Before the COVID-19 pandemic changed the world as we knew it, Trent Grisham was putting together an impressive Spring Training. February and early March of this year — if you can remember back that far — saw the 23-year-old bat a blistering .355 in a team-high 31 at-bats for the San Diego Padres.
Starting all but one of his games in center field, the newly-acquired outfielder shined on both sides of the ball in what ended up being a small sample size before the club’s time in Peoria was cut short. But it was enough to grab the attention of San Diego associate manager Skip Schumaker.
“There’s a lot of things I really like about him,” Schumaker said early this spring. “Obviously, he has a history of getting on base. You can tell by the way he works — even in batting practice he’s taking pitches — that he’s a professional hitter who has an idea of what he wants to do up there.”
It hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Grisham at the plate. After being picked 15th overall in 2015 by the Brewers, his production at the dish began to fade as his young minor league career wore on. Though his on-base numbers held steady, Grisham’s batting average hovered around .230 in 2017 and 2018 before a breakout stretch in Double-A San Antonio the following year. In his 34-game stint in the Pacific Coast League, Grisham put it all together, recording a dominant .381/.471/.776 slash line with 13 home runs and 30 RBI in San Antonio, walking 15.5% of the time and striking out in just 17.7% of his ABs. It would be enough to earn him a call up to the big leagues, making his MLB debut that summer.
He’s vague about what led to the breakthrough but mentioned that going back to a grip he used earlier in his career may have been a factor. Once upon a time, Grisham used a unique grip that kept his thumbs extended on top of the bat rather than wrapped around the handle like batters traditionally do, sort of like a golfer might hold a club.
Somewhere along the line in the minors, he changed to a more traditional approach. In 2019, however, he switched back, and though there were other factors in his resurgence, returning to what was familiar could have helped.
“There were a lot of things happening that were making me play not as well as I could,” Grisham said. “But,” the young outfielder added with emphasis, “I’m more comfortable with my thumbs on the bat. So it just came down to a comfortability thing for me.”
Regardless of where his thumbs are placed on his bat, Grisham’s aforementioned track record of getting on base could provide a boost to a Padres offense that struggled mightily in that department last season, ranking 26th out of 30 MLB teams in on-base percentage (OBP). His minor league career in the Brewers organization was characterized by high walk rates and low strikeout rates. Those disciplined ways continued into Grisham’s major league debut — albeit another small sample of games— posting a .328 OBP in 183 plate appearances with Milwaukee, which would have ranked in the upper third of Padres batters.
“I’m trying to get the head (of the bat) out as much as I possibly can,” Grisham said of his hitting approach. “I’m trying to get the contact point way out in front until I get to two strikes, try to drive the ball until I get to two strikes.”
That intentional, well-rounded technique was on full display during batting practice on Peoria’s backfields as Grisham geared up for the 2020 season, drawing high praise and a striking comparison from one of his coaches.
“The only time I’ve seen it like that, honestly, is Chase Utley,” said Schumaker regarding Grisham’s rapid development and methodical approach as a hitter. “Utley used to do that, spray the ball around, use his hands, see pitches, and really just get an idea of what he was trying to work on. To see that out of a young player so soon is impressive.”
Grisham’s appeal for the Padres goes beyond his work at the plate. Though his six-foot-tall, 205-pound build perhaps doesn’t fit the mold of a prototypical center fielder, he could see significant time at the position with Manuel Margot gone in a trade to Tampa Bay. And in what was perhaps an audition of sorts this spring playing up the middle, Grisham seemed to make a good impression, utilizing his plus-speed — which ranks in Statcast’s 93rd percentile of all MLB players — to cover a lot of ground in center.
“I’m excited for sure (to have the chance to play centerfield),” Grisham said. “I love playing center. I love running down stuff. One of my favorite parts of the game is getting out there and having that mentality of getting to balls.”
Schumaker shared Grisham’s excitement.
“The work in the outfield has been exceptional,” the first-year associate manager added. “Arizona’s not the easiest place to read fly balls and that type of thing, but the work and the drill work has been as advertised.”
The next time Grisham tracks fly balls in the outfield, it won’t be in Arizona. Nor will it be under circumstances that anybody could have imagined earlier this spring. But as an unprecedented Opening Day approaches, the young outfielder’s excitement to get going with his new team likely has not been dampened.
“It’s nice to feel wanted,” he said regarding being acquired by the Padres. “And it’s nice to have another team think that you have a good chance of helping them winning.”