Robbie Grossman became the first minor league player to walk 100 times and score 100 runs in the same season since Nick Swisher in 2004.
Almost all of the top 100 prospect lists have been released at this point, with the Pittsburgh Pirates having anywhere from four to six players on the lists. Most of the players listed had pretty consistent rankings across the board. Gerrit Cole and Jameson Taillon were both in the 8-16 range, and considered two of the top pitching prospects in the game. Starling Marte and Josh Bell usually ended up in the 40-70 range. Luis Heredia was either ranked very high due to his upside, or just outside of the top 100 due to his raw skills and ability.
Then there’s Robbie Grossman.
Scouts have been split on Grossman for awhile now. Some feel that he doesn’t have the speed to handle center field, where his bat plays the best. Those same scouts feel that he doesn’t have the power to be a starter at one of the corner outfield spots, where his defense plays best. These opinions existed prior to Grossman’s breakout season in 2011. But the breakout season brought on an emerging school of thought for the Pirates’ outfield prospect: the total package is enough.
“We certainly respect both schools of thought in that, one, he’s just a very good baseball player,” Pirates General Manager Neal Huntington said. “He does a lot of things on a baseball field well. He doesn’t have that blazing speed, he doesn’t have light tower power, but he’s got great command of the strike zone. He plays solid defense. We’ve bounced him around in the outfield, and we’ll continue to bounce him around in the outfield because he’s capable of handling it. But offensively, the name of the game is getting on base and scoring runs.”
Grossman made some big strides in 2011. He hit for a .294/.418/.451 line in high-A, with 13 home runs in 490 at-bats. The added power was a big jump over the nine combined home runs Grossman hit in 921 at-bats over the previous two years. The overall stat line was a huge improvement over his .245/.344/.345 line in high-A the year before. The big thing was Grossman’s plate patience. The switch hitter drew 104 walks for a 16.9% walk ratio. He also cut down on his strikeouts, getting the ratio down to 22.7%, which was a massive drop from his 36.4% rate in 2009.
“A lot of it for Robbie was just the confidence in the left handed swing,” Huntington said. “It’s easy to forget that he didn’t start swinging as a left hander until his junior year in high school. It takes some time to repeat the confidence, to repeat the comfort, to repeat the swing, and last year it all came together for him.”
Grossman struggled from the left side of the plate his first two professional seasons, raising some questions as to whether he should just focus on hitting right handed. The Pirates left the decision up to Grossman, who was intent on sticking with switch hitting.
“They never really came up to me and asked me that,” Grossman said. “Personally I wanted to keep doing it. It was a challenge every day, and that’s the best part about [the success from the left-side].”
Most of Grossman’s at-bats are left handed, so the improvement of his hitting from that side of the plate was going to lead to a huge turnaround. He also added some power, which was another big thing for his future prospect status. Grossman may never be a guy who hits for more than 15-20 homers a year, but the Pirates are fine with his current power production.
“Power doesn’t come just in home runs. That’s something we believe as an organization, that extra base hits are power,” Neal Huntington said in reference to the opinion that Grossman doesn’t have the power for a corner outfield spot. “You don’t have to hit 35 home runs to have power. Robbie has power, he’s got extra base hit power. He’s going to have some home run power as he develops and matures. But as importantly, and most importantly, he gets on base. He gets on base a ton. That’s a skill that is repeatable for him, and we believe is going to be an asset for him as he moves up in our system. He’s an intelligent base runner, tremendous worker, tremendous person, and a guy that you bet on.”
In addition to his 13 home runs, Grossman had 34 doubles in 2011. His power going forward might be a major storyline in the early part of the 2012 season, after a fractured hamate bone in the Arizona Fall League.
Grossman got off to a great start in the AFL, sitting at the top of the league leader boards in almost every offensive category at one point during the season. He started drawing the attention of scouts who favored the overall package that he brought to the table. But his season was cut short when he fractured his hamate bone, requiring surgery to remove the hook of the hamate bone. For baseball players, if you’re going to have surgery, hamate surgery is one of the best to have. The recovery rate is pretty much 100 percent. However, there is some short term downside to the injury, as it can sap a player’s power for up to a year after the surgery. That’s not a theory that Grossman is buying in to.
“I think it’s more mental,” Grossman said about the loss of power after the injury. “I’m going with the point of attack of ‘hey, I can’t really do anything else to it’. I’ve had no problems. It actually feels better than before.”
Grossman said the hand feels good, and that it’s not giving him any problems. The recovery took five to six weeks for the scar to heal and for Grossman to get his strength back. His rehab included wrist and hand strengthening. That rehab work is over, and Grossman says that the injured hand is back to the same strength as the other hand. So far in live batting practice sessions during Spring Training he has been hitting the ball well.
After spending two years in high-A, the Pirates are almost certain to move Grossman up to the AA level to start the 2012 season. He runs in to a situation where the Pirates have a potentially crowded outfield in the future. The current major league squad profiles to have Andrew McCutchen, Jose Tabata, and Alex Presley as starters. Tabata and Presley are largely unproven, so there’s a potential opening for Grossman if either player struggles in the majors. However, Grossman will also have to go up against top hitting prospect Starling Marte, who is coming off a breakout year of his own, only at the AA level instead of high-A. Marte potentially has the same power as Grossman, but has plus defense in center field, giving him an edge in the prospect rankings.
Behind Grossman is 2011 second round pick Josh Bell, who received a $5 M signing bonus to break a commitment to the University of Texas. Bell has a high ceiling, with the potential to be a prototypical All-Star corner outfielder. The Pirates also have talented players like Mel Rojas Jr., Wes Freeman, and Willy Garcia in the lower levels.
The depth in the Pirates’ system will put more of a focus on Grossman’s skills, and how he profiles as a future major league player. The scouts who say he doesn’t have the speed for center field or the power for a corner outfield spot are correct, but only when you’re comparing Grossman to the ideal player. That’s a common approach for evaluating prospects, but the ideal player doesn’t always translate in to an ideal starter.
“You can look at any major league rosters up and down the league and have ideals in your head, but then you can look at the rosters and see who plays,” Pirates Director of Minor League Operations Larry Broadway said. “The guys with grit, the guys with guts, the guys who are consistent, you know what you’re going to get out of them. That’s what a big league manager wants: consistency out of you.”
“That’s really the determining factor,” Broadway said about Grossman. “Not going to be his power ratio, or him being [a corner outfielder], or speed. It’s going to be him showing up to the park every day and the manager knowing what he can get out of him. That’s really what makes an every day player versus a bench role. You see a lot of bench guys who have those tools, but don’t have consistency, and that’s what keeps them in a bench role. For Robbie, tools, no tools, it’s insignificant to the fact of him being able to be consistent and provide value.”
Grossman may not fit the ideal scouting definition of a corner outfielder, but the overall package is appealing. If he continues having success with his approach from the left side of the plate, we should see him maintain his high average and strong plate patience. The ideal corner outfielder may be a .300 hitter with 30 homers a year, but if Grossman can consistently put up a high average, a lot of walks, 15-20 homers a year, and 30-40 doubles, he wouldn’t have a hard time making it as a starting corner outfielder in the majors.