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Feature
 
 
The Ben Grieve Reclamation Project: A Postmortem Analysis

Batterman
on 09/03/2004

 

When the Brewers signed outfielder Ben Grieve to a one-year, non-guaranteed contract prior to Spring Training, they were hoping the soon-to-be-28-year old outfielder could return to the form he showed in three seasons with Oakland. After only 234 at-bats, however, they decided to go in a different direction.

With only hours remaining until the September 1st waiver deadline, the Brewers sent Grieve to the Chicago Cubs for a minor league player to be named later and cash. With the exception of the acquisition of Russell Branyan, it was the only move the Brewers made at either trading deadline, and it brought yet another reclamation project to a close.

But was it successful?

At first glance, probably not. While Grieve was a productive hitter, he received only 275 plate appearances and was never given an everyday job in rightfield. But was that the fault of Grieve? Or should the Brewers have given him a better opportunity to succeed?

This article will seek to answer those questions by examining Grieve's past, the motivations for his signing with Milwaukee, and his production in 2004.

From Top Prospect To Non-Guaranteed Contract

Grieve was signed to a $700,000 contract in December that allowed the Brewers to release him before the season and pay only one-sixth of his salary. It was quite a pay cut for the second overall pick in the 1994 draft, a product of his fall from grace with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, but the soft-spoken Texan was just appreciative of the opportunity.

"I didn't have any room to bargain after the three years I had there," he told Tom Haudricourt of the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel. "That's the way I looked at it. I couldn't demand anything. Certain guys might, but I'd rather get something because I deserve it than have it given to me."

After making to the big leagues with Oakland as a 21-year old in 1997, Grieve played well for four seasons with the A's and was rewarded with a four-year, $14 million deal. He was traded before the 2001 season to Tampa, however, as part of a deal that sent Johnny Damon and Cory Lidle to the Athletics.

The three ensuing season with the Devil Rays have been a disappointment. Marred by an infection in his right thumb and a blood clot in his right arm that required surgery to remove a rib, Grieve saw both his numbers and his playing time decline.

Year    G   PA    AVG   OBA   SLG   OPS   OPS+  EQA
---------------------------------------------------
1997   24  108   .312  .402  .473   875   130  .310
1998  155  678   .288  .386  .458   844   122  .299
1999  148  558   .265  .358  .481   840   113  .286
2000  158  675   .279  .359  .487   845   117  .287
2001  154  639   .264  .372  .387   760   102  .277
2002  136  561   .251  .353  .432   784   108  .280
2003   55  205   .230  .371  .345   716    92  .267
---------------------------------------------------

While still a productive hitter in 2001 and 2002, the 1998 American League Rookie of the Year did not meet the high expectations of Devil Rays and their GM Chuck Lamar.

"I had three pretty crummy years in Tampa," Grieve explained. "Before that, I had three pretty good years. I can't put my finger on any one reason for it. It's not like I'm wearing down or anything. It's been frustrating. It wasn't for a lack of work. For whatever reason, it never clicked there on a consistent basis like it did before.

Many pointed to a lack of aggressiveness, a product of Grieve's superb plate discipline.

"He was a disciplined hitter in Oakland and then he ended up not being as aggressive," Brewers' GM Doug Melvin said, noting that more than 60% of Grieve's strikeouts came on called third strikes. "We've talked to him about it. He can still be selective at the plate but be more aggressive."

Year   PA   SO   BB    SO%   BB%  SO/BB
---------------------------------------
1997  108   25   13   23.1  12.0   1.92
1998  678  123   85   18.1  12.5   1.45
1999  558  108   63   19.3  11.2   1.71
2000  675  130   73   19.2  10.8   1.78
2001  639  159   87   24.8  13.6   1.82
2002  561  121   69   21.5  12.2   1.75
2003  205   41   32   20.0  15.6   1.28
---------------------------------------

While Grieve saw his strikeout rate increase from his time in Oakland, his walk totals also increased. He struck-out about 3.5 additional times per 100 plate appearances in 2002 than in 1998, for example, while walking at about the same rate.

The number of pitches Grieve saw per plate appearance also does not reveal the increase in patience.

