| Detroit Free Press
New Detroit Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman: ‘I’m excited for what’s to come’
Detroit Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman talks Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, about joining a new organization and his love for A.J. Hinch.
Evan Petzold, Detroit Free Press
In 2008, the Pittsburgh Pirates drafted him in the sixth round. By 2011, he became the first player since Nick Swisher in 2004 to score 100 runs and walk 100 times in a minor-league season. And one year later, the Pirates traded him to the Houston Astros, putting him 30 miles from his hometown in Cypress, Texas.
No big-league arrival, but that’s when Grossman met Jed Lowrie.
Lowrie, now 36 years old and a 12-year MLB veteran, didn’t seek out Grossman to be his mentee. Rather, they were drawn together as switch-hitters. Both love getting the most from each at-bat.
For the past nine years, they have spent every winter training together near Houston, where they live during the offseason. After a poor 2019 season, teachings from Lowrie and Oakland Athletics hitting coach Darren Bush propelled him to an improved 2020 and a two-year, $10 million contract with the Tigers.
“I finally followed him around and said, ‘I want to do everything you do. You’re a successful major leaguer, and I want to be as good as you,’ ” Grossman, now an eight-year MLB veteran, said in early January. “I started copying everything he did, from tee-work to flips to how he thought about things, shoulder level, all kinds of stuff. Just meshed that into my game. I can’t thank him enough.”
Acknowledge Grossman’s past for a moment: He was released by the Astros after the 2015 season, then joined the Minnesota Twins from 2016-18 but was non-tendered. He landed with the A’s in 2019 and hit .240 with six home runs in 138 games. The A’s elected to bring him back for 2020. And with free agency looming, the 31-year-old needed to boost his stock.
That’s where Lowrie stepped in. Not to coach but to guide.
“The most important thing for any player is to understand their own swing and feel,” Lowrie told the Free Press on Jan. 12. “If you’re relying on someone else to always tell you what to do, or to be your coach, then you’re always going to be searching for something. You are your own best hitting coach. I think having a feel for what you’re trying to do, and why it works, is just as important.”
Inside the science and art
The science and art of hitting are complicated but crucial to success. Already one of the best at drawing walks (12.6% career walk rate) and limiting strikeouts (20.9% strikeout rate), Grossman wanted to add power.
If only it were that simple.
“Who wouldn’t want to walk more and hit for more power?” Lowrie said. “You would be a fool to say you didn’t want those two things. But how do you go about doing that?”
The answer Lowrie discovered — helping himself, as a 6-foot, 180-pound infielder, to 37 home runs in 310 games between 2017 and 2018 — is within the science and art of hitting. Allow him to explain.
Science of hitting: “Something that takes place on the tee. You are focused on the mechanics of your swing with multiple variables, right? So you’re working on your swing, but when you’re tracking and trying to hit a moving object, then your focus is diverted from what you’re actually trying to work on. The science of it all, the drills I do on the tee, would be rhythm drills, like a step-back rhythm drill, a torque drill and then a contact point drill. Those are the three major science drills.”
Art of hitting: “A moving baseball. The heart of it is, even in a front toss drill, a change of speed where you don’t know what’s coming as far as like a fastball or an offspeed pitch. It’s not just the same speed over and over. The art of that is being able to implement the mechanics that you practiced off the tee, to be able to control your body to the change of speed.”
Grossman saw improvement in numerous sabermetrics from 2019 to 2020: hard-hit rate (30.9% to 37.5%), barrel rate (2.4% to 5.5%), average exit velocity (87.7 mph to 89 mph), launch angle (12 degrees to 15.2 degrees) and pull rate (29.2% to 46.1%).
These boosts happened for two reasons: An increase in torque, thanks to a new front leg kick; and controlling his body, specifically his head, to create a consistent path for the bat to travel.
