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Is Randal Grichuk (finally) breaking out?

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MLB: Toronto Blue Jays at New York Yankees Wendell Cruz-USA TODAY Sports

I probably don’t need to detail how awful a start Randal Grichuk got off to in 2018. For the month of April, he hit .106/.208/.227 (18 wRC+) in 77 plate appearances. It is not hyperbole to say he looked completely lost at the plate, striking out at his usual elevated ~30% rate, but with no power (.121 ISO) and having absolutely nothing fall in with an almost unfathomable .119 BABIP.

And of course, this was against the backdrop of the Jays jumping out to a hot start and with Kevin Pillar, Teoscar Hernandez and Curtis Granderson performing strongly. Justifiably, it felt like he was pulling down a contender in taking playing time from stronger performers. Since he was out of options - a good part of the reason the Jays could acquire him in the first place - there were numerous calls for a DFA.

So it was almost a relief when he hit the disabled list with a sprained knee on the last day of April, missing the entire month of May before returning on the first day of June. By then, the Jays had mostly fallen out of contention, but Grichuk has turned his season around. Slowly but steadily, he’s pushed his line to where after a strong couple of games he’s now up to a 112 wRC+ and 1.5 WAR (he was at 0 when he went on the DL, and just the fact he stayed out of negative territory is remarkable).

But even that understates exactly how good he’s been. In what now constitutes at not insignificant sample of three months, he’s hit a robust .281/.331/.552 in 290 PA, good for a 137 wRC+. To put that in perspective, were that his overall season line, he’d rank 20th in MLB alongside Nolan Arenado. Even if we shave a little off, the 130 wRC+ he was running before the last couple days would still rank 30th.

And there’s nothing in his batting line that sticks outs as obviously unsustainable. The obvious place to look for that is BABIP, where his .311 mark during these last three months is very close to both league average and his career mark of .313 entering 2018. He’s hitting for a little more power, but his .270 ISO isn’t that much above his .239 mark entering 2018, especially playing in the more power friendly parks of the AL East.

When the Blue Jays acquired Grichuk earlier this year, they were very much getting a player both brimming with obvious talent and big tools, but also significant flaws and a maddeningly enigmatic inconsistency that ultimately led the Cardinals to cut bait. Prodigious power drove above average offensive output (108 wRC+), but high strikeout rates around 30% driven by lots of swings-and-misses and a low contact rates held him back.

Moreover, Grichuk has produced at this level over an extended period of time before. In 2015, over 350 PA he posted an almost identical 138 wRC+, before backsliding to a mediocre 103 in 2016 and further to 94 last year. But that 2015 level of production was fuelled by a .365 BABIP, a level no one will sustain over time to start with. But on top of that, as a pull heavy, fly ball oriented hitter, even with and ability to barrel up balls, Grichuk wouldn’t be expected to have a well above average BABIP.

And that’s where we get to the big difference over the last three months. As noted above, the contact abilities are in line. His walk rate of 5.5% is right in line. But his strikeout rate is down to 22% from a 30% career rate entering 2018. Even including April (in line with his previous rate), and he’s still at a drastically improved 24% strikeout rate.

Beyond the obvious effect of increasing his balls in play where he does real damage, it’s significant in that strikeout rate is harder to “fake” and therefore changes are more meaningful in smaller samples. A significantly lower strikeout rate is one of the most reliable signs of a breakout.

In fact, the profile of a player with big power who does plenty of damage on balls in play but struggles to make contact and strikes out a lot should sound familiar: it’s Justin Smoak prior to his breakout last season. And it was a drastically lower strikeout rate that drove Smoak’s breakout.

Smoak’s lower strikeout was driven by a historically significant improvement in contact rate, roughly in the top percentile. Therein lies the the yellow flag that makes me hesitate with Grichuk: his contact rate of 73% over the last three months is still well below average (league around 77-78%) and very similar to his previous level of 72%. He’s still swinging-and-missing a ton, which is the biggest driver of strikeout rate in the long run.

Indeed, the biggest difference is in strikeouts looking. He’s only been called out six times over the last three months, or about 2% of all plate appearances, compared to 83 times previously in his career, or about 5.5% of the time. He is swinging a little bit more with two strikes (67% compared to 63% previously), but overall he’s not showing any significant improvement in strike zone recognition (35% to 14% called strike/ball ratio compared to 34/14 previously).

So realistically, there’s probably some regression to his strikeout rate coming, but even something on the order of 25-26% would be a marked improvement, and should still put him in the 120 wRC+ range. That would firmly making him a building block for the future, and not bad for a guy who was acquired for a volatile reliever and fading pitching prospect.

It’s something to monitor for the last month of the season, anyway.