In today’s era of next-gen technology, data is transferred at an incomprehensibly fast rate. Not too long ago, important news and events of the past took hours, days, weeks, or even months to spread across a given area. Today, ubiquitous smartphones and computers can provide their users with instant access to virtually any information they desire.
If you’re a baseball fan, you’ve already known this to be true. Since the inception of social media platforms such as Twitter, the improvement of statistics websites such as FanGraphs, and the public release of the StatCast tracking technology in 2015, Baseball has cemented its place as the head-and-shoulders leader in the sports data arms race. By extension, this means that there are many fewer nationally “underrated” players and only a handful of totally anonymous athletes remaining, as now everyone has equal access to instant data points that range from as simple and straightforward as a player’s slash line to as granular as the spin rate of every pitch thrown on a given day in down to the RPM. Today, baseball analysis is easier and more pervasive, and this more efficient environment has greatly minimized the number of players who undeservedly get little appreciation for their overwhelming talent.
Notice the word choice in that last sentence. Minimized. Not eliminated. Now and then, a player with undeniable talent somehow slips through the cracks. For whatever reason, this player’s efforts are seen as unspectacular or unsustainable, but a glance under the hood reveals that he’s simply an asset that the baseball marketplace is just a moment or two away from properly valuing.
This year, Baseball’s Best Kept Secret is Trent Grisham, an uber-athletic outfielder with the skillset and approach seen in many a superstar in today’s game.
Where’s the Hype?
Oddly enough, Grisham operates within the archetype of a player that both casual and more serious baseball fans love to watch play. The Texas native made a name for himself when he switched to a golf-like swing grip in high school and hit .441 and .552 in his Junior and Senior seasons, respectively (as per Robert Murray of The Athletic). Known as the most athletic player at his school and with the production to back it up, he was quickly scooped up by the Brewers with the 15th overall pick in the 2015 draft.
Upon his assimilation into the minor leagues, he was repeatedly advised by coaches to revert to a more conventional grip. Being an 18-year-old in professional baseball, it must’ve been pretty hard to say no, and he quickly obliged. Despite having to re-re-overhaul his mechanics, however, Grisham avoided any actual struggles. His wRC+ (which encompasses a player’s overall production and accounts for the league environment) in his minor league career never dipped below an above-average 105 (5% better than league average) despite him constantly doing battle with opponents that were older, more experienced and more physically developed.
Looking deeper into his profile reveals that how he produced these numbers were no flukes, either. As a professional, Grisham has not once walked less than in 14% of a season’s plate appearances or struck out more than 26% of the time, and both “lows” occurred in his age-19 season, which also happened to be his first year of A-ball. He’s also hit more fly balls than ground balls over the last 3 years, a feat that is seemingly appreciated more by MLB front offices every year.
Now, all of this is great, a skeptic might say, but what about the higher levels of the minors, where stats actually start to matter? Well, I’m glad you asked! As far as the minor leagues go, one cannot find a tougher obstacle than Triple-A, where the average player is approaching 27 years of age and a good chunk of them have already recorded productive stretches of big-league play. Being the aggressive organization that they are, the Milwaukee Brewers challenged 22-year-old Grisham on June 20 to show that he could routinely outperform the best that the Pacific Coast League had to offer. And outperform them he did, responding with a scorching slash line of .381/.471/.776, hitting 13 home runs in 34 games and producing runs at a rate 92% better than those other big, bad sluggers at the peak of their powers. Only two hitters in all of Triple-A could match that production in at least as many plate appearances (158): elite Dodgers prospect Gavin Lux and Padres major-leaguer Ty France. In the (significant) sample size of more than a months-worth of playing time, Grisham walked more than he struck out, hit for a high batting average, and repeatedly blasted the ball over the fence while also chipping in 6 stolen bases in only 7 tries.
It was clear that the lefty outfielder was no match for mere minor leaguers anymore (and was definitely better than the average-at-best rating applied on him by many scouting groups), but not even Grisham’s thunderous bat could conquer the last problem remaining: logistics. After all, the Brewers already had a glut of effective outfielders, from the reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich to the slick-fielding Lorenzo Cain to the long-respected Ryan Braun to the strapping Eric Thames. In theory, Thames could be shifted to first base, but that would mean reduced playing time for both him and Jesus Aguilar, and with an eye on Grisham’s service time, the Brewers weren’t calling up the outfielder unless it was obvious they should. So until the situation changed, Grisham would have to continue his day job of torching underpaid minor-league pitching.
