Randal Grichuk started the year so poorly that he earned a demotion. Now, his production is fueling the Cardinals midseason comeback.

For the second consecutive season, the Cardinals sent Randal Grichuk to the minors. He was supposed to be a big piece of the outfield again this year, but it didn’t quite work out as planned. On May 28, the Cardinals sent Grichuk to High-A, and with good reason. The 26 year-old posted a paltry 68 wRC+ through two months of the season (100 is average).

The move indicated how disappointing Grichuk’s start was. However, the move was not unfamiliar to the outfielder. In 2016, the Cardinals demoted a struggling Grichuk to AAA, where he blasted 6 home runs in 23 games. After receiving the call back to the majors, Grichuk continued to show off his power, belting 16 homers in roughly 3 months.

Grichuk still showed major holes in his game (many strikeouts, few walks), but he was a huge net positive. After rejoining the big league club, Grichuk posted a 124 wRC+, much better than the 77 he had prior to his demotion. His second half brought hope that he could be a middle of the order bat in 2017. Instead, Grichuk went back to the minors, and may end up with a similar story to last season.

Post Call-up

Grichuk only spent one game at High-A in 2017. Perhaps the move was intended more as a message than an indication of what needed to be done. Grichuk then played one game in AA, homered, and then moved to AAA.

It’s hard to argue that Grichuk fixed whatever the problem was. Then General Manager John Mozeliak was clear that he wanted Grichuk to work on pitch recognition. Grichuk struck out nearly 30 percent of the time in AAA.

Nevertheless, Grichuk’s overall results encouraged the Cardinals to bring him back up after one month in the minors. Grichuk crushed six homers in 14 AAA games, and showed the extra-base power the Cardinals were missing. So far, he has been doing just that in the majors, too.

Through June 24, the Cardinals ranked 21st in the majors in home runs. Since he was called up on June 25, Grichuk has hit 11 home runs in just 144 plate appearances. That number ties him for 13th in MLB in that span along with Bryce Harper, Nolan Arenado, and other notable power hitters. It’s safe to say that Grichuk added a dimension to the offense that the team lacked.

Most of Grichuk’s batted ball profile resembles the same thing he has done for his entire career. Grichuk’s hard hit rate and fly ball rate during this stretch are only slightly above his career norms. The only glaring difference is that his home run per fly ball rate spiked during that time. Grichuk’s career HR/FB rate is 17 percent. Since June 25, it’s 27.5 percent.

Some of what Grichuk is doing can be sustainable and some is not. I see reasons why he could continue as he is doing right now and reasons why he won’t. As I go through them, realize that the Cardinals need him to continue as he is doing right now.

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Why Randal Grichuk will continue smashing home runs

Grichuk doesn’t get too many cheap home runs. Of the 11 that he has hit since returning from the minors, 9 have traveled more than 400 feet. Prior to his minors stint, Grichuk only hit 4 home runs, and just 3 farther than 400 feet. In other words, Grichuk isn’t hitting balls just barely over the wall; he is crushing them.

Grichuk’s ground ball and fly ball rates have been constant this year. However, he wasn’t hitting balls at the optimal launch angle for home runs pre-demotion. Grichuk is hitting balls with a launch angle between 20 and 30 degrees eight percent more often than he did before his demotion. If you are hitting the ball hard, then 20-30 degrees is a great launch angle for extra-base hits.

Prior to the demotion, many of Grichuk’s fly balls were really popups that managed to make it to the outfield. Now, he is driving the ball much further than before. His contact quality may be the same, but he is hitting the ball at just the right spot more often than he was before.

Good hitting coaches can teach players to improve their launch angle. For that reason, we shouldn’t dismiss Grichuk’s improvement as something that won’t necessarily continue. He is a strong enough person that the ball will travel when he squares one up. The strikeouts may always be an issue, but he can still be a productive player with many swings and misses.

Why Randal Grichuk will drop off

As I noted back when Grichuk was sent down, he really struggles to lay off low and inside pitches. Naturally, you would assume that pitchers would attack him there when he came back up. However, that has not been the case. Check out Grichuk’s zone profiles pre-demotion (left) and post-demotion (right), from Baseball Savant below.

          

Grichuk is seeing pitches low and inside about half as often as he did before the demotion. Perhaps all he needed was for the pitcher to help him out.

In all seriousness, this trend has to correct itself. In 2017, Grichuk has chased close to 60 percent of pitches in that low and inside section. Pitchers aren’t going anywhere near that region against him now. Eventually, someone with a scouting report is going to instruct his pitchers to throw inside on Grichuk instead of trying to keep it away from him.

It is possible that Grichuk’s recent hitting and the pitcher tendencies are related. Pitchers try not to go inside against powerful hitters. Nevertheless, the decision to stay away completely ignores Grichuk’s history as a hitter. Perhaps Grichuk is better against inside pitches now, but pitchers need to challenge him before we will know that. It won’t be too long before that starts happening again.

Outside of the pitching pattern argument, you could simply make a case that we have just seen a small sample from Grichuk that won’t last. You would have a good argument, too. Launch angle does not stabilize in the time that Grichuk has been back in the majors. Of course, Grichuk does have the power and he has done this before. The bigger issue is what he will do against the inside pitch.

Cardinals need the glass half full

The Cardinals reached their low point in the season the day before they called Grichuk back up. They had just lost 7-3 to the Pittsburgh Pirates, and they were seven games below .500. Since that date, the Cardinals have gone 28-17 to put themselves back in the playoff race.

Grichuk was instrumental during the recent 8-game winning streak. The outfielder registered four multi-hit games, and produced a 183 wRC+ during that time. Grichuk doesn’t need to perform that well the rest of the way, but he needs to keep hitting balls out of the park for the Cardinals to play in October.

Ultimately, I expect Grichuk to land somewhere between his pre and post-demotion splits. Of course, that’s the easy answer when we may be looking at the two extreme bounds of Grichuk’s ability. However, I do expect him to settle in right around a 100 wRC+ the rest of the way. I believe that the power surge is real, but I don’t believe that he can suddenly handle pitches inside and off the plate. Until he proves that, the Cardinals can’t bank on too much from him.

If nothing else, Grichuk has made Cardinals baseball a lot more interesting for the baseball world. He can launch homers and change a game with one swing (for better or worse). In April, he dragged them down. In July, he brought them back into contention. If he can lay off those low and inside pitches, then Grichuk will finally become the quality everyday player the Cardinals envisioned.

Photo Credit: Jeff Curry – USA TODAY Sports