Robbie Grossman: Why OBP Isn't The Only Thing

It's a little strange to have written about the minor leagues as little as I have this season, but I guess that's what relevant major-league baseball will do. Today, though, a note about Robbie Grossman.

This season, Grossman has undergone a weird transformation in the eyes of Pirates fans. Last year, some people were writing him off as a bust. This year, people are beginning to pencil him in as an outfielder of the future.

In my opinion, both positions are, or were, exaggerated.

Grossman's story, before this year, had been all about age relative to league and his strikeout-to-walk ratio. In 2009, he struck out 164 times at West Virginia. That's a horrible number for a minor leaguer at any level, but Grossman was only 19 and was playing in a full-season league, and it's somewhat impressive that he even held his own there.

In 2010, he only posted a .688 OPS as a 20-year-old at Class A+, but he was a lot younger than most of the players there, and he significantly improved his control of the strike zone, striking out "only" 118 times while not losing many walks.

This year, he's posting a remarkable .429 OBP, which has people salivating. He has taken another step forward with the K:BB ratio, too. Those are real improvements, and I'm not dismissing them at all. He's definitely a real prospect at this point.

The problem, though, is that he's still either walking or striking out in a huge percentage of his plate appearances. If he were a major-leaguer posting his current line of .290/.429/.426, he'd be incredibly valuable. But major-league pitching isn't the same as Class A+ pitching, and a guy who's striking out about 18 percent of the time and walking about 20 percent of the time in Class A+ isn't necessarily going to have an easy time getting his skill set to work against pitchers with good control and command, particularly if he's not (yet) much of a power hitter.

In other words, I would take Grossman's OBP with a grain of salt right now. Yes, he's pretty much dominating at Class A+, but I think he's doing so in a way that turns out to be unsustainable for most players. It's good that he's taking walks, but once a Class A+ prospect passes the point where, say, he's walking in about 10 percent of plate appearances, I don't think more walks really adds a lot to his profile. I would gladly trade 40 of the 94 walks Grossman has now for fewer strikeouts and a handful more hits.

The most encouraging thing about Grossman's season, from a statistical perspective, is that his batting average is better. It's at .290, up from .245 last year. At the Class A+ level, a hitting prospect really should be learning to hit the ball, not just wait out pitchers who are having trouble getting the ball into the zone.

Grossman is obviously a better prospect than Evan Chambers at this stage, but this is similar to the problem I have with the idea of Chambers as a prospect. Chambers does a great job controlling the strike zone ... against A-ball hitters. (He even has some power and athleticism, to boot.) But he does a ton of waiting for ball four, and that's going to be a tendency that's incredibly easy for major-league pitchers to exploit if he's not even capable of clearing a .250 batting average at Class A+. 

This is also one reason why Starling Marte is almost universally viewed as a better prospect than either of them. (Marte's insane toolsiness is a much more obvious reason.) Marte rarely draws walks at all, but that's a skill he can develop later, to some degree, as long as he's able to hit .300, which he has done over and over.

(This isn't to say that there aren't issues with Marte, like his tendency to leg out a lot of infield singles, which might turn into outs against major-league defenses. Grossman might indeed turn out to be the better player. But I'd much rather have Marte right now.)

I think Grossman has taken a nice step forward this year, but he still has a lot to work on before his skills will transfer to the majors. If you have a major-leaguer who's hitting .290/.429/.426, then hey, great - All-Star! But if you have a Class A+ ballplayer who's doing that, you need to ask what else he's bringing to the table, and his development needs to focus on that, or else he's going to turn into ... I don't know, Jamey Carroll without the positional versatility. Grossman needs to cut down on his strikeouts. (Kyle Stark himself said this when I talked to him in March.) Grossman needs to develop more power. And he needs to maintain the high average he's posted this year. He has had a great season in many ways, and he deserves much of the praise he's gotten recently. But let's not pencil him in as an outfielder of the future just yet.

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