How Detroit Tigers’ Robbie Grossman went from ‘a grinder’ to a grown-up at the plate

Detroit Free Press

As Detroit Tigers veteran Robbie Grossman rounded second base, his teammates jumped to the top step of the dugout. Leaning over the padding that separates them from the field, they were eager to see if Grossman would keep his season-long promise.

“If I hit 20 home runs, I’ll do it,” Grossman had told the team earlier this year.

And then, there it was on Tuesday night, with his parents watching from the stands: He reached over his shoulder and mimicked firing an arrow from an invisible bow, the Tigers’ season-long gesture of celebration. It started with rookie Akil Baddoo, then 22, in April, but since then, seemingly the entire team — except Grossman — adopted the ritual for home runs. (Even starting pitcher Casey Mize used it after drawing a bases-loaded walk to drive in a run in St. Louis.)

“All these kids, they like to celebrate when they do something on the field,” Grossman, 31, said before Wednesday’s 8-6 victory over the Oakland Athletics at Comerica Park. “They gave me a hard time about it all year. When I first got to the big leagues, if you just looked at the pitcher the wrong way, they were going to throw at you.

“The game has changed a lot in that aspect. The young kids are driving this game right now. I made a promise to my teammates. I wouldn’t say it looked natural. It was very awkward. I was just happy I put a barrel on the ball and got it out of the stadium. I was just happy enough for that.”

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While Grossman prefers not to celebrate like Baddoo, he continues to carry the Tigers at the plate, in the field and as a leader by example. In short, Grossman has been everything the Tigers hoped for when they signed him to a two-year, $10 million contract in January.

Grossman is hitting .237 with 20 home runs, 58 RBIs and 123 strikeouts over 129 games. He also has 81 walks — third-most in the majors — for a .356 on-base percentage in his ninth big-league season. That’s not to mention his career-high 15 stolen bases and value in bouncing between left field and right field while remaining an everyday outfielder.

“I would like to stay the rest of my career in Detroit,” Grossman said. “That’s not up to me at the end of the day, but hopefully, my play will dictate that. Just the trust and how they’ve treated me here and the opportunity they’ve given to me. It’s only right that I give everything I have to them to prove them right.”

Tigers manager AJ Hinch added: “He’s been a grinder his whole career. He’s had to fight for appreciation around the industry. … He’s a real pro, and he’s a big reason why we’ve improved the mentality of the young guys.”

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A few years ago, Grossman acknowledged he needed to hit more home runs.

Grossman recorded just 11 home runs over his first 190 MLB games with the Houston Astros from 2013-15. In 2016, his first season with the Minnesota Twins, he hit 11 in 99 games, setting a career high that lasted until this season, after two more seasons with the Twins and a two-year-stint with the Athletics (2019-20).

“Hitting singles is great, and you want to get your average up as high as you can,” Grossman said. “But the point of this game is to drive the ball, slug and get on base. I felt like I had the on-base thing down. I just wanted to extend my career. I had to figure out how to use my legs when I hit, drive the ball and put some loft in my swing. That’s what led to me doing what I did.”

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Reaching 20 home runs was personal.

Grossman set the milestone as one of his goals entering the season.

Finally, everything clicked.

“If you pay attention to what’s going on in this business,” Grossman said, “where the game is going and what teams are looking for, it’s only smart if you …. do some things that are more attractive for today’s play and analytically.”

To understand Grossman’s adaptation to baseball’s homer-happy environment, examine his line-drive, ground-ball and fly-ball rates over the past five seasons, noting the jump in fly-ball rate from 2020 to 2021:

2017: Line Drive (30.3%), Ground Ball (40.1%), Fly Ball (20.5%).

2018: Line Drive (26.3%), Ground Ball (38.4%), Fly Ball (26.6%).

2019: Line Drive (29.5%), Ground Ball (40.2%), Fly Ball (24.1%).

2020: Line Drive (28.1%), Ground Ball (39.8%), Fly Ball (24.2%).

2021: Line Drive (27.4%), Ground Ball (30.1%), Fly Ball (35.4%).

His barrel rate has greatly improved over that span as well; in 2017, he had just seven barrels in 320 batted balls, one of the lowest totals in baseball and just a 2.2% rate. This year, Grossman has a 7.7% barrel rate, generating 26 barrels over 339 batted balls.

“I had him as an infant, and now I have him as a full-grown adult,” said Hinch, who managed Grossman in 2015 with the Astros. “If you’re around him and you watch him prepare, the trust is developed very quickly. I love routine. I love the preparation. And the production has been very good for us. We expect more of that to come.”

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Before crushing his 20th home run Tuesday against the Athletics, Grossman was honored on the field with the Tigers’ Heart and Hustle Award. One player from each of MLB’s 30 teams receives the award — voted on by a committee of franchise alumni — for demonstrating a passion for the game and embodying the values, spirts and traditions of the game.

“He’s the definition of heart and hustle,” Hinch said. “I think it’s so ironic that he got the award with a lot of friends and ex-teammates across the way in the other dugout. They know exactly why he got this award for us this year.

“For his first year here, to come in and show this fanbase, show his teammates and show the organization that it was a great move to sign him, that is a great hat tip to him that people notice how he goes about it. All of our young players here and in the minors can learn something from Robbie.”

Although Grossman has checked off the 20-homer milestone, he won’t suddenly be celebrating each home run like his younger teammates. Yes, baseball is evolving with new-age stars such as Fernando Tatis Jr., Juan Soto, Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Ronald Acuna Jr. and — on a local level — Baddoo.

But Grossman plans to continue leading by example and playing his style, admittedly with a progressive mindset in the batter’s box.

Hinch and the Tigers are thankful he’ll do so for Detroit in 2022 as well.

“I trust him as much as I’ve trusted any player in my career,” Hinch said. “I know what I’m going to get out of him. There’s something to be said for the consistent approach and the reliability to be pretty locked in.”

Evan Petzold is a sports reporter at the Detroit Free Press. Contact him at epetzold@freepress.com or follow him on Twitter @EvanPetzoldRead more on the Detroit Tigers and sign up for our Tigers newsletter.

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