Shortly after the calendar turned to 2021, Detroit Tigers general manager, Al Avila, did something he hadn’t done in nearly five years. On January 5th, 2021, he signed outfielder Robbie Grossman to a two-year, $10 million contract. It was the first multi-year contract the Tigers had given to a free agent since they signed Justin Upton in January of 2016. It was also the first multi-year free agent signing since Chris Ilitch took over ownership of the team.
At the time, it was received as a solid bargain, though not a terribly exciting signing. Here was a guy who had a safe floor and a decent upside after a surge in his offensive numbers in a short 2020 season. Now it looks like one of the best signings in the 2021 free agent class.
The 32-year-old Grossman logged 600 plate appearances for the first time in his career. Previously his highest number of trips to the plate was 482, in his first year in Oakland. He put the extra playing time to good use, logging 20 stolen bases and swatting 23 home runs, both career highs. He was one of only ten players in the majors to hit 20 homers and steal 20 bases in 2021.
Grossman also continued to get on base at an elite level and in general provided great value to the team. He finished with 2.7 fWAR, providing a solid return on investment for the Tigers. In fact, while his $5 million salary in 2021 ranked him 43rd overall among outfielders in salary, his earnings per fWAR ranked second among all those players in terms of lowest cost per WAR created. He trailed only Brandon Nimmo of the New York Mets and just edged out Luis Robert of the Chicago White Sox. While Rule 5 picks are fun when they breakout and minor league signings can offer some low-risk payoffs, there’s something to be said for spending just a bit more and taking a chance on a high floor player with a chance to really breakthrough.
Defense & Baserunning
In terms of fielding, he was the player the Tigers expected to get, as he matched the career numbers, he has put up over the last five seasons. In those years, he had posted between -1 and +4 Outs Above Average, playing mostly left field. The Tigers deployed him in an even split between left field and right field and he logged a -1 OAA at each position. Grossman did well for himself in patrolling the expansive corners of Comerica Park.
His sprint speed of 27.8 feet per second was right in line with his career norms so he isn’t showing any signs of slowing down. In fact, for his age, his running stats rank him sixth in the league among 32-year-old players. AJ Hinch used the fleet-footed Grossman to great effect on the basepaths, as he racked up a career high 20 stolen bases. His previous season high mark was nine. While he came to the plate nearly 200 times more than in most previous full seasons, this was clearly a much more aggressive style of play than has been seen from Grossman in years past. Hinch was not afraid to send him often to take the extra 90 feet when he was given a chance.
On Base Prowess
If there is one area where Grossman really shines, this is it. He has always had a good eye for the strike zone. He came to Detroit with a career .350 on base percentage and in 2021 he posted a .357 mark, while the league average was just .317. He already boasted a 12.6% career walk rate and he improved on that in 2021 with a 14.2% walk rate. It was the fifth best walk rate among hitters in the league. He draws his walks by way of a keen eye that rarely saw him chase outside the zone. In terms of swing rate outside the zone he posted a 19.2% O-Swing rate which was good for third best in baseball among qualified hitters. For comparison, the league average mark for O-swing% was 31.3% in 2021. Simply put, he was exactly the on-base oriented hitter that Tigers needed at the top of their free-swinging lineup.
While drawings walks are certainly important for a hitter, the real key is obviously how much damage they do when they make contact. Here was the real upside the Tigers took a chance on. In his short 2020 season, Grossman showed a sudden surge of power in Oakland. His average exit velocity was up, his hard-hit rate was up, and he was keeping a 15° launch angle while posting by far the highest pull percentages of his career. All of which suggested it wasn’t just a lucky few wall-scrapers going out, but a real change in his approach and profile. He was also swinging more often in the zone which suggested a more aggressive approach at the plate while continuing to resist chasing.
In 2021, he turned that new aggressive approach at the plate into a 23 home-run season, by far his career best. When you look at the metrics behind the power surge, there are some good signs and some concerns. His hard-hit rate of 33.9%, while not quite at the 37.5% of 2020, was still higher than his pre 2020 rate of 28.2%. He also posted the highest rate of barrels in his career, 7.6%. So, what’s the catch? Well, his launch angle jumped to 21.1° and his exit velocity dropped back to pre-2020 levels. Basically, he may have become just a bit too fly ball oriented in 2021.
Prior to 2020, his career flyball percentage was 34.8%. that went up to 38.3% in 2020, but it soared to 46.2% in 2021. Perhaps also concerning was that his strikeout rate also increased over last year. His aggressive approach in Oakland naturally resulted in more strikeouts, but a small increase is okay if you’re also getting an increase in hard hit balls. Well, his hard-hit rate dropped a bit, but the strikeout rate continued to go up, to a five year high of 23.1%. He continued to pull the ball more, like he started doing in Oakland, so the power is still very much real. Still at times he went cold, largely from getting under the ball too much, lofting routine fly balls into the outfield. Going forward, this will be something to keep an eye on next year. If he can drop his launch angle just a bit, and keep the strikeouts from going much higher, he’d find a real sweet spot to settle in.
The signing of Robbie Grossman, while relatively minor in the landscape of baseball, was perhaps the first signal of the Tiger’s ownership willingness to spend some decent money to move in the right direction. While it pales in comparison to their spending spree in this offseason, it has already paid off handsomely considering the cost, and should continue to payoff in 2022. It is the kind of slightly-higher than bottom tier shopping that can often bring in a key role player to support a team in a successful season. Grossman should continue to be a fixture at or near the top of the lineup, getting on base plenty of time and aggressively moving up to be driven in by the power hitters behind him. He’s got some decent pop to really give opposing managers something to think about as well.
There are some flaws in his approach last year, and a few indicators to keep an eye on for regression, but its hard to complain about the overall result. A similar performance this next season seems pretty safe to pencil in and he should continue to be an everyday player and a solid mentor to the younger Tigers outfielders.