Rookies, stars are key. But Detroit Tigers won’t win without grinders like Robbie Grossman

Detroit Free Press

DUNEDIN, Fla. — It’s easy to get lost in the stars. Or the near stars. Or the potential stars.

The Detroit Tigers have a handful of those. In fact, they’ve been the talk of camp in central Florida the last few weeks.

Robbie Grossman understands why. He’s also excited about Javier Baez and Eduardo Rodriguez and Tucker Barnhart and can’t wait to see what Riley Greene and Spencer Torkelson do.

“We feel it in the clubhouse,” said the Tigers outfielder. “It’s an exciting time in the Detroit Tigers organization. Our product is getting better.”

Yes, it is, and Grossman is an important reason, too. His importance is just a little trickier to see.

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AJ Hinch sees it though.

“He’s as good a veteran player inside the clubhouse that I’ve been around,” said the Tigers manager.

A backhanded compliment? A cliché? A way of highlighting a player’s importance by focusing on what they do off the field?

No. Hinch doesn’t operate that way. Besides, Grossman gets on base and he’s versatile in the field. He can also steal and hit home runs and was one of only 10 MLB players last season with at least 20 of each.

So, no, talking about what he does in the clubhouse and on the team bus should not diminish his importance in the lineup. It isn’t a sneak attack on his skills.

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Because he’s a bargain on the field, a win for general manager Al Avila — hehas already outplayed his contract — he signed for two years and $10 million in 2021. Which had to feel good to Grossman, who wondered toward the end of 2019 how he was gonna fix his swing and increase his production and find a way to stay in the game.

He had scuffled that season in Oakland. And he thought, “I’m going to be out of the game if I don’t try.”

Hinch chucked that Grossman said that this week.

“I loved that he said that,” said Hinch. “We would have still given him a shot with his old swing.”

Maybe someone else would’ve, too. But why chance it?

Why not do what Grossman did and alter your swing plane to get more loft? To learn how to use your leg? Your core? The ground?

He hung on all those years in the big leagues without harnessing the power of the lower body and the power of the ground. It’s there to be pushed off of. And while that may seem like something every baseball player naturally does, they don’t.

Hinch is convinced the most important benefit of whatever swing change Grossman made is how it has allowed him to get his bat to a wider variety of pitches. When you get to more pitches, you can be more selective.

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To Hinch, selection is the key to hitting. That selection must evolve. Grossman felt it. And felt if he didn’t adapt he’d be out of the game, even if that was a harsh self-assessment.

“I think the subtle message,” said Hinch, “is the adaptability a player needs to have even in that stage of his career … (see) a deficiency and (address) it.

Hinch likes messages, subtle or not. It’s how he manages a clubhouse and how he lays the foundation of a culture. For everything Grossman showed on the field last season, this is the space where Grossman fully thrives.

Again, this isn’t a knock on his baseball skill. If he didn’t have any, or if he hadn’t grinded his way to his breakout performance last season at 31, his clubhouse influence wouldn’t quite be what it is.

So, yes, performance matters.

So does being a decent human being.

Grossman learned how much that mattered in baseball when he was a young player.

“I was treated so well when I was a younger player by the older players,” he said. “I feel like it’s the right thing to do. There is no reason to be negative or unappreciative of where you are at.”

Yet it isn’t just about decency. There is a real role for a veteran player who can “coach” and become a kind of extension to the manager. If Barnhart is that way behind the plate for Hinch, then Grossman is that way everywhere else.

“There is so much learning, not just on the field, but off the field as a young player; anything I can do to help is more beneficial to the player, to the organization,” he said.

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Besides, he remembers what it was like when the older players didn’t have much to do with the younger players.

“You see different instances of guys that you looked up to aren’t the guys (you thought they were) when you really meet them,” Grossman said. “I never wanted to be that guy. It always stuck out to me who did things the right way, who treated guys the right way. That meant a lot to me.”

In a sense, Grossman is paying it forward. And if that’s all he did, maybe he’d have a job in baseball as long as he wants.

Like Hinch said, the way Grossman leads and relates to his teammates is special. It has helped Grossman, too.

He wasn’t sure how much he’d be able to contribute on the field when he signed the two-year deal last year. But he saw an opening to lead and to teach.

“Coming in as a free agent and being a more experienced player on a young team, I thought that was the role I needed to develop,” he said. “And to personally grow as an individual and try to lead these young men.”

To keep them from some of the “mistakes I made.” To keep them nimble of mind and spirit. To keep them open.

“In this game, you are either going up or going down, you are never staying the same,” he said.

Two years ago, he had to trust the hitting coaches trying to help him change his swing. It wasn’t easy. It never is later in a career.

But he did, and he’s here, and though he isn’t a star or a future star, he is the kind of presence that can help groom a star, and that has essential value as well. Just don’t forget what he does on it.

“You have to change over the course of your career, or you’re not going to be the same player,” said Hinch. “When a veteran guy does it it’s pretty impressive.” 

Contact Shawn Windsor: 313-222-6487 or swindsor@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @shawnwindsor.

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