Randal Grichuk seems to have taken a step backwards this year for the Cardinals. Despite showing some promise in the last two months of the 2016 season, there is something very telling in his swing, that has made him a different hitter from the one he was in his rookie campaign.
As the season is in its final stretch, I think it is important to take a look at one of the Cardinals biggest under-performers of the season: Randal Grichuk. Despite still being in the heat of the NL wild card race, there is no doubt that 2016 has been an underwhelming season for the Cardinals, and the play of Grichuk has been no exception. No one debates Grichuk’s outstanding outfield play, constantly a threat to make the highlight real every night.
However, it is his offense which has taken a big downturn this year. Coming off a 2015 season in which he batted a respectable .276 with 17 home runs and 47 RBI in a promising rookie campaign, the Cardinal’s center fielder has had an all but disappointing 2016, seeing his batting average drop over 30 points, and being forced to make two trips to Triple-A Memphis. Although still showing some moderate power and production, slugging 23 homers and knocking in 62 runs in 408 at-bats with the big club, there is no doubt 2016 came as a let down not only to Randal, but to the Cardinal faithful, given the high hopes following his rookie season a year ago.
So the big question is, why? Is this just the formidable “sophomore slump” of baseball lore? Or is there a legitimate, mechanical reason for Grichuk’s struggles? Well, as a writer, although I could take the side of mystery and superstition, it would leave me with much less substance than if I were to take the tangible, concrete route. So here it is: why Randal Grichuk has seemingly fallen down baseball mountain in his sophomore stint.
Grichuk’s 2015 swing
Lets take a look at stills of an RBI triple by Grichuk off of Clayton Richard of the Cubs, in a 6-5 victory on July 8, 2015 at Wrigley.
Take note of how, in the first still, in his pre-pitch set-up, Grichuk points his bat almost directly backwards, and his front elbow points toward the pitcher, with his forearm level parallel to the ground. Now, this clearly, to any baseball fan, seems like an unorthodox set-up, but let’s take a look at how it benefitted Grichuk in his rookie season. In the second frame, we see Grichuk load into more of a conventional stance, with his bat bisecting his head and his forearm more tucked into his body.
However, what his original set up allowed his body to do is then easily move into the third position, where we can again see his forearm level, and his bat pointing backwards again, in the plane of the pitch. Its simple physics. Newton’s third law states that every action has an equal and opposite reaction. Thus, for Grichuk, starting with his bat pointing backwards, and his forearm level, allowed him to more easily gain this position as he started his swing.
The main goal for all hitters, as I see it, should be to keep their bat in the plane of the pitch for as long as possible. This allows hitters to not have to be so perfect with their timing, and thus become better adjusted for speed changes and movement of the pitch. We can see the physical benefits of this move in slide four, as Grichuk’s torso is completely square to the pitcher at contact, with his arms in a perfect “box,” allowing for him to push out to optimal extension in slide five, leading to a rocket double into right-center field.
Changes in 2016
Now, on to 2016. These stills from an April 5th loss to the Pirates show some clear deviations from Grichuk’s 2015 swing for the Cardinals.
Again, let’s start with Grichuk’s set up. Notice how here, instead of starting with his bat pointing straight back, preemptively in-line with the pitch, as in 2015, his bat is pointed toward the third-base dugout. This causes him, in his load, to wrap the bat around his head, as you can see in the second still, rather than simply bisecting his head with the bat. Notice the sharper angle of the bat in Grichuk’s 2016 swing, as opposed to his 2015 swing. His bat now almost bisects his neck, rather than his head. This causes his bat to be late, as we can see in the third slide. His elbow is pointed to the pitcher, as it should be, but look at his bat. Unlike in his “old” swing, his bat now points back and to the left, rather than directly backwards and in the plane of the pitch.
— Baseball Essential (@BB_Essential) May 6, 2016
Again, equal and opposite reactions. Because Randal started with his bat pointing to the third-base dugout, his first move made the bat point to the left, rather than straight in line with the baseball. This decreases the time that the bat is in the plane of the pitch an extreme amount, thus making his margin of error nearly infinitesimal. However, Grichuk does get into a good position at the contact point, in slide four. His torso is square, his elbow tucked in, and his head down. But watch what happens next, in the last still.
He takes his bat immediately out of the zone, as Grichuk rolls over, and the bat flashes down to his left pocket. He achieves no extension. Once again, this is because of Newton’s third law. He started to the left, tried to push forward toward the pitcher, but according to the basic laws of physics, his body had to go down and to the left, taking his bat out of the zone almost immediately, thus making it near impossible to hit a Jon Neise fastball. And mind you, Neise isn’t exactly a flamethrower.
Now, why would the Cardinal’s young outfielder make this change, and who would tell him to do so? As a life-long baseball player, having spent hour after hour on swing mechanics, perhaps I can provide some insight. Grichuk’s 2015 set-up is unorthodox, and perhaps even looks un-athletic. To an old school hitter such as Cardinal’s hitting coach John Mabry, watching a young hitter with a swing like this may make him a little jittery, despite, or even because of, its initial success. If I had to hypothesize, I would say that a veteran baller like Mabry saw Grichuk succeed with this unconventional set-up, and thought he could make a Hall of Famer out of the young prospect with just a few mechanical tweaks. Or perhaps, Grichuk started to exaggerate his mechanics, leading to a flaw, and thus a necessary correction, which ended up going to far in the other direction.
Before diving into possible 2017 additions, we must consider some general information regarding Major League promotions. Specifically, it is important to recognize that promotions happen for a multitude of reasons, as well as at different times throughout the season. In a plain sense, a promotion can occur when a player is simply ready to take the next step.
Either way, Grichuk seems to be a one out of a thousand player who needs to start in this position, with his bat already pointing backwards, and his forearm already leveled, before the pitch is even thrown. This is what seems to make his swing work, and although rare for major leaguers, we don’t need to look far to find another in the same boat. Jason Kipnis, second baseman of the impending winners of the AL central, and two time all-star, has posted a solid .278 batting average with 22 homers and 78 runs batted in this year. If we take a look at his set up, we can see how pronounced his preemptive bat plane is, even more so than Grichuk’s in 2015.
Just like with Grichuk, however, this set up allows his body to naturally bring the bat into the plane of the pitch after a short load backwards.
So, despite the unorthodoxy of it, it seems that a key for Randal Grichuk, and the Cardinals, is for him to begin with his bat pointed almost directly backwards, and his elbow pointed toward the pitcher. This allows his body to naturally move his hands out toward the pitcher, and keep the bat in the plane of the pitch for a longer time, which allows for a larger margin of error in timing of the pitch.
If we look at Grichuk’s monthly stats, he in fact has improved offensively over the last two months, batting .288 over his last 30 games, with an .905 OPS and 8 home runs over that span. However, his swing still doesn’t look the same as it did in his impressive rookie tour. For whatever reason, Grichuk’s swing has changed from 2015 to 2016, and while it may seem that he is adjusting to his new stroke, for me, his rookie swing gives him the best chance of consistent success. I believe that if Randal Grichuk wishes to contribute to the Cardinals in years to come, and perform like the elite player that he is expected to become, he needs to get back to the swing that got him to the big leagues, and that helped him become a top rookie in 2015.
Photo Credit: Isaiah J. Downing-USA TODAY Sports