The Cardinals optioned their center fielder, Randal Grichuk, to AAA Memphis on August 2nd for his second demotion this season. Before his latest trip to Tennessee, he was in the major leagues for less than a month, a time period which included the All Star break. He is the most recent casualty of the Cardinals’ outfield logjam. Was Randal Grichuk the right player to demote, or is rookie outfielder Jeremy Hazelbaker less productive?
Two of the outfield positions are pretty much inked in: right field primarily belongs to Stephen Piscotty, and Matt Holliday is the solid starter in left. This leaves three potential outfielders vying for one center field spot: Randal Grichuk, Jeremy Hazelbaker, and Tommy Pham. There's also versatility thanks to Brandon Moss, who has 36 outfield appearances this season, and Kolten Wong, who is primarily an infielder but has made outfield appearances and started in center.
With Grichuk, Hazelbaker, and Pham as outfield-only players, there's only room on the roster for two of them, factoring in Moss and Wong as additional options. Did the Cardinals make the right call, or should Randal Grichuk be in the majors? In some ways, all three are equally underwhelming. Take a look at their offensive stats:
|K - BB
|5 for 13 (.385)
|2 for 3 (.667)
|7 for 23 (.304)
Thus far in 2016, the Cardinals have ranked 29th in batting average and 21st in overall offensive production (as measured by wRC+) from the center field position. They could put Carlos Martinez (who is batting .244) in center and their production would not suffer. Pham strikes out the least and has a walk rate nearly double either Grichuk or Hazelbaker's, meaning he’s probably the best offensive option when he’s healthy. This is Tommy Pham, so that’s a huge caveat, but his K - BB percent is very low compared to either Grichuk’s 19.1 or Hazelbaker’s 22.5. Pham, then, has earned his place on the roster.
Grichuk walks the least and his average is lower than Hazelbaker’s, but none of these players are going to add much power to center. Grichuk has been a solid pinch hitter, but so has Jeremy Hazelbaker, and in a larger sample size. It becomes a game of pick your stat. Does Grichuk excel in any area, any stat that would allow him to remain in the majors?
Of the three Cardinals options, Grichuk has had the lowest in BABIP, average, and walk rate. It is possible he has hit into some bad luck this season, but that assumption doesn’t seem to pan out. Since 2014, Grichuk’s hard hit ball percentage has dropped from 45% to 37% to 34%. In 2015, he had the 12th-highest average exit velocity, per Statcast, but in 2016, he's fallen to 44th. He isn’t hitting for average, he isn’t hitting the ball with power, and his walk rate is lowest of the three. It seems like Grichuk will not overtake either Pham or Hazelbaker offensively this season.
He is known, however, as a solid defensive center fielder. Perhaps his defense could overshadow Hazelbaker for that final roster spot? The Cardinals rank 17th overall in FPCT from center field and 8th in the National League, putting them in the middle of the pack.
|2016 Def (FanGraphs)
FanGraphs has all three players ranked significantly below average defensively (though in a small sample for defensive metrics). Grichuk is ranked 1.4 runs better than both Hazelbaker and Tommy Pham, probably because of things like this:
Grichuk has a 1.000 FPCT in center, but so does Pham. Hazelbaker’s .917 is manageable, and when factoring his time in the corner outfield spots that number jumps to .945. Defensively, Randal Grichuk has ranked below league average, and it seems unlikely he brings any real advantage when compared to either Pham or Hazelbaker.
It came down to Hazelbaker or Grichuk. The only real advantages Grichuk offered were being a right-handed bat on a lefty-loaded bench and (maybe) marginally better defense. The Cardinals likely determined that one advantage did not make up for his low average, low slugging percentage, and strikeouts. While I would love to see Randal Grichuk in the big leagues, the Cardinals made the right decision demoting him instead of Pham or Hazelbaker.
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Audrey Stark is a Contributor at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow her on Twitter at @highstarksunday.