Randal Grichuk Prepares for Liftoff
Each year, the difference between winning your dynasty league and merely contending, is putting in the draft preparation to find the sleepers that your leaguemates just don’t value. One potential bargain with the potential for huge payout this year is St. Louis Cardinals OF Randal Grichuk. Grichuk, a former first-rounder for the Angels in 2009, arrived in the St. Louis organization with Peter Bourjos for David Freese and Fernando Salas prior to the 2014 season. Despite launching 17 homers in just a half-season’s worth of at-bats last year, the 24-year-old may still be underrated in dynasty leagues because of his uncertain playing time and his struggles making contact consistently at the Major League level.
After a cup of coffee in 2014 where he looked overwhelmed, the Cardinals traded for Jason Heyward, and Grichuk was relegated to 4th outfielder and pinch-hitting duties heading into the 2015 season. However, injuries to Matt Holliday and the ineffectiveness of Bourjos led to Grichuk earning a starting nod in the Cardinals’ outfield in May, and he more or less he held a lineup spot for much of the remaining season.
The biggest fantasy asset Grichuk has shown so far in his short career is power, with those aforementioned 17 homeruns coming in just 350 plate appearances last season. The power production hasn’t been a fluke, either: Grichuk finished 9th in ISO among all hitters to log at least 350 plate appearances, sandwiched between AL MVP Josh Donaldson and fellow Blue Jay Edwin Encarnacion. Grichuk also posted top-25 Hard-Hit and average distance numbers, while knocking on the door of the top five in all of baseball for exit velocity.
The right-handed Grichuk performed well against righties and lefties alike last season, even producing better numbers against same-handed pitchers. It’s a very small sample size, but it’s a promising start for someone who logged a nearly 220-point split in over 2,300 minor league plate appearances.
Lastly, he has enough speed to chip in 5-10 steals for your fantasy team as well, though that may benefit fantasy teams more in a Roto leagues vs. a points league format, as his poor success rate has been consistently poor: Grichuk has succeeded on just half of his first eight big league attempts after posting a mediocre 67% rate on the farm.
There are still some concerns with him though. His .365 BABIP inflated his average to a respectable .276. Grichuk did hit the ball hard consistently, but his 12.3% infield hit percentage was nearly double the average rate, and that looks fishy for a hitter with his good-not-great speed. A strikeout rate north of 30% left him precious little margin for error, and if the BABIP had come in nearer to league-average he would have hit closer to .230 than .280.
Grichuk struggled mightily with pitch recognition, continually swinging at pitches outside the zone – and rarely making contact. He swung at an above-average 35.1% of pitches outside of the zone, and his contact rate on non-strikes was the second-worst in the league. It’s mighty tough to maintain a decent average and OBP if you’re swinging and missing on pitches outside of the strike zone at a high clip. The lack of consistently good swings led to a well-above average swinging strike rate, which brought Grichuk’s K% to 31.4%, good for 5th worst in the majors
One of the biggest areas of possible improvement for Grichuk is his performance ahead in the count. Bucking statistical norms, Grichuk hit below the Mendoza Line when ahead 3-1 and just .217 when he controlled the count at 2-0. This may have caused Grichuk to jump up from his MILB whiff rate, 18.7% in over 1,800 plate appearances, to the ghastly one he finished with in 2015. Given the small sample size in the majors and the oddly poor numbers in hitting counts, there’s reason to believe that he may be able to significantly improve his strikeout rate and offset some of the batting average concerns in his third MLB season.
The fundamental driver of Grichuk’s value this year and beyond may come down to something besides rate stats: playing time. As of this writing he’s slated to open camp with the inside track to a starting role, and the Cardinals have not been prominently linked to any of the remaining free agent outfielders. If he hits, the rest should talk care of itself.
Overall, Randal Grichuk is an intriguing player who offers significant upside as soon as this season, with real power, a slated starting spot in St. Louis, and a plausible path to a lower strikeout rate and more stable batting average. He hit best with consistent playing time, peaking offensively during the window from May to July where he started nearly every game for the Redbirds. A full-time job out of the gate could get him in the groove early, and help him return value from Opening Day. Grichuk’s current ADP is 51st for outfielders and 190th overall, and there’s potential OF2 value here at the price of an OF4 in medium-depth formats.
“Stats courtesy of Fangraphs, StatCast, STATS, and Baseball Heatmaps