To have both, Grossman separated them. He trained his body, first, to enhance muscle memory to maintain his new mechanics. That is the science of hitting. Second, he learned to control his body when facing live pitching. That is the art of hitting.
At that point, he just had to decide whether to swing.
“You have to put your body in a position to make hard contact and make quality (swings) at pitches that you can hit,” Grossman said. “I still haven’t mastered it yet. I still want to be better, and I still want to learn more and continue to grow.”
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‘You’re already a really good hitter’
While Lowrie placed the groundwork, Bush took on the task of helping Grossman implement the science and art of hitting — and feeding him new information based on analytics — throughout the 2020 season.
For Grossman to understand what he needed to do in the offseason, he connected with his hitting coach before the end of 2019.
“I know that I can get better,” Grossman said. “I want to be better.”
“You’re already a really good hitter,” Bush responded. “Now, we need to figure out ways to maximize who you are and what you have and produce as much as we can. There’s going to be some ups and downs, and we may try a few things that don’t click for you, but that’s OK. Because you can go out on any given night and throw out three hits because you’re good.”
By spring training, Grossman knew he was making strides. He got extra time to focus on his craft during MLB’s fourth-month hiatus because of the COVID-19 pandemic. When he returned for summer camp in July, he had a feeling 2020 would be different.
“He really made sure he got grounded, and that he was using the ground to get his lower abs to work properly,” Bush told the Free Press last week. “He had a habit of going forward pretty hard, and when he did that, he would lose power. He was able to get himself into the ground and let his lower half work. And he worked on it all winter.”
Grossman’s batting average didn’t improve much in 2020, from .240 to .241, but his isolated power (slugging percentage minus batting average) skyrocketed from .107 to .241. He collected eight home runs in 166 at-bats, a massive jump from six homers in 420 at-bats the year before.
“Now it’s a matter of consistently making hard contact,” Bush said. “And you’re very selective and do a good job of staying in the strike zone where you can do damage, so things are going to go up quick.”
Changing a culture
Tigers manager AJ Hinch isn’t exclusively relying on Grossman, the third oldest player on the roster, as a veteran presence in the clubhouse. He thinks Grossman, within the two years of his contract, can jumpstart a culture change. His examples of drawing walks, cutting down on strikeouts and working hard can spread.
“This is Miggy’s team, and he’s obviously going to be a big presence,” Hinch said earlier this month on WXYT-FM (97.1). “But Robbie never gives away at-bat. He’s good on both sides. … He’s a grinder. The city is going to love the way he plays.”
Of 46 American League hitters with at least 500 games since 2016, Grossman ranks fourth in walk rate (13.2%), seventh in strikeout-to-walk ratio (1.46) and 12th in on-base percentage (.359).
Last season, the Tigers took a league-worst 147 walks. Two years ago, they ranked second-to-last with 391 walks. Detroit set a single-season MLB record with 1,595 strikeouts in 2019. Over the past four seasons, amid the darkest years of the rebuild, the team had a 7.2% walk rate (27th in MLB) and 23.7% strikeout rate (25th in MLB).
It’s no surprise the Tigers only scored 2,196 runs, the least in baseball, during those four years. And the team had a 198-345 record, with three last-place finishes in the AL Central. The problem is obvious: The Tigers struggle to draw walks, get on base and score runs. As a result, they lost a ton of games.
“We need to change our production,” Hinch said. “The big-strikeout, big-home run is a way that you can win, and there are teams that can do that. It’s not the only way to win. We need to find a little more balance in our lineup. … More runs equal more wins.”
Grossman is a spark plug.
“Robbie does a great job of staying in there,” Bush said. “That wears the pitcher down. Next thing you know, the pitcher is throwing more pitches. You look up, and his pitch count is up. Now he’s making more mistakes over the middle of the plate.
“It’s a learned thing, and Robbie really knows how to do it. And it’s going to rub off on other players, as they see him staying in the zone, drawing walks. It becomes contagious.”