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Robbie Grossman is hitting the ball harder in 2020 so far

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How much of his hot start can the A’s outfielder keep up?

Los Angeles Angels v Oakland Athletics
Result: RBI single, 93.7 mph exit velocity
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

One of the best surprises on the Oakland A’s so far in 2020 has been Robbie Grossman.

The A’s have a few hot hitters carrying their overall slumping lineup, but Grossman is the least expected of those early stars. The left fielder had a subpar year in 2019 and can usually be counted on for roughly league-average production as a role player, but he’s off to an impressive start this summer.

Grossman: .304/.385/.391, 131 wRC+, 7.7% BB, 11.5% Ks

It’s not unusual to see the strong BB/K rate, as plate discipline, contact, and on-base ability are the switch-hitter’s trademark skills. But last year he was sunk by his .240 batting average, which in turn limited his OBP potential, and this time around he’s starting out with much healthier rates in those categories as more of his batted balls fall in for hits. He’s also putting far more balls into play, as those BB and K rates are each only around two-thirds of his norm.

Even better, he’s been one of the only A’s capable of a clutch hit. The whole team is a paltry 10-for-56 with runners in scoring position, ranking 27th in MLB in batting average w/ RISP, but Grossman has three of their hits in just six tries. One of those knocks proved to be a game-winner in extra innings on Saturday, snapping a three-game losing streak brought on specifically by the lineup’s inability to cash in on RBI opportunities.

Of course, clutch hitting tends to be a flukey result that doesn’t stick around consistently, so the point is only that Grossman has been the most clutch so far, not that he necessarily will continue to be so moving forward. But at the same time, when everyone else is still shaking off rust and finding their timing, it might not be a total coincidence that one of the guys coming through with those key timely singles also happens to be the best contact hitter on the team. After all, the first step to getting a clutch hit is putting actual wood on the ball.

The law of averages will come and go and Grossman won’t always be the hero in high-leverage moments, but what of his overall numbers? In only 26 plate appearances they’re not meaningful, just as we’d be saying if today was April 5 like it was supposed to be at this point in the schedule. But there is an underlying factor to keep an eye on, which can be found within his team-leading .420 xwOBA.

A look through Statcast shows an interesting development in Grossman’s batted ball data. Here are his average exit velocities over the last several years (league average is around 88% and is on the slightly lower side so far this summer):

  • 2016: 86.5 mph
  • 2017: 86.4
  • 2018: 87.1
  • 2019: 87.7
  • 2020: 92.5

Since Statcast is relatively new, we’re all still learning the details of how to analyze it. I don’t know how big of a sample size is needed to be significant in this area, but at the very least we can say that he has indeed been hitting the ball harder so far this year, which could contribute to his increased BABIP and thus .300+ average. If the harder contact is a real long-term uptick, then maybe there’s hope for the other resulting rates to stay strong.

For what it’s worth, there are raw numbers to go with these averages. Grossman has already hit five balls above the arbitrary cutoff of 100.0 mph, which accounts for 2.8% of all such triple-digit contact he’s made since 2016. He’s done that using just 1.6% of his total batted balls during that span, and in only 1.4% of his total plate appearances, so he’s connecting for these monster smashes at up to twice his usual rate. Three of the five 100+ drives went for hits, including the Saturday game-winner in the video above.

There’s also a notable rise in Grossman’s average launch angle, which is up to 20.4% from a career-high of 15.1% and a career average below 12%. That’s an extremely high mark and it will surely settle down a bit over time, but a long-term bump in that number could mean more liners and fewer grounders — just as he’s done so far through these first nine games.

Grossman’s nice early stats aren’t just the result of his normal batted balls falling in, but rather him producing superior batted balls. So, the question is whether he can continue making that great contact. To that end, he said the following after Saturday’s game, via Jessica Kleinschmidt of NBCS:

“I made some adjustments to my swing starting at spring training,” Grossman told reporters during the postgame interview. “When I went home for the quarantine, I continued to do what I was doing and continued to stick with my routine and continued to get a little bit better every day.”

The precise nature of the adjustment isn’t important here, just the fact that his new results are coming after he started doing something different. It’s enough to make it something to watch in the coming days and weeks.

Statcast also hints at a slight change in approach. He’s swinging a little more, and expanding the zone more often than normal, all of which has allowed him to take better advantage of meatball pitches — and with only a minor increase in swings and misses. Again, all of this is in a tiny sample and could well regress back toward his career norms, but it helps show where the current hot streak is coming from.

The nature of sample sizes hasn’t changed, and it will take much, much longer to prove whether Grossman has actually improved as a hitter, or even changed at all. But in a 60-game sprint, the long-term ramifications might not be as important as simply how long he can keep this up, while every game is worth nearly triple in the standings.