The Cardinals sent Randal Grichuk down to High-A yesterday so he can work on pitch recognition. Grichuk can thank Tommy Pham for that opportunity.

On May 4, the Cardinals pulled Tommy Pham from his AAA game with Memphis. Stephen Piscotty and Dexter Fowler both got injured in that night’s Cardinals game, and Pham was headed to the majors. One day later, Pham rejoined the big league club hoping to fill in while the two starters nursed injuries. Since getting recalled, Pham has been the Cardinals’ best hitter, and will remain on the roster as Jose Martinez comes back from injury.

Pham’s slash line currently sits at .333/.415/.609. Even if everyone else was hitting, the Cardinals would have tried to find a way to keep Pham in the majors. He quickly made his way to the top of the order, where he has continued to impress. Pham has five homers on the year, and has been running a bit, too. He has 4 stolen bases in 6 opportunities, and has added a run with his total base running.

If the Cardinals had known he was going to do that, then Pham would not have started the season in AAA. Pham will regress some, but he has hit well in the past. He has a career walk rate above 10 percent, and a career wRC+ of 123. His career 40.6 hard hit rate ranks towards the top of the league, and Pham has shown power in the past.

As a result of his great hitting this year, Pham got to stay on the roster when the Cardinals welcomed back Jose Martinez, and Randal Grichuk was sent all the way back to High-A Palm Springs.

Randal Grichuk

Since reaching the major leagues, Grichuk has struggled to put the ball in play. His career strikeout rate is just a hair under 30 percent, much worse than average (21.5 percent). Grichuk swings at 37.7 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, compared to the Major League average of 29.2 percent. In short, the Cardinals need more contact out of their young outfielder, and they felt Grichuk needs to make a stop in the minors to fix his problem.

General Manager John Mozeliak says that Grichuk will work on his “strike zone management” in the minors. I suppose that makes sense because of the aforementioned numbers, but I can’t exactly tell you what it means. It could mean he needs to work on pitch recognition.

The problem is that Grichuk is whiffing on more than one-fifth of his swings regardless of what the pitch is. If recognition is his problem, then Grichuk can’t recognize any pitch. Pitch recognition problems are easier to fix when you are having trouble identifying one or two pitches, not five or six.

The only thing that I could narrow down about Grichuk’s problem was location. Grichuk swings at inside pitches and low pitches more often than Matt Carpenter swings at strikes. Here is a zone profile from Brooks Baseball that shows how often Grichuk swings at a pitch in each part of the plate:

Grichuk has effectively extended the strike zone to include all low and inside pitches. He may be a powerful enough hitter to be useful now, but Grichuk needs to become more disciplined if he wants to take his game to the next level. For now, he will work with offensive strategist George Greer in Palm Springs. The Cardinals are indicating that they don’t know how long this minors stint will take. I think they need to keep him down there until they are confident he can lay off the wrong pitches.

It’s only May, but why not look toward October for the Cardinals?

Pham Assists

I started this article talking about Pham because he enabled the Grichuk demotion. I doubt Grichuk would be on his way to the minors if Pham had struggled for the past month. Mozeliak did demote both Grichuk and Kolten Wong last year, so maybe he would have done it anyway, but Pham at least made it easier. The fact of the matter is that the Cardinals don’t need Grichuk to play left field right now. Tommy Pham can take care of that just fine.

The Cardinals obviously have their sights set on the playoffs. Pham’s excellence allowed the team to demote a starting outfielder despite their title aspirations. Everyone else needs to stay healthy or Grichuk may be forced back to the majors. But barring injury, the team is now in great position to begin a short term experiment with their outfielder.

Grichuk has the power to be a 3-4 WAR player. He won’t get there unless he improves his plate discipline. However, few teams in a playoff race can afford to send starting players down to the minors. We sometimes see that with teams at the bottom of the division, but not contenders.

We like to hear stories about unsung heroes. The Cardinals have set up the possibility for Tommy Pham to become a big one. Few people will remember this, but if the Grichuk experiment works, then he will owe much of his improvement to Pham.

Photo credit: Jeff Curry – USA TODAY Sports