Why Robbie Grossman made a ‘big splash’ in his first season for Detroit Tigers

Detroit Free Press

Detroit Tigers manager AJ Hinch spoke about the past, present and future of his club last week at Comerica Park, after finishing 77-85 this season.

Hinch chatted about the possibility of acquiring elite-level players in free agency this offseason, such as an established starting pitcher and an All-Star shortstop. The list of shortstops, by the way, is headlined by Carlos Correa, Hinch’s former player with the Houston Astros.

He then dropped a few rhetorical questions, making a point to bring up the franchise’s investment in Robbie Grossman — one of the players Hinch trusts most — on a two-year, $10 million contract, agreed to in January 2021.

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“I think we have to understand what it takes to win,” Hinch said Oct. 5, with general manager Al Avila seated to his right. “It doesn’t take a big splash to win. A big splash would help, but it’s a marriage that has to be created in so many different ways, and it’s a complicated process. It’s not an end-all-be-all. Is it possible? Sure. I think we’ve all talked like that. The hidden thing in the room is, are we going to sign this big dude? Maybe.

“But if we don’t, do you think Robbie Grossman was a big splash? I do. Do you think Akil Baddoo was a big splash? I do. Are the big prospects going to be a big splash? Yeah, maybe. We just have to find a way to have a competitive advantage at more positions than we have right now.”

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Grossman came to the Tigers to be a leader.

He knew about the history of the organization and immediately showed respect to the fans, acknowledging their passion for winning baseball at Comerica Park. He still believes the supporters will show up in a frenzy when this team has a legitimate chance to make the postseason.

He also knew about Hinch, his manager with the Astros in 2015. Hinch is actually the reason Grossman joined the Tigers. Grossman said he had the “utmost respect” for him, and then praised him for his brilliance in blending analytics and human instincts, as well as his wittiness and ability to connect with his players.

“I couldn’t be more excited,” Grossman said Jan. 6, one day after signing the first multi-year contract of his career in his first offseason as a free agent. He wanted to hit for more power, after spending the previous couple years reinventing his approach, but he never wavered from the importance of a quality at-bat, the main reason the Tigers signed him to establish a winning culture.

“You got to find out who you are in this game,” Grossman said Oct. 2 in Chicago. “It takes a little time to find out what you’re good at, but once you find out what you’re good at, it’s easy to see the holes that you have in your game as well.”

This year, Grossman finished fourth in MLB with 98 walks and also became the seventh player in franchise history to record at least 20 home runs and 20 stolen bases — Grossman had 23 and 20, respectively — in a single season. He also chipped in a team-high .357 on-base percentage and played a career-high 156 games.

As for Hinch’s question last week, the answer is simple.

Yeah, Grossman was a pretty big splash.

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The first splash

Grossman established himself as a leader in spring training.

He had no doubt he could handle the new role, based on his maturity and quiet confidence. His nine years of MLB experience finished tied for third-most on the Tigers’ end-of-season roster. But Grossman didn’t introduce himself to Tigers fans until May 28.

“I knew coming into this it was going to be a different year for me,” Grossman said. “I had a lot more opportunity to play, and a lot more opportunity to be a leader and to show some of these young guys what it takes to be a big leaguer. It’s helped me as a person, just growing as a person. I’m always looking for challenges.”

He stepped into the batter’s box with two outs in the bottom of the 10th against against the New York Yankees at Comerica Park. The free extra-inning runner had started on second but advanced to third on a groundout, with the Tigers trailing 2-1. From a 45-degree temperature to the pitching matchup — Casey Mize vs. Gerrit Cole — the late-May day felt like a preview of Octobers to come.

Grossman was facing ex-Tiger Justin Wilson, but this wasn’t their first matchup. They were roommates together in the minor leagues with the Pittsburgh Pirates. During the at-bat, Grossman repeated these words to himself: “We’re just one swing away from winning this game.”

Wilson threw a 3-2 fastball in the strike zone; Grossman swung. The ball cleared the left-field wall for a two-run walk-off home run against one of the best teams in baseball. His teammates smothered him at home plate in celebration.

“I want to win here,” Grossman said, roughly four months later, in October. “I want to be here when they win, and I’ve let them know that.”

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‘The best me’

This season, Grossman provided four walk-offs.

He also had a walk-off single May 11 for an 8-7 win over the Kansas City Royals, a walk-off squeeze bunt June 27 for a 2-1 win over the Astros and a walk-off walk Sept. 12 for an 8-7 win over the Tampa Bay Rays.

Tough to beat in big moments, Grossman executed in three ways — power, situational hitting and plate discipline — that exemplified his production in his first season with the Tigers. His daily desire to win set the tone for Hinch’s culture change.

“I think he appreciated being a part of something that he knew was going to be built and him being a big part of that,” Hinch said. “I think he was going to be a good player for us regardless. I think the fact that he could settle in and leave his bags here at the end of the year is probably pretty rewarding for him.”

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Grossman impacted the Tigers in many ways, but the clutch walk-off moments and consistent season-long results solidified him as a “big splash” in free agency, something few predicted last January. When the Tigers needed their leader, both on and off the field, Grossman never shied away from doing his job.

That’s how Grossman became a key part of the building process.

“I just want to be the best me,” Grossman said. “I have a pretty good idea of who I am at this point in my career. There are always things to work on and things I want to get better at. I’m going to continue to do that.”

Contact Evan Petzold 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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