Year   P/PA    G/F   ISOP  AB/HR  AB/XB
---------------------------------------
1997   4.02   1.38   .161   31.0   10.3
1998   4.03   2.08   .170   32.4    9.6
1999   3.95   1.42   .216   17.4    9.9
2000   3.80   1.51   .207   22.0    8.7
2001   4.05   2.13   .124   49.3   12.6
2002   3.83   2.08   .180   25.4    9.8
2003   3.95   2.21   .115   41.3   15.0
---------------------------------------

If anything, Grieve was more aggressive in Tampa than he was in Oakland. The big difference, it would seem, came in the type of contact he was making, not in its frequency.

  • First, his ratio of groundballs to flyballs increased dramatically from 2001-2003 when compared with his 1999-2000 seasons. The only aberration came in 1998, his ROY campaign, when despite posting 2.08 grounders for every flyball, Grieve smacked 18 homers and 41 doubles en route to a .458 slugging average and 89 RBI. When those groundballs turned into flyballs the subsequent two seasons, however, Grieve's doubles turned into home runs; while his ratio of at-bats to extra-base hits remained constant, he clubbed 61 doubles and 55 homers. In 2001, he went back to hitting the ball on the ground, and the result was 30 doubles in each of the next two seasons but only 30 combined home runs. In other words, the doubles that turned into homers turned back into doubles or outs.

  • Second, his isolated power fell markedly while his number of at-bats per homer and extra-base hit increased. Again, the culprit seems to be an abundance of groundballs. In 1999 and 2000, Grieve posted an isolated power rate in excess of .200 while smacking a longball about every 20 at-bats and an extra-base hit more than once every ten. In 2001, his power dropped more than 75 points and his home run ratio fell by more than double. He managed an extra-base hit only once every 12.6 at-bats, down significantly from the previous three seasons, and needed nearly 50 at-bats per homer. The next season featured a bit of an improvement, as his home run rate and extra-base hit rates returned to more acceptable levels, but Grieve's power was still off by some 20 points from his peak years in Oakland.

So what happened?

For whatever reason, Grieve lost the ability to drive the ball in the air. It sounds simple, but the likely culprit was a combination of health, mechanics, and his comfort level at the plate. A recurring thumb injury no doubt hampered his power and his well-known spat with Manager Lou Piniella couldn't have helped. But the man who had hit .288 with an 844 OPS as a 22-year old in 1998 needed a fresh start, and that's what he hoped to have found in Milwaukee.

Milwaukee: The Land Of Opportunity

"This is a fresh start for him. It gives him a chance to come over to a new league. He's got some power, which might fit in our ballpark," Melvin said. "I think, on the high side, we'd be pleased if he knocked in 80 runs. It depends on how much he plays. I'd like to see him be able to hit in the middle of the order."

Grieve was optimistic, too, that Milwaukee would give him the chance to turn things around.

"One of my main interests was getting a chance to play a lot," he said at the time of his signing. "I thought this would be a good chance for me to play and get my career back going the right way. That was a big part of the situation here that appealed to me."

That didn't really happen, however, as Grieve split time with Brady Clark right from the get-go. What began as something of a lefty/righty platoon morphed into a strict 50:50 split between the two outfielders, and by August Grieve was starting only a quarter of games.

Month     G   GS   GS%  AB     #3   #4   #5   #6   #7
--------------------------     ----------------------
April     20  15   65   46      0    0    0    0   15
May       23  16   62   49      4    0    0    0   12
June      21  13   52   50      2    0    4    5    2
July      24  15   52   56      0    0   11    4    0
August    20   6   23   33      0    4    0    2    0
--------------------------     ----------------------

The decline in Grieve's playing time can be attributed to three factors.

  • First, his defensive skills (or lack thereof) made him a liability in the eyes of his manager. According to Baseball Prospectus' defensive metrics, Grieve was seven runs below average in right, or a rate of 13 runs below average per 100 games. By contrast, Brady Clark is one run below average, or 12 runs better than Grieve per 100 games. Yost often utilized Clark as a late-inning defensive replacement, something that significantly cut into Grieve's plate appearances.

  • Second, he suffered an injury to his left knee that limited his mobility. A Baker's Cyst formed as a result of torn cartilage, and when it drained Grieve's calf became painfully swollen. He did not start a game between August 7th and 21st as a result of the injury.

