One member of the Oakland A’s has been a Top 5 hitter in MLB so far in 2020, but it’s not who you might think.
It’s not the red-hot Ramon Laureano, nor the rapidly heating Matt Chapman, nor the powerful Matt Olson. They’re all off to nice starts, but none of their numbers compare with those of Robbie Grossman.
The A’s left fielder ranks fourth in the majors so far with a 196 wRC+ (minimum 50 plate appearances), meaning his batting line is around twice as good as league average. He’s gotten there by doing everything well — hitting for a high average, avoiding strikeouts to help fuel that average with lots of contact, drawing a ton of walks, and even doing some uncharacteristic slugging. Through 58 plate appearances:
Grossman: .311/.466/.600, 196 wRC+, 3 HR, 15.5% BB, 15.5% Ks
On top of all that, he’s also tied for the AL lead in stolen bases, with four swipes in five attempts. And he’s tied for second on the team in hits with runners in scoring position, despite ranking sixth on the club in such opportunities (4-for-10, 2 BB, 1 K, 1 HBP).
We took a closer look at Grossman last week, with the following observations after nine games:
- He was hitting the ball harder than ever
- His launch angle increased
- He was making more contact than usual (fewer BB and Ks)
- He was swinging more often than usual
Which of those are still happening? Here’s an update!
Grossman is still hitting the ball harder than he used to, though he’s regressed a little bit since we last checked. He was at a 92.5 mph average exit velocity back then, and now it’s down to 90.5, but that’s still a career-high. He’s now got nine batted balls (out of 36) that went 100+ mph (an arbitrary cutoff), and that 25% is nearly double what he did last year (14.6%) or from 2016-19 (15.8%). Lower the threshold to 95 mph (the technical definition of “hard hit”) and the story is similar, with his 38.9% rate marking a bump over his career (28.8%) and 2019 (30.9%).
However, the launch angle has settled back within his normal range. It’s still higher than his career and his 2019, but it’s not a career-high and he’s not anything like a league leader. He’s hitting slightly more balls in the air instead of on the ground, but it’s not a huge change and could just be noise.
His contact rate has also returned to his usual level, but there’s still good news here. His BB and K rates are both career-bests, and he’s gone from a 3:2 K:BB ratio to one-for-one. This is a notable improvement, and it’s also one of the first stats to stabilize in a small sample, so it’s definitely something to keep an eye on. Even if everything else about his breakout performance fades away, keeping this part would be a great uptick to his game, which was already based on contact and OBP anyway.
Finally, the swinging. He’s still offering at pitches more than he used to, which is especially interesting when combined with his higher walk rate. He’s swinging more both in the zone and out of it, but he’s not whiffing at any higher rate. The key is that he’s taking better advantage of “meatball” pitches (an actual technical term now), almost never letting them go by without a swing.
All of that means that while Grossman isn’t making contact on a higher percentage of his swings, he’s still making more contact overall, because the denominator of the fraction got bigger. Even better, his extra swings aren’t just expanding the zone to chase more (though they’re a little bit that), they’re also capitalizing on more hittable stuff rather than focusing too much on passively hunting for walks — though the walks are still coming, perhaps because pitchers are learning you can’t sneak strikes by him so easily anymore and he does still have the eye to lay off the bad ones.
There’s also the issue of the overall quality of his contact. Batting average is especially volatile in a small sample, raising the question of whether he’s just sneaking through lucky grounders or actually hitting the ball better. The answer is the latter, as his .438 xwOBA almost exactly matches his actual .442 wOBA. He’s truly earned his numbers so far, and most of his hits have been hard and legit (as well as some of his outs).
So what does all this mean? Now is when we get into the nuance of sample-size issues.
There are two separate concepts here. The first is that this is only a 19-game sample, of which Grossman only played 15 of the games, and so we can’t draw any long-term conclusions. In order to say that he’s truly improved into a better hitter at age 30, rather than just going on a nice hot streak, we’ll need to see him continue this run for the rest of the season and into next year.
However, within the context of a short season, it’s extremely meaningful. We’re around one-third of the way through the schedule, and that’s done and in the books. Grossman could retire tomorrow and it wouldn’t change the effect he’s already had on the AL-leading A’s, as a central figure in several close wins. And even if it’s all a fluke, if he were to carry it on for another few weeks then he could still help lead Oakland to clinching a real-life playoff spot.
So that’s the takeaway: Grossman’s breakout isn’t definitely for real yet, but it doesn’t necessarily have to be in order to make a crucial impact on the 2020 A’s. What matters for this nearly unprecedented sprint of a divisional race is that the breakout is actually happening right now in reality.
As for the chance of it all being real, it’s at least not impossible. Grossman has spoken publicly about a slight change in approach, and there are hints of it in the Statcast numbers. It all adds up — getting more aggressive with swing selection but in a smart and efficient way, leading to better contact on more hittable pitches, and in turn more walks as opponents get more cautious. It’s a plausible origin story for a breakout.
Now he just has to keep doing it, and it has to keep working. If he does for long enough, then we can shift from talking about a hot streak to talking about a truly improved player.
As long as we’re here, let’s enjoy a clutch dinger video. Grossman has gone deep three times, and each was important within its game, but none more so than the first one.
It came on Friday against the Astros, his former team from 2013-15. The A’s were getting shut out in the 7th, trailing 1-0, but he tied it up and Oakland eventually won in extras.
Add that to his game-winning hit in the 10th inning in Seattle earlier this month, and you can already see the difference he’s made on the A’s and their place atop the standings.