| The Detroit News
Detroit — It’s very difficult sometimes to focus on a game, on a sports team, on an assignment, when all holy hell is breaking loose in your nation’s capital. Maybe someday, if ever normalcy returns to our world, we might share a chuckle over the absurdity of trying to conduct an introductory Zoom video conference with a baseball player on a day when armed protestors stormed the U.S. Capitol.
Wednesday was not that day. Certainly. But the job is the job. So while one ear was listening to live reports on the television, the other ear was hearing some very familiar-sounding, spirit-rallying phrases that took me back a few years.
When Ian Kinsler played for the Tigers, I repeatedly referred to him as a bedrock professional. Playing the game hard and playing it the proper way seemed woven into his DNA. He was a grinder, a gamer, a dirtbag. His love of baseball was absolute. He wanted to play forever.
I heard echoes of Ian Kinsler on Wednesday afternoon in a 15-minute Zoom interview with newly-signed Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman. It was refreshing and encouraging to hear, for example, Grossman say it was now his responsibility to live up to the two-year, $10 million commitment the Tigers made to him.
“Just to be a Tiger,” Grossman said. “They were very aggressive. They let me know I was a guy they really wanted. That meant a lot to me. … It’s a privilege to be a six-plus-year free agent and I just felt that the Tigers had that much confidence in me, and they proved it, now it’s my job to go out there and earn it every day.”
It was refreshing to hear a veteran player who left a playoff team and signed with the still-building Tigers say, “I’ve been around a lot of young guys, I’ve been around a lot of young teams, I’ve been on rebuilding teams, but I’ve also been in winning cultures.
“I know what it’s like to come to the field every day and expect to win. Once you get to that point, where you expect to win every day, that’s all you can ask for as a major-leaguer.”
It was especially Kinsler-like to hear Grossman, age 31, talk about never wanting to take the uniform off.
“I love this game,” he said. “I love playing baseball. I take a lot of pride in being a major-leaguer and putting on a major-league uniform every day. This is all I’ve ever wanted to do. So I wasn’t going to give up on myself.
“I want to keep getting better, keep improving my craft, keep being the best major-leaguer I can be.”
‘Get better every day’
You know those old Ron Gardenhire-managed Twins teams that used to torture the Tigers back in 2008-2010? With unheralded, pain-in-the-butt grinders like Michael Cuddyer, Nick Punto and Jason Kubel causing teams to bleed out from a series of barely noticed nicks — multiple-pitch walks, aggressive base running, productive outs, well-timed hits?
Grossman is cut from that cloth.
You can bemoan his lifetime .252 batting average and .380 slugging percentage if you want, but you should also credit his .350 lifetime on-base percentage. Credit his 66 Runs Above Replacement and his 6.9 Wins Above Replacement, too. Not to mention his career walk rate of 12.6% (above average) and career strikeout rate of 20.9% (well below average).
Also please factor in the improvements he’s made, both in the field and at the plate in just the last few years. In 2016, he rated a minus-20 in defensive runs saved as a left fielder for the Twins. In the last three years, he’s been a plus-1 and a Gold Glove nominee. He hasn’t made an error since June of 2018.
“I don’t like saying that,” he said, sheepishly. “I’m pretty superstitious about that. But it’s the same mantra I’ve had since I was drafted — get better every day. Like, that’s all I can control. Try to get a little better each day.
“This is something I’ve very passionate about. I love baseball and I want to play as long as I can, and getting better every day can only benefit me in terms of that.”
After hitting .273 for the Twins in 2018, his offensive consistency fell off in his first year in Oakland in 2019. His hitting mechanics got too stiff. He wasn’t using his elite athleticism to full capacity. So he set out to fix that last winter.
First, he shadowed teammate and fellow switch-hitter Jed Lowrie.
“We work out together at the same place in the offseason,” Grossman said. “I followed him around and I said, ‘I want to do everything you do. You’re a successful major-league player and I want to be as good as you.’ I started copying him, from tee work to flips to how he thought of things, like shoulder level and all kinds of stuff.
“Then I just meshed it with my game. I can’t thank him enough.”
He also can’t thank Athletics’ hitting coach Darren Bush enough. It was Bush who broke his swing mechanics down to the base fundamentals. It was Bush who got him to get his legs back into his swing. He got him to be more balanced, to make his hands go linear to center fielder on his swing through the zone.
“I just ran with it,” Grossman said. “Last spring, call it spring training 1.0, I felt like I was on to something. I continued working on it through the quarantine. I study the game and I see what’s going on around me. I had to make my swing better, knowing what I can do, what my strength are and what my weaknesses are.”
The changes manifested a couple of ways. He started attacking the baseball more aggressively — not in terms of pitch selection but bat speed. Where he used to toe-tap and have a one-hand finish on his follow-through, now he has a leg kick and swings through with both hands staying on the bat.
He pulled the more last year than he ever had before, and he hit the ball harder than he’d ever hit it before. He jumped his slugging percentage up 134 points to a career-high .482 in 192 plate appearances last year. The exit velocity on balls put in play was a career-best 89 mph and his hard-hit rate, 37.5%, was also a career best.
“It goes back to Darren Bush telling me there are these x-amount of guys who are successful because they make hard contact at that rate,” Grossman said. “He said, ‘You can do the same thing.’ You have to put your body in position to make good contact and make quality passes at pitches you can hit.”
It’s that kind of professional approach that new Tigers’ manager AJ Hinch, who managed Grossman in Houston in 2015, and hitting coach Scott Coolbaugh are trying to instill in a Tigers’ offense that has been at or near the bottom in terms of chased pitches, strikeouts and fewest walks the last three years.
“AJ and I have a history and we had a great conversation,” Grossman said. “I have a lot of respect for him and I’m looking forward to working with him again. He was a huge reason for the decision I made (to sign with the Tigers).
“…Going forward, you are going to see how smart, witty and knowledgeable he is about baseball and how he connects to players. How he talks to players and how he impacts the culture just by himself and how he goes about his business. He is second to none.”
Like Kinsler, Grossman doesn’t seek the label of leader. He doesn’t want them to sew a C on his jersey. He’s not a rah-rah, chatter guy. But, he’s seen stuff. He’s been through stuff. He’s got battle scars. He knows the right way to play the game and what it takes to win.
“From my experience and from seeing some of the guys I’ve been around, the best way to lead is by example,” he said.
You get the feeling that’s going to play quite well in this town, on this ballclub. If we ever get this country back to the point where these things matter at all.