One popular subject of debate among A’s fans has been the team’s choice to start Robbie Grossman in left field. The switch-hitter doesn’t have the offensive numbers or the upside of some of Oakland’s other options at the position, and his defense is unspectacular at best.
Perhaps even more puzzling is the team’s decision to bat him high in the lineup. For his career, Grossman has been fantastic against lefties but merely okay against righties, yet when facing the latter he is consistently placed right in front of the team’s best hitters.
There has to be an explanation, and if not, there has to be a solution. So let’s take a look at the A’s left field options and figure out who should receive the bulk of the playing time.
We’ll start with Grossman, who was signed late in the offseason for just $2 million. At the time, the signing looked puzzling, but after an injury to Nick Martini and an uninspiring spring by Dustin Fowler (more on them later), Grossman’s place on the roster became clear.
His career .355 OBP made him an attractive option for the top of the A’s lineup, especially after the offseason loss of Jed Lowrie to free agency. But through the first two months of the season, the 29-year-old has posted an OBP of just .319, which would easily be a career low. What happened?
He still has some of the best plate discipline on the team, as his 0.66 BB/K rate ranks third behind just Marcus Semien and Matt Chapman. His 12.4% walk rate and 18.9% strikeout rate are right around his career norms, and this season he’s swinging less than normal while making just about the same amount of contact.
Grossman’s .260 BABIP suggests some bad luck, as it is far below his career .317 mark. And Statcast somewhat agrees — he is currently underperforming his .324 xwOBA by 20 points. But quality of contact matters. Despite the best hard hit rate and average exit velocity of his career, Grossman’s 2.8% barrel rate ranks in the bottom 8% of the league. His 0.85 GB/FB rate would be a career low, and suggests he might be trading ground balls and line drives for harmless fly ball outs.
The fly ball revolution isn’t for everyone, and it doesn’t seem like Grossman has the thump to support an increase in fly ball rate. This current version of Robbie Grossman is a switch-hitting bench bat with a great eye and a little pop, not the starting left fielder for a contending team.
However, on Sunday, he did begin to make his case for continued playing time by notching three hits, including a home run off of Gerrit Cole. This has likely earned Grossman at least a few more starts this week. He has a second year of team control, and the A’s will give him every chance to turn his season around. But if his struggles continue, a bench role is in his future.
Many, myself included, thought Chad Pinder was ticketed for a big breakout in 2019. His batted ball data was elite in 2018, and after a strong spring it looked like the utility man could be taking the next step forward.
But that hasn’t happened — at least, not yet. We’ve made it to June and the 27-year-old still hasn’t seized an everyday role. This has been, in part, due to the team’s continued faith in Grossman. But Pinder also hasn’t been the offensive force many thought he could.
Contrary to Grossman, Pinder has traded a ton of fly balls for line drives and grounders. He cut his average launch angle nearly in half, from 13.3 degrees to 7.7. His hard hit rate is down by nearly seven percentage points, and his 4.1% walk rate is one of the lowest in baseball.
While these numbers continue to trend in the wrong direction, Pinder’s strikeout rate is down significantly, from 26.4% to 17.8%. And while his ISO is actually up a few points from 2018, it’s clear that Pinder has traded some strikeouts for weaker contact and more ground balls.
Pinder still shows strong platoon splits (134 wRC+ vs lefties, 82 wRC+ vs righties). But his defense alone should make him an everyday player. Despite coming through the A’s farm system as an infielder, Pinder has transformed into a near-elite defensive outfielder. In his limited playing time, he already has three defensive runs saved in the outfield and a UZR/150 of 16.6.
Last year’s version of Chad Pinder is easily the better hitter. It appears his attempts to cut his strikeouts have significantly impacted his quality of contact, and might even be making pitchers more willing to throw him strikes. But with Pinder’s defense and power, even this version (103 wRC+, .315 xwOBA) deserves to play almost every day.
Selected from the Marlins in the Rule 5 Draft back in the 2014-15 offseason, Mark Canha is somehow one of the longest-tenured Oakland Athletics. He was one of the lone bright spots of a disappointing 2015 A’s team that lost 94 games, but missed almost all of 2016 with a significant hip injury. He struggled in his return to the majors in 2017 and was starting to look like a Quad-A player at best.