Fortunately, however, the Brewers are one of the smarter organizations in the league, and they quickly solved their too-many-cooks issue by dealing Aguilar for the intriguing Jake Faria, the Rays splitter-throwing hybrid righty. Finally, with space for their young big-leaguer-in-waiting, the Brewers called up the southpaw to play left field.
Welcome to the Big Leagues: What We’ve Learned from the Small Sample
If you’re reading this, you’re probably a smart follower of baseball and know that 12 games and 41 plate appearances are too small a sample to make many definitive conclusions on Grisham’s MLB performance. At the same time, however, that doesn’t mean that they’re totally worthless–not by a long shot.
One thing we know for sure is that Grisham is fast–lightning fast. Statcast has measured the rookie’s sprint speed at an elite 29.5 feet per second, which is good for the 4th-fastest among outfielders and 14th-fastest in all of baseball. And he isn’t a small rabbit-type either, checking in at a sturdy 6’0-205. (There’s no need to worry about a small sample, as sprint speed stabilizes very quickly.) Oddly enough, the scouting report on Grisham suggested that he never had better than average speed, which is one of the infinite reasons I’m thankful for Statcast.
Additionally, since his debut, Grisham has safely resided above the MLB average when it comes to contact rate (83% vs 76%), chase rate (29% vs 31%), swing-and-miss rate (7% vs 11%), grounder-to-fly-ball-ratio (1.00 vs 1.20), launch angle (15.5 vs 11.1), and hard-hit rate (35.7% vs 34.4%). He’s also recorded 2 Outs Above Average in left field (and 0 Defensive Runs Saved), and while it’s too small a sample size to say that he’s a good fielder, it’s certainly promising that he hasn’t been a liability. When you plug in his hitter profile (based on swing rates and quality of contact) Statcast reveals that his most comparable peers are Aaron Judge (100% match), Bryce Harper (73%), Jorge Soler (72%), Alex Avila (72%), and Miguel Sano (71%)! Now, no one is calling him Aaron Judge or Bryce Harper (just yet), but it’s very encouraging to know that Grisham is taking after MVP candidates in terms of a patient approach that is built around a powerful swing. Major league pitchers are forced to think twice about throwing a ‘cookie’ in the strike zone to the brawny Grisham.
If I’m going to bring up Statcast, I’d be remiss-if-unthorough if I didn’t mention that Grisham is currently overperforming is xwOBA by 30 points (.357 vs .327). In Statcast’s eyes, he hasn’t “deserved” his wRC+ of 115, but there are still multiple reasons for optimism. First of all, a .327 wOBA at age 22 is still fantastic, as not many 22-year-olds can say that they would be an average big leaguer immediately. Secondly, there are still reasons to believe that he does, in fact, deserve an above-average slash line right now: his swinging-strike rate (previously mentioned as swing-and-miss rate) is only 7%, which suggests that he should be striking out closer to 14% of the time than 24%. Further, his expected wOBA on contact (xwOBACON) is .404, well above the league average of .371, meaning that he already has a talent of squaring the ball up when he puts it in play. When he presumably strikes out less, much better numbers should follow.
Now that we’re up to speed on Grisham’s profile and story, it’s time to put this knowledge to use and attempt to predict his future performance. Thanks to MLB’s “juiced ball” conspiracy, however, it’s now much more difficult to project how players are going to perform relative to their peers as a differently-constructed ball completely changes the outlook of individual players. In a vacuum, however, Grisham has all the looks of a player that should outproduce his peers for the foreseeable future, as he projects as a jack-of-all-trades that can still be a master of many facets of the game, including plate discipline, power, speed, and potentially defense. What more could you ask of a player, let alone one who had been forgotten by both the mainstream media and even many sharps?
Funny enough, a model for Grisham’s career arc plays just a couple hundred feet away from him in right field: the amazing Christian Yelich, who also plays a very refined all-around game. Admittedly, this would be a 90th-99th percentile outcome, even for a player as talented as Grisham. For more reasonable comparable players, Tommy Pham, Ketel Marte, and George Springer all appear to share similarities with Grisham, and all have had or are currently having very productive seasons (and, of course, these players are all upper-percentile outcomes as well).
Hopefully, Grisham starts his career out with a bang over the final few months of 2019 and is even “trending” on Twitter a couple of times. Even if he doesn’t, however, he won’t be MLB’s Best Kept Secret for long.
Photo Credit: Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports