On dead balls, launch angles and no-nos, Tigers' Grossman talks about hitting in 2021

Chris McCosky
The Detroit News
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Kansas City, Mo. — Is there a more beleaguered figure in Major League Baseball these days than the hitter?

Batting averages are down, strikeouts are up, extra base hits are down. There’s been six no-hitters thrown in the first seven weeks of the season.

Detroit Tigers' Robbie Grossman swings against the Boston Red Sox during the fourth inning.

Debates are now springing up across the industry about whether MLB went too far in its attempts to normalize (aka, de-juice) the baseball, about pitchers increasing their advantage by using sticky substances on the baseball to facilitate more spin, about how launch angles and shifts are sucking the energy and, frankly, the joy out of baseball.

“Throwing a no-hitter is a great accomplishment,” Tigers manager AJ Hinch said. “It’s not a lay-up drill to get Major League hitters out. You can’t knock the pitchers that are having success.”

Hinch thinks that on the whole the game remains pretty darn entertaining. And maybe as the summer heats up, balls will fly farther and the offense will tick back up. Maybe it’s too early in the season to make any rash judgments or proclamations.

“But you can’t create more action by willing it,” he said. “There has to be a change in the structure whether it’s compensation, whether it’s tweaking rules here and there to provide more action. There are a ton of topics we have to cover and I know it’s not going to be a quick fix.

“But now that it’s on the forefront of these media sessions, maybe it’ll get the attention that will get us toward making the best product moving forward.”

Think about it, you start with one of the hardest skills to master in any sport – hitting a round ball with a round bat – and then add in all the advancements in scouting, technology and analytics; in pitcher development (velocity, pitch-shaping, sequencing), in game-planning, in the deployment of fielders, and you fully understand Jonathan Schoop when he says, “Hitting is really, really, really hard. You fail seven times out of 10 and you are in the Hall of Fame.”

Robbie Grossman has lived through this entire evolution. He’s seen pitchers’ velocity and spin rates spike. He’s seen pitchers expose weaknesses he never knew he had. He’s seen every shift there is. He’s seen hitters’ launch angles get steeper and steeper and strikeout rate climb in proportion. 

“Give credit to these pitchers,” Grossman said before the game Friday. “They keep getting better. With all the technology out there, they’re getting really good – especially since from when I came into the league to now, it’s completely different. And we’re not even talking a decade.

“It’s pretty crazy to see.”

Grossman, hitting .243 with a .377 on-base average and a 123 OPS-plus, isn’t ready to blame anything on dead baseballs.

“I haven’t been able to tell if there’s a difference, but it’s in the back of my mind,” he said. “Because you know the baseball has changed. But we haven’t been anywhere that’s been real hot yet to where you’d go, ‘Oh wow, balls are really flying today.’

“Who knows how much that plays into it?”

Grossman said a bigger issue than juiced or de-juiced baseballs are the shifts. It was the increase in both the volume and effectiveness of the shifts that spawned the increased launch angles, which increased both the home run explosion and the all-time high strikeout numbers.

“The ball that’s been a hit for a hundred years is no longer a hit,” he said. “That chess game between pitchers and hitters keeps evolving.”

Right now, the pitchers are calling check; and the hitters’ next move will be intriguing. Neither Grossman nor Hinch, though, think this is the tipping point for the launch angle, the point where maybe hitters start leveling out more.

“I saw something about (Mike) Trout’s launch angle being lower than it’s ever been and some other guys, too,” Grossman said. “But I don’t think so. As long as there are shifts, I don’t see why a guy would try to hit a line drive, because it’s an out. They aren’t just shifting in the infield, it’s in the outfield, too.

“I'm just trying to learn as much as I can about it every single day and figure out how to attack it.”

Detroit Tigers manager A.J. Hinch , left, watches Miguel Cabrera bat against the Kansas City Royals.

Hinch said that it’s a question of economics, too. The long-ball guys get paid.

“The compensation system and the way teams are built is around power,” he said. “It’s hard to hit and teams start looking for hitters who can do damage and we compensate players at a high level that have extreme skill sets.

“It’s how players are valued. You get up here and you’ve got to produce with power and power gets compensated and compensation is a big driving force in player style.”

Maybe things will even out some as the summer heats up, but something's not right when throwing a no-hitter becomes a hum-drum event.

"It's great for your team when a guy throws a no-no, it's great for that guy," Marlins manager Don Mattingly told reporters Thursday night. "But when there's so many, so early — you know, strikeouts are at an all-time high — it tells you there are some issues within the game that need to be addressed.

"It's been coming and it's been building, and now we're at a point where I think it's getting so much more attention because it's just a game that sometimes is unwatchable. You see guys you talk to and they don't even like watching games because there's nothing that goes on in them."

The Reyes report

So how did outfielder Victor Reyes respond to being sent down to Triple-A Toledo? He went beast-mode. He’s hit in all nine games that he’s played and is slashing .432/.488/.622 with a 1.1 OPS.

“He’s taken to heart what he needs to do to get back,” Hinch said. “A little stint in Triple-A is proving to be worthwhile for him.”

What’s next for him, though, is uncertain. Eric Haase has emerged as an option in left field, so there’s no urgency to add a fifth outfielder.

“Now we have to look at how we can rearrange our roster to provide him an opportunity if this continues,” Hinch said. “I’m proud of him for taking this constructively and going down there and doing well. We’re paying attention.”

Around the horn

Lefty Derek Holland (shoulder) threw a hitless, scoreless inning in his first rehab outing in Toledo. Hinch said his velocity was back in the mid-90s, which was encouraging. Holland is expected to pitch multiple innings on Saturday. Hinch said they would determine his status after that.

Twitter: @cmccosky

Tigers at Royals

First pitch: 4:10 p.m., Saturday, Kauffman Stadium, Kansas City, Missouri

TV/radio: BSD/97.1

SCOUTING REPORT

LHP Matthew Boyd (2-4, 2.45), Tigers: He’s gotten a little measure of payback against the Royals, a team that has vexed him over his career (hitting .296 with a .809 OPS against him). In two starts against the Royals at Comerica, he allowed one earned run in 14 innings. The Royals are 7 for 47 with eighth strikeouts against him and just one extra-base hit. 

RHP Brady Singer (1-3, 3.96), Royals: The Tigers beat him on May 11, knocking him out of the game in the fourth. It was his first loss to the Tigers after dominating them in four previous starts, including on April 24 when he beat Boyd at Comerica. You know what’s coming, sinkers and sliders, but good luck barreling them up. The average exit velocity against him is 87 mph, in the top 14% in baseball.

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