The Minnesota Twins are riding a surprising top-ten offense thanks in large part to Miguel Sano’s breakout season and the continued excellence from leadoff hitter Brian Dozier. A solid contribution was expected from the duo prior to the 2016 season, but the team’s offense has really taken off due to the emergence of the on-base machine sandwiched between Dozier and Sano in the two-hole, 27-year-old Robbie Grossman.
Grossman has spent time in the Pirates and Astros organizations, playing in 190 major league games from 2013-2015 with Houston. Despite his outstanding walk rate (as high as 13 percent across 422 PAs in 2013), he never had a wRC+ above 100 due to lower power numbers and a high strikeout rate. But something changed once the switch-hitting designated hitter/outfielder made his way to the Twin Cities.
Grossman enjoyed his best season as a professional in 2016, sporting a 127 wRC+ and a .280/.386/.443 slash line over 99 games and 389 plate appearances. He hit 11 home runs in 2016, which was more than the rest of his major league career combined. He maintained his excellent on-base abilities, with his 14.1 percent walk rate placing him 14th among batters with over 350 plate appearances. But his 2016 season was put under the microscope due to his bloated .364 batting average on balls in play and troubling 24.7 percent strikeout rate.
He has all but proved any doubters wrong. As of June 13th, Grossman leads the major leagues in walk rate at 17.8 percent. He is 10th in on-base percentage at .406, between Ryan Zimmerman and Yonder Alonso. He is a top 40 hitter, according to FanGraphs’ wRC+, with a line 32 percent better than average.
Grossman’s leap forward as a hitter can mostly be attributed to a drop in strikeouts. He struck out 25 percent of the time in his four seasons prior to 2017. His strikeout rate has fallen to 15.2 percent so far in 2017. He is walking more than he strikes out.
He’s pushed his strikeout rate down and his walk rate up mainly by swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone. Grossman is only chasing at 16.4 percent of pitches outside of zone, which is tops in major league baseball, 1.5 percentage points ahead of Joey Votto. He is swinging at the 5th-lowest rate of pitches in the league. Pair that with the fact that the Twins switch hitter is swinging at significantly less balls than any other hitter in the league and it suggests he isn't just simply taking pitch after pitch, but identifying balls and strikes and acting accordingly, on par with the likes of superstar hitters such as Votto.
His swings are turning out better also. Grossman making contact on 85.6 percent of swings, as opposed to a 79.7 percent career rate. His swinging strike rate is just 5.3 percent, which is 10th-best in the majors. His plate discipline numbers so far in 2017 suggest his league-leading walk rate is far from a fluke, and that his reduced strikeout rate is also the result of a real change.
Grossman is producing all of this offense with a very modest batting average and BABIP at .269 and .298, respectively. FanGraphs’ Steamer projection system calls for his BABIP to jump to .317 for the rest of the season, closer to his career average of .329. Grossman was a high BABIP hitter throughout his minor league career, so it is not hard to see him improving even more upon his already career-best overall numbers thanks to a little more BABIP luck.
He has already been worth 1.1 wins above replacement in just 197 plate appearances according to FanGraphs, behind just Sano, Dozier, and Max Kepler on the Twins. Grossman was one of the worst fielding outfielders in the league in 2016. In order to fit him into the line-up and hide his glove, the Twins have made him their everyday designated hitter, and thus far, he has been much more valuable with the bat alone rather than bat and glove combined. Perhaps the switch to full-time designated hitter has benefitted Grossman, as he can now focus more on his hitting and plate discipline.
If the Twins can somehow maintain their perch atop the American League Central over the coming months, look for Robbie Grossman to be a main cog in the acceleration of Minnesota’s rebuild.
All stats through June 13th.