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Robbie Grossman is better than you think

Mar 19, 2017; Fort Myers, FL, USA; Minnesota Twins outfielder Robbie Grossman (36) scores in the first inning of the spring training game against the Boston Red Sox at JetBlue Park. Mandatory Credit: Jonathan Dyer-USA TODAY Sports

MINNEAPOLIS –Carlos Santana, Miguel Sano and Manny Machado all have a couple things in common. For one, they’re all great MLB hitters. No shocking revelation there. Another commonality among that group: in the 2016-17 seasons combined, Robbie Grossman has out-hit them, according to Weighted On-Base Average.

If you count yourself among the Robbie Grossman believers, dear reader, then I apologize because this column is not pointed at you. It’s going to be a misleading headline if you’ve come to appreciate the Twins walking phenomenon.

This column is for those that aren’t on the bandwagon, and may not even know that such a bandwagon exists.

Grossman made his Twins debut a year ago Saturday, on May 20, 2016. According to Baseball Reference, he’s batted .272/.389/.427 in nearly 500 plate appearances in the past 365 days.

The Twins signed Grossman to a minor league deal last year, after he took advantage of an out in his contract with the Indians. And he was in the Indians system following getting passed over in Houston, despite carrying some prospect cachet with the Astros.

I’ll contend that if you focus on a player’s flaws and what he can’t do, it’s easy to dismiss guys like Grossman. He’s better as a right-handed hitter and his outfield defense leaves something to be desired. OK, it leaves plenty to be desired.

But if you focus on his strengths, the picture changes, and you start wondering if the Twins have the diet version of Kevin Youkilis – offensively anyway.

Grossman’s greatest offensive strength might have little to do with swinging the bat. He’s a walking machine. As in, there aren’t many Twins hitters – or MLB hitters – who are better than Grossman at coaxing a free pass. His 15.6% walk rate since the start of 2016 is tied with Josh Donaldson for 8th in baseball.

Grossman’s ability to draw walks might be the butt of a joke in some circles, but it drives his on-base percentage way up — more than 100 points better than his batting average — and he’s quietly been one of the Twins best hitters for the past year.

Lump the 2016-17 seasons together, and rank the Twins hitters from best to worst based on Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA). You’ll be surprised by the results.

Over that time span, Brian Dozier has been Minnesota’s best hitters, as measured by wOBA. Grossman has been their second-best hitter, narrowly edging out Miguel Sano,  and a healthy sum better than the next guys on the list, Eduardo Nunez and Joe Mauer.

I alluded to the MLB leaderboard for wOBA earlier, and you’d recognize some of the names that Grossman is out-hitting in that category: Santana, Sano, Machado, Kyle Seager, George Springer, Carlos Correa, Xander Bogaerts, Dustin Pedroia, Giancarlo Stanto, Jose Abreu…

So, this column isn’t to say that Grossman is ready to punch his ticket to Cooperstown, or even an all-star game. It’s to say that there’s a guy on the Twins who has one terrific skill set and nobody knows who he is. In short, Robbie Grossman is better than you think.

Criticisms of the logic

–You just cherry-picked an offensive stat to make Grossman look good. And it’s only wOBA, who cares?

I admit that wOBA falls short of capturing a player’s full value in the same way that, say, batting average used to fail to capture total value. It only tells part of the story. But that doesn’t mean that the part of the story shouldn’t be told.

I like wOBA better than a stat like OPS, because it assigns OBP more value than slugging percentage. In fact, OBP is almost twice as valuable as SLG in the formula that produces wOBA, and getting on base has been shown to be more valuable than having a high slugging percentage when it comes to the end goal of scoring runs.

–Grossman is only a part-time player, and it’s easier to put up numbers when you’re not playing every day.

I think the opposite might be true—that it’s a tough ask to have a guy sit a couple days a week and still produce like he’s a mainstay in the lineup. I get the Twins’ quandary with having a fairly set outfield arrangement and a slugging DH (Kennys Vargas) they want to see more. So I’m not sure what the solution is here. I do think manager Paul Molitor has done a pretty good job at the delicate balance of finding good spots for Grossman to succeed.

–Grossman’s been lucky.

It’s hard to argue against this one. Grossman’s surge last year from afterthought to one of the best hitters in baseball was downright unbelievable.

Last year’s numbers were fueled in part by a very high .364 Batting Average On Balls In Play, which is about 30 points higher than Grossman’s career BABIP, and about 60 points higher than the league average rate. He’s still owner of a top-10 walk rate in that time, and that’s not lucky, but I do believe that some of his offensive success is attributed to good luck.

–If he’s been so great, why don’t you see him on the WAR leaderboard?

Well, we’re talking about his offensive contributions here and WAR factors in everything. Grossman’s been a bad outfielder in his time with the Twins, and WAR calculations punish him dearly for that.


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