December 29, 2003

What the hell happened to Ben Grieve?!

Ben Grieve was the #2 overall pick in the 1994 draft. He began his pro career with a bang, hitting .329 in 72 games at Single-A after signing with the Oakland A's.

In 1997, he hit .328/.455/.610 in 100 Double-A games and then hit .426/.484/.741 in 27 games at Triple-A. He finished the year with his first taste of the big leagues, hitting .312/.402/.473 in 24 games with Oakland.

In 1998, his first full-season in the majors, Grieve was an All-Star and the American League Rookie of the Year, hitting .288/.386/.458 with 18 homers, 41 doubles and 89 RBIs. He hit 28 homers in his second season and then topped 100 RBIs for the first time in his career in 2000.

In a very surprising move, Oakland traded Grieve to the Tampa Bay Devil Rays following the 2000 season. At the time of the trade, many were surprised that the A's would part with a young hitter the caliber of Grieve, especially since he had just signed a four-year contract worth $13 million dollars. Nevertheless, Ben Grieve headed to Tampa Bay.

He was 24 years old. He had been a highly touted high school star. He was a #2 overall pick. He tore through the minor leagues. He tore through the major leagues. He as an All-Star and a Rookie of the Year. He was a career .280/.370/.475 hitter in a very tough ballpark to hit in and he already had 76 homers, 303 RBIs and 278 runs scored under his belt.

Tampa Bay GM Chuck LaMar, who had just acquired Grieve, said the following about him:

"We could not pass the opportunity to get a young bat like Ben's. In our opinion, the sky's the limit for what he can accomplish at the plate."

Fast forward now to the present. Ben Grieve is 27 years old. Since leaving Oakland he has hit just .254/.364/.399 and has missed 141 games in three seasons, including 107 games last year. As if that weren't bad enough, I saw the following transaction in the newspaper last week:

"The Milwaukee Brewers agreed to terms with outfielder Ben Grieve, who had been with the Tampa Bay Devil Rays, on a one-year, $700,000 contract."

Oh how the mighty have fallen.

Take a look at Grieve's development, year-by-year:

YEAR     AGE       G      PA      AVG      OBP      SLG      GPA

1997 21 24 108 .312 .403 .473 .299
1998 22 155 678 .288 .386 .458 .288
1999 23 148 558 .265 .358 .481 .281
2000 24 158 675 .279 .359 .487 .283
2001 25 154 639 .264 .372 .387 .264
2002 26 136 561 .251 .353 .432 .267
2003 27 55 205 .230 .371 .345 .253

One of the things you can usually count on in baseball is that a 24-year old player who has started his career with three straight very good seasons will then get better over the next several seasons. The general feeling is that hitters peak somewhere around 27 years old. Not only did Ben Grieve not get better after he was 24 and not only did Ben Grieve not peak at 27, Ben Grieve actually got significantly worse.

I've been staring at Ben Grieve's numbers and if there is something within his numbers in Oakland that suggested a player who was ready to decline significantly, I'm just not seeing it.

Let's take a look at his performances, beyond the basic stats:

YEAR     TEAM     K/BB     ISOP     ISOD      BB%      SO%

1998 OAK 1.45 .170 .098 12.5 18.1
1999 OAK 1.71 .216 .093 11.3 19.4
2000 OAK 1.78 .208 .080 10.8 19.3
2001 TAM 1.83 .123 .108 13.6 24.9
2002 TAM 1.76 .181 .102 12.3 21.6

I listed only his full-seasons there, because I didn't want to get caught up in any small sample-sizes.

K/BB stands for strikeout/walk ratio. ISOP stands for Isolated Power, which is slugging percentage minus batting average. ISOD stands for Isolated Discipline, which is on-base percentage minus batting average. BB% and SO% are the percentage of his plate appearances that he either walked or struck out in.

There are some signs from his years in Oakland (1998-2000) that suggested perhaps he was not going to become a superstar. For one thing, his numbers in 1999 and 2000 were really the same as his numbers as a rookie, with little or no improvement in either year. For another thing, his strikeout/walk ratio deteriorated each year with the A's. But there are no signs that jump out at me and say that Ben Grieve, after the 2000 season, was a great candidate to fall off a cliff offensively.

Yet, that's exactly what happened.

           AVG      OBP      SLG     K/BB     ISOP     ISOD      BB%      SO%

w/ OAK .280 .370 .475 1.65 .195 .090 11.6 19.1
w/ TAM .254 .364 .399 1.71 .145 .145 13.4 22.8

Looking at those numbers doesn't help to explain why Grieve declined so much offensively, but it does help to show how it happened. I know this might sound crazy, but I think Grieve may have become too patient at the plate. While his power went down with Tampa Bay, he walked more and struck out more. That's interesting, because you would think someone who came from Oakland to Tampa Bay would, if anything, become far less patient at the plate.

Here are a few more numbers to chew on:

          P/PA     GB/FB

w/ OAK 3.93 1.64
w/ TAM 3.95 2.15

If he became more patient at the plate in Tampa Bay it certainly doesn't show in the number of pitchers per plate appearance he saw. Perhaps what I really mean is that he became less aggressive at the plate.

One of the things Oakland stresses is taking bad pitches and borderline pitches, but taking big hacks at pitches you can drive. Perhaps when Grieve got to Tampa Bay, he continued to be extremely patient at the plate, but his patience extended to all pitches, including those he could drive for power.

I think the fact that he hit about 31% more ground balls while with Tampa Bay than he did in Oakland would go along with that line of thinking. Less aggression on hittable pitches leads to similar amounts of pitches seen, but creates less opportunities for power hitting and thus more ground balls. Of course, it's just a theory.

I would be willing to believe someone now if they told me that, back in January of 2000 when the A's traded Grieve away, they had a feeling he wasn't going to become a superstar. I don't think I'd believe them if they told me that they had a feeling he was going to go to Tampa and slug .399 while missing 141 games and then sign with the Brewers for $700,000 bucks though.

That said, I would love to hear from Billy Beane, the man who traded Grieve away. Did he see something then that foretold what would happen to Grieve over the next several years? Or did he trade Grieve away, despite his potential, because he simply thought the trade made the A's better?

A big part of the analysis I do here and the analysis done by so many other baseball fans around the world is based on the theory that young players get better and old players get worse. It's simple enough really. Every once in a while someone like Ben Grieve comes along and goes against that entire premise. I don't know about you, but when something like that happens, I want to know why it happened. In looking at Ben Grieve, I don't really have an answer, and that really bugs me.

*****Comments? Questions? Email me!*****

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