Evan Petzold | Detroit Free Press
LAKELAND, Fla. — When Robbie Grossman watches 20-year-old outfielder Riley Greene, one of the prized prospects in the Detroit Tigers‘ rebuild, he thinks about the emotions of his first major league spring training with the Pittsburgh Pirates in 2009.
The joy of wearing the uniform.
“They’re here for a reason,” Grossman, 31, said Monday, referencing Greene, Spencer Torkelson, Dillon Dingler and Kody Clemens. “Obviously, they can play. Just them being around the older guys to see how they go about their business, how they go about their day, how they overcome obstacles. That’s part of becoming a major leaguer.”
Grossman’s situation — entering his ninth season in the majors — gives him a sense of pride. And after signing a two-year, $10 million contract this offseason, he is being asked to lead in the lineup and in the clubhouse more than ever before.
“It’s an honor,” Grossman said. “I feel really blessed that I’m here. That’s a privilege, to have things expected of you.”
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Leadership is why manager AJ Hinch wanted Grossman on his roster.
The organization valued him “very highly” during the early free agency conversations, Hinch said, adding he spoke with the left fielder throughout the process. (Grossman played for Hinch in 2015 with the Houston Astros.) Still, Hinch didn’t need to sell the idea of adding Grossman — with his 12.6% career walk rate and 20.9% strikeout rate — to general manager Al Avila.
Almost like it was meant to be.
And now Grossman is a clubhouse leader in an otherwise young team (second to future Hall of Famer Miguel Cabrera) for the first time in his career.
“I’m going to lead by example, but I’m gonna be in the guys’ ears in the (batting) cages and see what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling,” Grossman said. “Even today, I’m just like, ‘How do you approach this?’ And saying, ‘Hey, this is how I approach it.’ Maybe you can take something from me, maybe you can’t. But I want to help.”
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Two winters ago, Grossman went through one of his many major league hurdles; it won’t be long before Greene, Torkelson and the others hit roadblocks, too. He made extensive swing and approach changes with the help of former teammate Jed Lowrie and Oakland Athletics hitting coach Darren Bush.
The results delivered more power — eight home runs, with a .241 batting average, in 51 games last season.
“Feel like I’ve gotten even better,” Grossman said. “There’s still room to grow. I’m always going to have that growth mindset of trying to get better as a person and as a player every single day. That’s been my motto since I signed (in 2008 out of high school), and here I am today.”
In the 2019 season, Grossman had a .240 batting average and six homers in 138 games. And with the Minnesota Twins in 2018, he hit .273 with five homers in 129 games.
Although Grossman boosted his power last year, his excellent walk and strikeout rates remained. He had a .344 on-base percentage — with help from 21 walks to 38 strikeouts — and a career-high .482 slugging percentage.
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Drawing plenty of walks and grinding out tough at-bats make him a candidate to wind up near the top of the batting order. Most of his experience has come batting first (.254 batting average in 133 games) and second (.223 in 137 games) in the lineup, followed by 98 games in the sixth spot with a .290 average.
“I see him in the top half more than I see him in the lower half,” Hinch said Monday. “Certainly, it’s attractive to hit him in the first inning at some point. But, again, I’ve got to assess where the lineup is and who can function there.
“But the style of (his) at-bat, in terms of seeing pitches, do some damage, draw a few walks, be a good hitter, the switch-hitting component, all in his favor of hitting at or near the top.”
Right now, Grossman is piloting the younger players in spring training, teaching them the intricacies of offensive maturity. Yet when the season begins, he could find himself in another position to lead.
That’s as the leadoff hitter in Hinch’s lineup, setting the tone for the entire team.
“I just try to me be,” Grossman said. “The best player is me being myself. I’ve had to learn that going through the growing pains of playing in the big leagues. There might be some situations during a game where my approach will change, but for the most part, it’s just going to be me.”