Detroit Tigers outfielder Robbie Grossman is coming off a career year.
He joined the Tigers in January 2021 on a two-year, $10 million contract — the organization’s first multi-year deal since the 2015-16 offseason — and produced team highs of 23 home runs, 20 stolen bases and a .357 on-base percentage.
Grossman, though, thinks “the league exposed me” in his career-high 156 games last season.
“I see a lot of good, and I see a lot of things I need to work on,” Grossman said Tuesday. “You’ve heard me say this before: ‘You’re never as good as you want to be.’ That’s part of my motivation, my drive. I’m proud of what I did, but man, I got a lot of things to work on.”
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The 32-year-old is training at Fairchild Sports Performance in Houston, not far from where he lives during the offseason. Grossman works out with fellow switch-hitter and 13-year MLB veteran Jed Lowrie, who helped his friend reinvent his swing to add power a few years ago.
So, what is Grossman focused on this winter?
“I struck out way too much,” Grossman said. “There are some pitches, some zones that I struggled with. Those have really been my emphasis this offseason in my work, in my routine and trying to clean that up.”
Among 132 qualified MLB hitters last year, Grossman had the fourth-most walks (98) and the 26th-most strikeouts (155). His walk rate improved, from 10.9% in 2020 to 14.6% in 2021, and his strikeout rate got worse, from 19.8% to 23.1%.
The use of a pitching machine, Grossman believes, will help get his strikeout rate back his pre-2021 mark. Many of his strikeouts last season occurred in two spots at the top of the strike zone: 18 in the middle, 20 in the inside. He also totaled 50 strikeouts in the bottom-middle of the strike zone and everywhere below zone.
“I’ve never really been a big machine guy, hitting off the machine, in my career,” Grossman said. “It’s something I’ve honed in on this offseason. Just the velocity we see in the game now and the elevated fastball, and of course, the breaking stuff.
“It’s as close to game action as you can see. You can hit balls off the tee, you can flip, you can hit BP as much as you want, but until you see velo, that’s when it really exposes the flaws in your swing and areas you need to work on.”
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Despite the uptick in strikeouts, Grossman was a strong addition for the Tigers. His 114 wRC+ and 2.7 fWAR were second on the team, behind only third baseman Jeimer Candelario. He hit .239, but that was offset by the walks which brought his OBP up to .357.
Grossman increased his launch angle and began hitting for power in 2020. His fly-ball rate has skyrocketed, from 34.3% in 2019 to 46.2% in 2021, and his ground-ball rate has plummeted, from 40.6% to 29.5%.
He posted a 24.3% line-drive rate last season.
“You don’t want to hit the ball on the ground,” Grossman said. “At this level, it’s an out. But I want to mix in more line drives. That’s something I’m putting emphasis on, but I’m a big believer in hitting the ball in the air, and you’re going to have a better chance. But there’s a fine line of where that number is.”
Grossman was one of 10 players in MLB to hit 20 home runs and steal 20 bases last year, joining Shohei Ohtani, Fernando Tatis Jr., Jose Ramirez, Ozzie Albies, Cedric Mullins, Bo Bichette, Trea Turner, Trevor Story and Randy Arozarena.
He became the seventh Tiger in franchise history to join the 20-20 club.
“I reflected on my season for about a week,” Grossman said, “and then I just said, ‘All right, I want to do better.’ Every year I set loftier goals and push myself to do it. That’s why I love this game so much. You’re never a finished product, in my eyes. There’s always room to grow. That’s what drives me at the end of the day.”
‘The goal is to win a World Series’
A nine-year MLB veteran, Grossman embraced a leadership role as manager AJ Hinch instilled his winning culture. The Tigers finished 77-85, their best mark since 2016, for third place in the American League Central.
This offseason, general manager Al Avila made three significant additions in search of his team’s first postseason appearance since 2014, bringing in catcher Tucker Barnhart, left-hander Eduardo Rodriguez and shortstop Javier Baez.