  • Finally, Clark put together solid months in June and July, posting OPSes of 811 and 841 respectively, and was rewarded with additional starts. The fact that he batted right-handed also became a factor, as the loss of Junior Spivey and Keith Ginter left Yost with an abundance of left-handed hitters at the top of his lineup.

Meanwhile, Grieve hit well in his limited opportunities. Consistently the second most productive offensive player for Milwaukee (behind Lyle Overbay), he finished his Brewers' season with a .261 batting average and 761 OPS in 108 games.

Month   AB    AVG    OBA    SLG    OPS
--------------------------------------
April   46   .239   .352   .413    765
May     49   .306   .444   .531    975
June    50   .280   .373   .300    673
July    56   .250   .354   .446    800
August  33   .212   .235   .364    799
--------------------------------------

The August slide took much of the shine off of his otherwise solid numbers; prior to the All-Star Break, Grieve was batting .282 with a .398 on-base average and 806 OPS. In addition to the injury, the abundance of plate appearances he received as a pinch-hitter also negatively impacted his numbers.

Position           AB    AVG    OBA    SLG    OPS
-------------------------------------------------
As Outfielder     191   .272   .383   .429    812
As Pinch-Hitter    37   .243   .293   .405    698

In fact, his production correlates well with his percentage of games started. As his playing time was reduced, so too was his production. Grieve's OPS was at its highest on May 11th (913) and remained solid through the end of the month (876). As he saw less time in June, however, he dropped quickly, finishing the month 70 points lower than he started it (806). He again rebounded a bit before the All-Star Break but has hit only .200 with a 683 OPS since the contest in Houston.

Was The Signing A Success Or Failure?

"I wish we could have given him a little more opportunity but I understand the situation with the National League," Melvin told Adam McCalvy of MLB.com. "You have to play defense. With us struggling so much offensively, too, I think there's a fine line in there. How much defense and offense do you need? ... There are people who think defense is very important."

So was the Grieve signing a success?

It's hard to say. Instead of the 400 at-bats in the middle of the order that he and Melvin had hoped for, Grieve received only 234 at-bats, mostly at the bottom of the lineup. He drove in only 29 runs, a far cry from the 80 that Melvin had targeted, but there were several positives.

  • First, he ended his time with Milwaukee fifth on the team in OPS behind only Lyle Overbay, Russell Branyan, Chris Magruder, and Junior Spivey. Among Brewers with at least 100 games, however, he is behind only Overbay. He also finished fourth in on-base average (behind Overbay, Magruder, and Brady Clark), and fourth in Value Over Replacement Player (behind Overbay, Spivey, and Podsednik). Translated into a rate metric, Grieve's contributions have been bested only by Overbay, Branyan, Magruder and Spivey.

  • Second, Grieve's strikeout-to-walk ratio was the best of his career. While he fanned in 23.6 percent of his plate appearances, he posted a career-best walk rate of 14.1 percent, or a strikeout-to-walk ratio of 1.28. He was more aggressive, seeing 3.91 pitches per plate appearance, and his flyball stroke returned. Instead of the 2.21 groundball-to-flyball ratio he posted in 2003, Grieve hit only 1.71 grounders for every flyball in 2004. While not quite the ratio he posted in 1999-2000, the improvement also resulted in improved home run and extra-base hit rates. Again, the 33.4 at-bats per homer and 10.6 at-bats per extra-base hit are not quite up to Grieve's 1999-2000 standard, but they are far superior to the numbers he put up for Tampa Bay.

Translated into a full season of 600 plate appearances, Grieve's 2004 numbers would include 32 doubles, 15 homers, 63 RBI, and 85 walks. Considering only his play as an outfielder, they would even be slightly improved. In fact, it is quite likely that Grieve would have reached the 20 homer, 80 RBI threshold identified as a pre-season goal if he had spent most of the season as the Brewers' everyday right-fielder.

In other words, Grieve made improvements just below the surface that could result in a return to form. The most important disconnect between his years in Oakland and his years in Tampa Bay, his transformation from a flyball to groundball hitter, has apparently been resolved. Whether as a result of improved health, corrected mechanics, or a more relaxed atmosphere, it would seem safe to say that Grieve has made important adjustments in 2004 that could pay dividends in the future.

