Robbie Grossman is for Real
Despite the addition of high school phenom Josh Bell via a daring $5mm, over-slot bonus in last year’s amateur draft, the Pittsburgh Pirates needed something big from at least one of their position players last year, in order to keep their system on track to produce a winner at the major league level in 2014 and beyond. Fortunately, Starling Marte took a significant step forward, handling the jump from A to AA effortlessly, while improving his numbers along the way. But the most decisive breakthrough made by any position player in the system was undoubtedly right fielder Robbie Grossman’s rise from obscurity to potential Top 100 prospect.
Before 2011, only hard core followers of the Pittsburgh ball club knew that Grossman existed, despite an interesting pedigree. He was very highly thought of during his career at Cypress Fairbanks High School, and was considered to be either late first round or sandwich pick material heading into the 2008 amateur draft. As it turned out, Grossman’s draft status dropped due to his strong commitment to the University of Texas, and the Pirates were able to land him in the 6th round and sign him to a $1mm bonus.
Grossman was disappointing in his first two seasons of professional baseball, striking out at a hefty clip and not hitting for power at all. Given my obsession with walks, he was certainly on my radar screen due to his high OBP at West Virginia, but about the only positive he had to show for his 2010 season at Bradenton was a decline of ten percentage points in his K rate – nice, but not necessarily indicative of a breakthrough, in light of his other numbers.
|2009 – A -||535||5||14.0||30.7||.089||.266||.373||.355||119|
|2010 – A||562||4||11.7||21.0||.100||.245||.344||.345||103|
The Pirates faced a decision in 2011 about whether to graduate Grossman to AA along with his outfield partners Starling Marte and Quincy Latimore. As he was still age relevant to the league at 21, they decided to let Grossman repeat the high A level, and were rewarded with an amazing turnaround. He dominated the Florida State League, turning himself into a devastating leadoff hitter in a Marauders lineup that scored a league-leading 695 runs. The Pirates let him finish the season at Bradenton, as the team was contending for the pennant, but sent him to compete in the Arizona Fall League against mostly older, more advanced players in October. Grossman continued to surprise analysts with his performance. Here are Grossman’s lines for 2011:
|2011 – A||616||13||16.9||18.0||.157||.293||.418||.450||148|
|2011 – R||126||7||15.9||14.3||.250||.375||.473||.625||158|
Despite becoming the first player to both score 100 runs and walk 100 times in a season since Nick Swisher accomplished it in 2004, Grossman has become a polarizing figure among baseball analysts. The scouting dogma says that Grossman is a tweener, without the speed and glove for CF or the power for a corner. The groupthink is that his tools are average; skeptics point to the fact that he was repeating the level last year, which generally results in a skewed performance. However, Grossman was only 21 and certainly age appropriate for the FSL. Others point to the fact that McKechnie Field, while only in use for two seasons in the FSL, has inflated offense significantly thus far.
It appears that this is a genuine phenomenon, as most of the top Bradenton hitters seemed to benefit from their home park, Grossman included. His OPS at home was 150 points higher than on the road. But a major consideration to bear in mind is that individual park effects are measured against the average performance of the league as a whole, and the Florida State League is renowned as one of the worst places to hit in the minor leagues. Grossman’s line of .259/.381/.414 on the road doesn’t look very impressive in comparison to his home numbers, but the league average was .262/.331/.386, meaning that Grossman’s road OPS of .795 – without the benefit of playing any games at McKechnie Field – was still +11% compared to the league.
But what is most telling about Grossman’s season – and what many observers have failed to factor into their evaluations – is his development as a hitter as the year progressed. The transformation that occurred during the season is what should have Pirates’ fans on the edge of their seats for 2012. First, Grossman has only been a switch hitter since his junior year of high school. He was such a bad hitter from the left side in his first two seasons that the Pirates tried to discourage him from continuing the switch-hitting experiment. From that low point, this is how Grossman performed from the left side in 2011:
This is worth repeating – Grossman was encouraged to drop hitting from the left side at the end of the 2010 season, only to post an OPS of .858 left-handed in 2011. This rate of development is virtually unheard of in professional baseball, and it continued in Arizona – Grossman hit all 7 of his home runs from the left side in the AFL.
If that wasn’t impressive enough, Grossman literally made himself into a different hitter as the year went on. Using batted ball data, we can see that Grossman’s power surge towards the end of the season was not a fluke. He literally cut his ground ball rate in half between the first month of the season and the last, and doubled his outfield fly ball rate. His HR/FB rate rose from 4.5 in May to 13.9 in Aug/Sep. Again, this is uncharted territory; I think evaluators would be hard pressed to find another prospect who has managed this level of transformation in such a short period of time.
If you are the type that always looks to find a fly in the ointment, you can point to his August numbers as evidence that Grossman may have become a bit enamored with his new found power stroke, as his walk to strikeout ratio did an about face. I doubt that this is anything more than an outlier due to the change going on in his performance at the time; his walk rate returned to normal in the AFL. More serious was the hamate bone fracture that cut short his AFL season. This can have an impact on a player’ s power for up to a year; Grossman will already be facing the difficult move from Bradenton to the pitcher’s park at Altoona, which has the potential to murder his new found left-handed power.
I found the batted ball data about Grossman particularly interesting; it suggests that he has a lot more in the tank, and that skeptics who are questioning his breakout season will be forced to reevaluate their preconceptions a year from now.