“I knew things were going up for the Tigers, especially bringing in a guy like AJ,” Grossman said. “He’s not going to deal with just being average. The goal is to win a World Series, and I think that goal is pretty clear throughout the organization. You want to play in October, and these guys are going to help us get there.”
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The Tigers acquired Barnhart, who turned 31 earlier this month, in a Nov. 3 trade with the Cincinnati Reds. The two-time Gold Glove winner is a defense-first catcher, known for his game-calling, blocking and strong relationships with pitchers. He hit .247 with seven home runs in 116 games last season.
“He’s a Gold Glover. That’s the highest praise,” Grossman said. “I’ve talked to some other guys on other teams. He’s a quality individual, just the kind of guy we want on our team. I’m excited to get down (to spring training) and be around him and get to know him. Maybe he can help me a little bit.”
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On Nov. 16, the Tigers signed Rodriguez to a five-year, $77 million contract. He won the 2018 World Series with the Boston Red Sox and finished sixth in 2019 AL Cy Young voting. The 28-year-old logged a 4.74 ERA (and a 3.32 FIP) across 32 games in 2021.
“He’s going to make the guys around him so much better,” Grossman said. “He’s pitched deep in the playoffs and knows what it takes to get to the ultimate goal of winning a championship. I’m just glad I don’t have to face him anymore, to be honest.”
Grossman is 5-for-14 (.357) with one walk and four strikeouts against Rodriguez in his career.
“He’s a left-handed horse,” Grossman said. “He’s always out there and has quality stuff. It’s going to be even better in this ballpark that we’re playing in.”
Just before MLB’s Dec. 2 lockout, the Tigers and Baez agreed to a six-year, $140 million contract. The 29-year-old hit .265 with 31 home runs, 28 walks and 184 strikeouts in 138 games last season. He won the World Series with the Chicago Cubs in 2016, finished second in National League MVP voting in 2018 and secured a Gold Glove in 2020.
“He’s one of the most exciting players in the game,” Grossman said. “He’ll do something every day that just takes your breath away. I’m excited for him to be in a Tigers uniform and on our side. These three guys bring so much value to our team, and coming off last year, that’s all I can ask for.”
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The three newcomers bring postseason experience, too: two games for Barnhart, 11 games (four starts) for Rodriguez and 36 games for Baez.
“That’s meaningful baseball,” said Grossman, with eight playoff games on his résumé. “Once you get to the playoffs, it’s a whole different animal. Every one of them is going to be a great player for us, but the experience and their help to make everyone around them better, I think that’s the huge value to this.”
And there’s more talent coming.
‘I’m excited to play with him’
Grossman is also eager for the arrivals of top prospects Spencer Torkelson and Riley Greene. The former first-round draft picks are scheduled to make their MLB debuts in 2022, possibly as soon as Opening Day.
“The future is very bright,” Grossman said. “I hope I can be a small part of it.”
Torkelson hit .267 with 30 home runs combined for three minor-league teams in 2021, including a .238 batting average with 11 homers in 40 games for Triple-A Toledo. Torkelson is tabbed as the first baseman of the future, and Greene will patrol center field when he gets to the Tigers.
Grossman and Greene met in last year’s spring training. Hinch paired them in the same batting practice group for the opening week of camp. Grossman shared his tips about hitting and plate discipline.
“He’s a very mature 21-year-old,” Grossman said. “That comes with the territory of being a high pick and all the accolades that come with what he’s done. It shows in how well he handles himself. He’s got a heck of a future in front of him.”
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The left-handed Greene hit .301 with 24 home runs last season for Double-A Erie (84 games) and Toledo (40 games), drawing 63 walks and striking out 153 times. After joining Triple-A in August, the 21-year-old hit .308 and launched eight homers.
Greene plans to do more of the same in 2022, only this time in the big leagues.
And Grossman can’t wait to be there.
“Riley has a heck of a career ahead of him,” Grossman said. “His experiences are going to mold him to what kind of player he is, for good or worse. He’s going to be a heck of a big leaguer. I’m excited to play with him.
“Anytime you get to be around young, talented players like that, hopefully something you do can help them. Enough quality players making people around them better, that’s all you can ask for.”
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