LAKELAND, Fla. — Robbie Grossman has been where some of the Tigers prospects are now, going through their first big league camp and walking on eggshells. He has never been where he is now.
Grossman got his first Spring Training at-bats as a teenager in 2009, a Pirates Draft pick out of high school brought over as an extra player for a few games. He’s now one of just four players on the Tigers’ 40-man roster born in the 1980s.
“I was thinking about this the other day, with all the young kids running around here,” Grossman said Monday. “I was in their shoes at one point, and now I know what it’s like to be on the other side. And it’s an honor, and I feel really blessed that I’m here and I have things expected of me. That’s a privilege, to have things expected of you.”
The Tigers don’t expect Grossman to remake the look of their offense overnight; no one signing could do that. But Detroit believes he can play a big role in the process.
“I think one of the biggest lessons that the younger players can learn from him right away is he’s adapted his swing, he’s changed his swing, he’s changed his approach, in his sixth or seventh year of Major League Baseball,” Tigers manager A.J. Hinch said. “So that, in itself, is probably just as big a lesson as anything he’s going to outwardly say right now.”
Hinch sees Grossman as someone who can lead through his actions. Grossman said he can be a little more vocal about it.
“I’m going to lead by example, but I’m going to be in guys’ ears on occasion and see what they’re thinking, how they’re feeling,” he said. “Even today when we were doing some things [in the first full-squad workout], I was asking guys, ‘How do you approach this? This is how I approach it. Maybe you can take something from me, maybe you can’t. But I want to help.’ I want to be there for the young guys because I was in their shoes, and I was asking questions.”
Grossman has evolved from a high-strikeout, low-average hitter in Houston to a tougher, more disciplined at-bat. He evolved again last season to pull the ball more often and hit for more power without a massive uptick in strikeouts.
Grossman’s 16.9 percent jump in percentage of pitches pulled according to Statcast was the second-largest improvement in baseball, just behind Tampa Bay’s Willy Adames. And yet, Grossman’s 18.4 whiff percentage put him among the most disciplined hitters in baseball, ranking in the top 13 percent.
“He can say, ‘I want to pull the ball.’ But you’ve got to pull the right pitches,” Hinch said. “He did a good job last year of pulling the right pitches and getting in counts where he could hunt some pitches and get the ball closer to him.”
The Tigers have some run producers between Cabrera, Jeimer Candelario, Jonathan Schoop and Wilson Ramos if he’s healthy. Nomar Mazara can join them if he can recapture his previous form. Detroit needs hitters to get on base in front of that group. That’s where Grossman could make an immediate impact.
Grossman is also one of five switch-hitters on Detroit’s roster. At least two others, Candelario and Willi Castro, are expected to be part of the everyday lineup, further transforming a group that leaned heavily right-handed a few years ago but has shifted a little each year.
“I see [Grossman] in the top half [of the batting order] more than I see him in the bottom half,” Hinch said. “I mean, I know what he can do. It certainly is attractive, him hitting in the first inning at some point. I have to assess where the lineup is and who can function there, but the style of 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 for hitting at or near the top.”
Grossman has a history of adjustments: physical, mechanical and mental. Asked how he approaches Spring Training differently now than he did as one of those young prospects, Grossman said, “It’s OK to make mistakes. Get your mistakes out now.”
It might be easier to say that now when he doesn’t make many. But it was much tougher back then, before he became a regular, including with Houston during his first camp under Hinch in 2015.
“When I was younger, I was so hard on myself every single day to do everything perfect,” Grossman said. “And now, as an older player, I’ve done this a long time. This is your time to make your mistakes, or to try things, or do new things. And it’s OK. There’s a tomorrow.”
Grossman looks at the youth around him and says the Tigers’ tomorrow looks bright. The team sees the same in Grossman.