DETROIT – If you watched highlights of the Detroit Tigers’ win over the Cleveland Indians on Opening Day, they probably included Miguel Cabrera’s home run, Matt Boyd’s scoreless outing and the JaCoby Jones double that drove in the eventual winning run.
Those highlights probably didn’t show Robbie Grossman looking at a pitch outside the strike zone, dropping his bat, unstrapping his shin guard and trotting down the first base line. Not very exciting, right?
Well, maybe not for some fans.
But in reality, Grossman is exactly what the Tigers needed. Since Ian Kinsler was traded to the Los Angeles Angels a few years ago, the search for a worthy leadoff hitter has come up empty for the Tigers.
As good as Jones and Victor Reyes have been, at times, they don’t exactly have ideal leadoff profiles.
In 2020, Tigers leadoff hitters combined for a .289 on-base percentage -- third-worst in baseball. In 2019, the team’s leadoff OBP was .309 -- again, third-worst. In 2018, a .295 OBP -- you guessed it: only two teams were worse.
The Angels, Giants, Cubs, Cardinals, Pirates and Orioles were the six teams that finished below the Tigers over that three-year span. Detroit was the only team in baseball to finish bottom three in the category every single season.
It’s no coincidence the Tigers finished last, 26th and 23rd in runs scored.
The Grossman signing didn’t come with much fanfare, but it was the type of move that should improve the Tigers’ lineup significantly. The 31-year-old has a .351 OBP in 727 career games. In other words, his ability to get on base is established, reliable.
In seven seasons with at least 50 games played, Grossman has never had an OBP below .330. That’s his floor, and even that would be the Tigers’ best leadoff OBP in five years (.345 OBP in 2016).
Opening Day provided a glimpse of how Grossman gets on base so consistently. Against one of the best starting pitchers in the game, defending Cy Young winner Shane Bieber, he drew a pair of walks. Then, in his final plate appearance against Bryan Shaw, he drew a third walk.
Bieber has a career walk rate south of 2.0 in 67 games at the MLB level. Control and command are his calling cards. He probably didn’t issue multiple walks to the same player more than a handful of times the last two seasons.
Now, Tigers fans shouldn’t expect Grossman to get on base three times per game, but Thursday was more a reminder of what he brings to the top of the lineup. When Jeimer Candelario and Willi Castro come to the plate, A.J. Hinch wants runners on base.
In the spring, Grossman posted a .346 OBP, thanks to seven walks in 52 plate appearances. But his plate discipline helps in ways beyond just the free passes.
When Grossman works himself into favorable counts, he has enough pop in his bat to make opposing pitchers pay. He clubbed eight home runs in 51 games last season and added a trio of blasts during spring training.
On Thursday, his lone at-bat was a hard-hit line drive to left field after getting into a 1-0 count. If that hadn’t been right to Eddie Rosario, Cabrera’s homer would have been of the three-run variety.
The Tigers’ leadoff hitter saw 17 pitches in his four trips to the plate Thursday. That alone has value, especially when facing a pitcher of Bieber’s caliber.
Grossman probably won’t appear on many All-Star ballots or sell a bunch of T-shirt jerseys. But his value to the Tigers will be obvious to anyone who watches on a regular basis.
That’s already clear after one game.