Blue Jays: Another step toward stardom coming for Randal Grichuk

TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 21: Randal Grichuk #15 of the Toronto Blue Jays hits a solo home run in the fourth inning during MLB game action against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre on September 21, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images)
TORONTO, ON - SEPTEMBER 21: Randal Grichuk #15 of the Toronto Blue Jays hits a solo home run in the fourth inning during MLB game action against the Tampa Bay Rays at Rogers Centre on September 21, 2018 in Toronto, Canada. (Photo by Tom Szczerbowski/Getty Images) /

After a terrible start but a very strong finish to the 2018 season, Randal Grichuk could be on the cusp of taking a big step toward MLB stardom this year.

By the time that April had come to a close last season, I’m sure there were plenty of fans wondering why the Blue Jays ever traded for Randal Grichuk. However, if you stuck it out with the Jays throughout the second half of the campaign, you probably saw a lot of reasons why.

After starting the year with a horrific .106/.208/.223 slash line in his first 26 games as a Blue Jay, his season came to a merciful pause when he was injured diving for a ball in right field. By the time he returned in June, Grichuk was a completely different player, and a lot closer to the guy that Ross Atkins and Mark Shapiro thought they were getting from the St. Louis Cardinals.

You can’t pretend the first part of the season didn’t happen, but you can certainly dream on the possibilities of what Grichuk could do if he’s truly figured things out for the long haul. For example, in the second half he was one of the Blue Jays’ best hitters, slashing .280/.326/.569 with 14 home runs and 33 RBI in just 225 at bats after the All-Star break. His quality play flew under the radar a bit because of the team’s place in the standings, but he was quietly one of the American’s Leagues best outfielders in the second half.

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There was a time when the age of 27 was considered to be a player’s “peak” age, and Grichuk won’t turn 28 until August 13th of this year. There are many around the game who feel that peaks are trending younger, and that may be true, but tell that to recent late-bloomer success stories like Jose Bautista, Edwin Encarnacion, or even Josh Donaldson. By today’s standards that trio might not have lasted in the league long enough to become the All-Stars they’d turn in to, but fortunately it looks like Grichuk has turned a corner at an important time. In fact, he might even be following a similar path to those sluggers before him.

I’m not suggesting that he’s going to league baseball in home runs like Bautista , or win an MVP like Donaldson, but Grichuk has a great opportunity in Toronto over the next season or two, and he’ll be playing in as low pressure of an environment as anyone could ask for. With just two years remaining of contract control for the Blue Jays there is no guarantee that he’ll be around for the long haul, but he has a real chance to show that he belongs in this rebuild. He’s also young and talented enough for the fit to work, especially if 2nd-half Grichuk is for real.

The Steamer Projections over at Fangraphs have him slated for a .243/.299/.499 slash line, which is very close to his lifetime numbers of .248/.298/.491 across parts of five big league seasons. They also have him lined up for another new career high in home homes at 28, adding 67 RBI, and 29 doubles. I realize I could be biased here, but I feel like he took an important step forward at the plate last season, particularly in laying off of bad pitches. I also liked the way his spray chart has evolved over time, showing that the’s using the field a little more than he used to, but still maintaining authority when pulling the ball.

I’m not going to do much of a deep dive into the data, but the “heat map” at Fangraphs is something that made feel like I could trust what I thought I saw with my eyes. If you have a look here, you’ll see that from 2015-2017 he chased a lot of balls that were down and away, or even out of the strike zone. However, looking at that same map for the 2018 season, you’ll see that his zone is rising into a more favourable hitting area. He still likes the ball more away than he does in, but he’s swinging at better pitches, and that brings better results.

Grichuk should also have the benefit of starting every day again in Toronto next season, and hopefully will reach a new career high in games played. He appeared in 124 games last season around his injury, and his career high is 132 from back in 2016, when he also collected his personal best of 446 at bats. That was more of a result of job-sharing in St.Louis than it is any chronic injury issues, but he still hasn’t had the benefit of a real, full season as a starter.

Even through an imperfect season like 2018, he still managed to put up 2.2 bWAR. If he can stay healthy all year and apply the same approach he took after he returned from injury, I anticipate a breakout campaign for the native of Texas. I wouldn’t be surprised at all if he posted his first 30 home run season, or if he hit a lot closer to that .280 post All-Star break batting averag, than the .243 mark Fangraphs has him in line for.

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While I think we’re all excited to see what the likes of Vladimir Guerrero Jr., Danny Jansen, Lourdes Gurriel Jr., and others are going to do in 2019, I’m optimistic that Grichuk isn’t going to let the kids steal all the thunder, at least not yet. Something tells me he’s on the verge of taking a significant step forward.