But in 2018, everything changed. After an insane spring, Canha quickly made his way to the major league roster and never looked back. The first baseman eventually replaced a struggling Fowler in center field and impressed with average-ish defense at the position. He smacked 17 home runs and put together a solid two-win season, becoming a fan favorite along the way.
His 2019 is off to a weird start. The 30-year-old already has nine home runs, despite missing two weeks with a wrist injury. He is walking a ton and has an absurd .303 ISO. Used in a platoon role in the past, Canha is even hitting righties (157 wRC+) better than lefties (124 wRC+). He’s showing all the signs of a legit breakout...right?
Not so fast. His BABIP sits at just .203, but it might be there for a reason. Canha has the highest ground ball rate and pull rate of his career. Combined with his usual high infield fly ball rate and average sprint speed, you have the recipe for a low-BABIP hitter. It’s still a small sample, and he’ll likely creep up into the mid-.200s, but don’t expect too much more.
Canha’s quality of contact is nothing special, either. His 35.8% hard hit rate, 88.5 MPH average exit velocity and 6.3% barrel rate rank in the middle of the pack. Of his nine home runs, only six were barreled, and one of those came against a position player. He is outperforming his xwOBA by nearly 70 points.
Between his walks, power, and defensive versatility, Canha makes a fantastic bench player. But given the A’s current roster construction and the likely regression incoming, he probably shouldn’t be a regular player. He can spell Matt Olson at first base (especially against lefties) and spend the rest of his time giving the outfielders and Khris Davis days off.
The A’s have three more interesting outfield options at Triple-A Las Vegas that could make their way into the picture at some point this season.
First, there’s Skye Bolt, who has already had two short stints in the big leagues this year. The 25-year-old is having a breakout year in Triple-A, slashing .311/.379/.571 with six home runs and five stolen bases. As a switch-hitter that can play all three outfield positions, it should be easy enough to fit him onto the roster.
However, he is currently blocked, primarily by Grossman. Unless the A’s cut or trade Grossman or another outfielder goes down with an injury, I don’t see a path to consistent MLB playing time for Bolt. But this shouldn’t be too big of an issue — despite Bolt’s age, this is his first taste of Triple-A and he has plenty to work on, including cutting his 28.8% strikeout rate. He’ll get his opportunity eventually, and I have high hopes for the kid.
Next is Nick Martini. The career minor leaguer looked like he finally found a home with Oakland last season, as he slashed .296/.397/.414 in 55 games down the stretch. He was basically everything the A’s hoped Grossman could be this season.
But that’s not to say his game was without flaws. Martini has zero power, and much of his success relied on an unsustainable .379 BABIP. He hits a ton of ground balls and doesn’t hit them particularly hard. After opening the year on the Injured List with a knee injury, he was recently activated and optioned back to Triple-A. He won’t repeat his 2018 success, but the A’s would still like to see what they have with Martini, so he’ll likely be one of the next men up.
Finally, former top prospect Dustin Fowler is waiting for a second chance. Acquired in the 2017 Sonny Gray trade, he missed the second half of that season with a right knee injury. He flashed his potential in his 69 games at the major league level in 2018, but overall was disappointing, posting just a 65 wRC+ and losing his job.
Fowler still has a ton of upside and is definitely a part of the A’s plans. But first, he needs to perform. The 24-year-old is slashing .273/.329/.427 in Triple-A this season, but in the hitter-friendly PCL, that’s good for just a 86 wRC+. Unless he goes on a serious hot streak, he likely won’t return to the majors until rosters expand in September, and could even be a trade chip if the A’s are in contention.
In some ways, the A’s are in an enviable position. They have six left field candidates that could each conceivably produce a 2+ WAR season. But unfortunately, they aren’t all performing to their potential, and Grossman’s lack of options complicates matters significantly.
After Sunday’s performance (and a handful of hard outs in the games prior), Grossman has earned himself at least a few more starts. But if those don’t go well, the team should shift to one of their highest-upside players in Chad Pinder and see what he can do, knowing that they’ll still have a pair of strong bench pieces in Grossman and Canha (and even more minor league depth) waiting behind him.
Going forward, who should receive the majority of the playing time in left field?
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