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Robbie Grossman: designated hitter?

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Grossman looks to bedevil the BABIP gods and keep his swing sweet from a new spot.

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins
Touch ‘em all, Robert Grossman
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

In yesterday’s season-opening 7-1 win over the Royals, Robbie Grossman, in his first game as the Twins’ full-time DH, drove in the game-winning run and struck the game’s decisive blow, according to Fangraphs’ leverage index.

That decisive blow looked like this.

Not exactly the stuff of the forthcoming 2017 “Twins Win!” VHSes.

Grossman had an odd Opening Day. He came to the plate five times, didn’t put the ball in play once, “drove in” the game-winning run and scored once.

Here is the list of other players who have struck out at least three times, walked at least twice and didn’t put a ball in play on Opening Day prior to Grossman, per Baseball-Reference’s Play Index.

Two RBI Baseball legends in there! Nice.

Paul Molitor penciling “Robbie Grossman” into the second slot as designated hitter for the Twins’ home-opener on April 3 didn’t seem like a terribly likely outcome just a few weeks ago.

Heading into the 2017 campaign, two pretty obvious names emerged as possible designated hitters: Kennys Vargas and ByungHo Park.

Both are saddled with defensive weaknesses and also offer some offensive thump, making both Vargas and Park prime DH candidates.

After Vargas went down with a foot injury and Park proceeded to hit .353 and lead the Twins in homers, runs and RBI in Spring Training, it appeared ByungHo would be bringing his bundle o’ Park Bangs up from Florida to Minnesota in time for Opening Day. Sure, it’s a mighty small sample size and includes plenty of swings against subpar opposition, but Park seemed to be claiming the DH role with his superlative performances.

But Park, having cleared waivers once, would have to be added to the 40-man roster and risk being exposed to waivers again if the Twins elected to send him down after a possible slow start. By sending him to Triple-A Rochester, the Twins effectively delayed having to make any decision on his role, as Aaron Gleeman and Nick Nelson discussed earlier this week.

So the Twins ultimately elected to keep both Adalberto Mejia and Tyler Duffey on the 25-man roster and carry only 12 hitters (one of whom must be a catcher who never plays, because This Is How Things Are Done in Baseball in 2017), making Park and Vargas somehow both odd men out.

And that leaves the 2017 Twins with Robert Grossman, professional designated hitter.

Now, that certainly sounds zany. But how zany are we talkin’?

Kansas City Royals v Minnesota Twins
No need for this!
Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images

Keep the hit train rollin’

Having been released by the Astros and the Indians in the span of six months, the name Robbie Grossman perhaps didn’t inspire huge confidence when the Twins signed him on May 16, 2016.

But in his debut against the Blue Jays on May 20 — a game I attended, coincidentally; it was one of those depressing games vs. Toronto where it’s only Blue Jays fans and they all have way better seats than you — he went 3-for-4 with a double and a bomb and basically didn’t stop hitting from there on out. Grossman ended 2016 with a .280/.386/.443 batting line, leading the team in on-base percentage and trailing only Brian Dozier, Destroyer of Baseballs, in team OPS.

Grossman did cool off after his torrid start, but ultimately Rex’s brother picked it up to end the season with a stellar .363 wOBA in an admittedly small-sample size of 389 plate appearances.

Two teams unceremoniously dropping Grossman prior to the 2016 campaign didn’t necessarily augur well for the young chap, and his prior big-league stats also didn’t prompt much belief in Grossman: in 764 plate appearances with the Astros from 2013 to 2015, Grossman batted .240/.327/.341, good for an 89 OPS+.

But Grossman did enter professional ball with a solid pedigree. The Pirates signed Grossman for $1 million to lure him away from a University of Texas commitment after drafting him in the sixth round in 2008.

Grossman made Baseball America’s Prospect Handbook every season from 2009 to 2013, and was heralded for his selectivity at the plate.

Grossman has boasted above-average plate discipline since he debuted in 2013, but last year his walk rate increased and helped him boast that team-high OBP.

Grossman’s increase in BB% was coupled with a dip in his K% — which remained worse than league-average, but was the best of his career — to help improve his plate-discipline profile.

So if we do a little math, subtracting the BB% from the K% and carry the one...

Grossman was 27% better than a league-average hitter last season, according to wRC+. But how did the San Diego native fare compared to the average DH?

Robbie vs. those dastardly DHs

Player AVG OBP SLG BB% K% ISO w OBA wRC+
Player AVG OBP SLG BB% K% ISO w OBA wRC+
MLB DH Avg. 0.254 0.327 0.451 9.1 22 0.197 0.332 108
Robbie Grossman 2016 0.280 0.386 0.443 14.1 24.7 0.163 0.363 127

Grossman deployed a different approach than the typical designated hitter — fewer extra-base hits, more walks and base hits — but used it on his way to a better season than the average designated hitter in 2016.

The biggest red flag from Grossman’s 2016 “breakout,” as it were, was his Batting Average on Balls in Play.

One more graph, for the folks in the back.

Grossman is fast, sure. But he’s not fast enough to warrant a .364 BABIP, and there’s little in the Statcast data to suggest his BABIP should run that high. If we lower the minimum to 350 plate appearances to include Grossman, we see that Robbie had the 14th-highest BABIP in MLB last season.

The 2017 projections account for Grossman’s aberrational BABIP last season and ding him accordingly.

Hypothetical 2017 Robbie vs. those dastardly DHs again

Player AVG OBP SLG BB% K% ISO w OBA wRC+
Player AVG OBP SLG BB% K% ISO w OBA wRC+
MLB DH Avg. 0.254 0.327 0.451 9.1 22 0.197 0.332 108
Grossman 2017 (ZIPS) 0.249 0.336 0.379 11.2 25 0.129 0.314 94

ZiPS predicts a .323 BABIP for Grossman in 2017 season, a 41-point drop that would explain how his batting average could plummet to a much less attractive .249 and Grossman could become a much less attractive DH option.

Grossman certainly doesn’t look the part of the prototypical DH and doesn’t offer the prototypical DH batting profile.

But, if he can hit as well as last year and avoid the BABIP bogeyman, perhaps Grossman can become a reliable if unconventional DH.

If Monday’s debut is any indication, Grossman has already unveiled his unconventional approach to avoiding the terrors of BABIP regression.

No balls in play, baby.