That future, though, will not come with Milwaukee. With Corey Hart, Dave Krynzel, and Brad Nelson (among others) waiting in the wings and both Scott Podsednik and Geoff Jenkins signed to long-term deals, the likelihood of Grieve returning in 2005 and earning significant playing time is slim-to-none. And given Yost's preference for Clark and his superior glove-work, Grieve was unlikely to see many more starts in 2004.

As a result, Melvin shipped him off to Chicago for a minor league player to be named later. The move came as a surprise to Grieve, but he was pleased with his destination.

"I haven't been playing much lately so I haven't gotten too many at-bats, so I was surprised someone was even watching me play," he said. "Once I found out I was traded, I was glad that it was the Chicago Cubs. I was surprised I was traded, but once I found out, I was pretty excited. It's pretty obvious that that's a pretty good team to go to. They're right in the playoff hunt still and they have 15 or 20 guys on their team that are pretty big names."

The Cubs see Grieve as a left-handed bat off the bench that can fill the role that injured Todd Hollandsworth did at the beginning of the season. With an outfield consisting of Sammy Sosa, Moises Alou, and Corey Patterson, Grieve doesn't have any delusions about his likely playing time.

"On the bench, I would assume," he said when asked what his role would be. "I probably would be doing the same thing I was doing here, coming in late in games and pinch-hitting off of right-handed pitchers."

Cubs' GM Jim Hendry agreed.

"We thought that with Todd Hollandsworth being delayed in his return we felt that if we could find the right guy left-handed off the bench who could play a little bit, we'd try to do something. We thought Ben was the right guy. He's had a good year off the bench and he's had a couple big hits against us. We thought it was the right time, and if we're fortunate enough to make the playoffs and if Todd's not back, we might have some alternatives that we didn't have before today."

Grieve did indeed have a stellar season against Chicago, batting 6-for-23 with 4 doubles, a home run, five RBI, and a superb .261/.433/.565 line, good for an OPS of 998.

"I still believe that Ben is a productive hitter," Melvin said. "When I get my stats guys together, Ben Grieve comes out, I think, as our second or third-most productive hitter. I talked to Ben, and I told him that he has some shortcomings defensively and that's what hurt him recently. He did a good job off the bench. I always felt he was a threat to go off the bench. The Cubs saw that."

And so without getting the opportunity he had hoped for with the Brewers, Grieve will join the Cubs with hopes of winning the pennant.

"Ideally, I would have liked to get in a groove and get in a good rhythm at the plate and get about 400 at-bats and have a good year offensively," Grieve said. "That would have been the ideal goal at the beginning of the year. It didn't work out exactly how I wanted to, but I had fun here."

Not as much fun as he was hoping, though.

Conclusion: Opportunity Wasted

While no definitive answer is possible, the preponderance of evidence suggests that the Brewers wasted a valuable opportunity to nurse a fallen star back to proverbial health. From the very beginning, his role was limited; instead of the everyday right-fielder, he spent most of the season as a six-inning right-fielder against right-handed pitchers and left-handed bat off the bench. While he was still valuable in that role, his value to the Brewers was marginal. Even on a team scrapping for the .500 mark, having a player of Grieve's caliber on the bench is a luxury and not a necessity.

If given the chance to play everyday, however, Grieve could very well have developed into a valuable commodity on the trade market. While his defense will always limit his value, left-handed hitters with high on-base averages and solid-if-unspectacular power are not exactly "dime-a-dozen." And if the everyday role resulted in a return of Grieve's power stroke, he would have instantly become one of the better hitters available at the July 31st deadline.

Instead, the Brewers got five months of a good-hitting, bad-fielding part-time right-fielder and a minor leaguer to be named later. For $700,000, it isn't anything to scoff at. But given Grieve's history and the success the Brewers had last season finding diamonds in the rough (Podsednik, Doug Davis, and Dan Kolb come to mind immediately), the team wasted an opportunity to uncover another gem in Grieve.

It might not have worked out that way, and Grieve might have played poorly. But now we'll never know. And when evaluating a reclamation project, that's almost as bad as outright failure.

-----

Thanks to ESPN.com, Baseball Prospectus, and BaseballReference.com for the statistical data used in this article.


Bill Batterman is a writer for Brewerfan.net. You can get in touch with him by sending email to batman@brewerfan.net.

 




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  Pitching Injuries and How To Prevent Them: A Q&A With Will Carroll
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The Ben Grieve Reclamation Project: A Postmortem Analysis
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