it, some can develop it to an extent and some just don’t have that tool. At this point, it appears Grichuk’s abilities don’t include a refined eye.
Unfortunately, that neutralizes his greatest asset to a degree. James Bond looks great in a tuxedo, but if he can’t find his car, he never makes his grand entrance at the party. All the power in the world doesn’t help if pitchers never have to risk throwing a hittable pitch.
So St. Louis must now face the facts: Grichuk is not the player they hoped he would be. The days of waiting for him to blossom into a superstar are in the rear view.
The natural inclination at this juncture is to call for a trade. Grichuk has elite power, can play good defense and is on the perfect showcase tear. Any team that has on-base guys and needs a wall-hopper in the outfield would conceivably be licking their chops at a chance to get him, especially with three years of cost control remaining. The Giants and Athletics, for example, have massive production holes in their outfield. The Mariners just traded a minor-league Grichuk and could use some insurance.
But the Cardinals are set to undergo a transformation, at least to some degree. Whether it’s a move (or a series of moves) at this trade deadline, or major plays in free agency over the next two offseasons, the roster’s problems won’t remain the same. In a confounding season full of confounding questions, the organization must carefully confront the question of their most confounding asset.
Grichuk is not Mike Trout. He’s a high-strikeout guy with the power to hit 30-plus homers. And that’s perfectly fine! Plenty of players make careers and help their teams win that way. If he can improve his discipline even a small amount, he could be even more valuable.
The question the Cardinals must answer about Grichuk is no longer the hitter he’ll be; there’s very little left to explore about what his strengths and weaknesses are. Now, the question is simpler: Does Randal Grichuk, no longer a potential hero, still have a part to play in the next chapter of this story?