Justin Grimm Is Rebuilding Himself

“When I signed here,” said Justin Grimm, leaning forward over the back of one of the teal folding chairs that dot the home clubhouse at Safeco Field, eyes intent and slightly wide, “I just came in with the attitude like, you know what, I don’t know shit. I’m going to learn everything I can about myself and what works for me, and I’m going to start over from square one.”

It’s been a year of beginnings for Grimm, who was released by the Cubs — his club for the past five seasons — on March 15th, signed with the Royals three days later, put up a 13.50 ERA in 16 disastrous appearances for Kansas City, and was released for the second time in less than four months on July 7th. To cap it all off, Grimm and his wife Gina — an All-American gymnast at UGA, where the two met — welcomed a baby boy, their first, on May 25th.

“When I was released [by the Royals], I was on the disabled list,” Grimm said, “and the Mariners came in and were like, ‘Hey, come rehab in Seattle, we want to sign you.’ I saw it as an opportunity to go out and get better. I knew I was better than the numbers I was putting up. I knew they could help me get back to where I was.”

The early returns are promising. In five appearances for the Mariners, Grimm has allowed just a single run in 4.2 innings. His velocity is up, his walks are down, and his confidence is starting to recover. The difference, as is typical in these situations, has been a combination of a fresh mental approach to the game and some very specific mechanical and pitch-mix adjustments, made courtesy of the Mariners’ coaching staff.

Brian DeLunas, Seattle’s bullpen coach, had noticed that Grimm’s fastball had a tendency to “spray” left and right up in the zone, which meant that, on nights when his other key pitch — the curveball — wasn’t playing either, hitters were able to sit fastball, accepting walks when the heater wasn’t touching the zone and crushing it when it was. Grimm needed a third pitch.

“So,” said “DeLunas, “we went out and looked at video, and did some work on the numbers, and had him throw some different stuff and figure out what was going to work for him, and found out that he actually threw a really good slider. It was something that he felt with his hand speed and his effort this year, he could get it into the zone consistently. That kind of opened up a little bit more for him, where he uses the slider to get into good counts and puts guys away with the curveball.”

Thus, after nearly eliminating the pitch from his repertoire in 2016 — the data indicate he threw just two all year — Grimm’s slider was back. Just over one in every five pitches Grimm has thrown for the Mariners has been a slider, and batters are missing nearly half the ones at which they swing. If you’re looking for a single reason Grimm’s been able to generate so many more swings and misses during his time with Seattle than he was in Kansas City, look to the slider.

But also look to how he’s throwing it. The reason Grimm dropped the pitch in the first place, three years ago, was that he felt his max-effort delivery didn’t allow him enough control over the pitch. This season, sage at 30 years old, he’s found a delivery that works the same for his entire repertoire and gives him more options when he falls behind in counts.

DeLunas’s laid-back, highly physical coaching style — even talking to me, restricted by the low ceiling and close walls of Safeco’s dugout tunnels, he backed me up and demonstrated each element of Grimm’s new delivery himself, exacting step by exacting step — was, apparently, just what Grimm needed to cut through the clutter of his up-and-down season and previous biases — and to make a change.

“Growing up,” says Grimm, “you always hear ‘Don’t get so rotational, don’t be rotational.’ And all that means is just you’re firing your front side too soon. If you don’t do that, though, it’s okay to get rotational. That’s a big change I’ve made. It’s something that you see Charlie Morton do — and Bauer, how he opens up his front side, and gets that really big chest. For years, that approach sounded so negative to me, because I took it the wrong way. But it’s all about the timing.”

Consider, for example, this slider that Grimm threw for the Cubs in August 2015:

And compare it to this slider Grimm threw this past Tuesday for the Mariners:

The difference is, to my eye, stark. Grimm’s body, whipping out of control in the first video, is subdued but no less powerful in the second. “Really,” says Grimm, “it’s just about keeping that front side closed, and getting the timing of when it fires right. I feel like now I have a good feel of that, and there’s a couple cue points that I can go to.” The tools were always there, in other words, it’s just that now they’re used in a different way and to a different effect. That’s growing older. That’s getting better.

“When I was younger,” continued Grimm, “the message was always ‘Your stuff’s really good, so just go let it play.’ And instead of understanding what that actually meant, I would just hear it as it as, ‘Oh, your stuff’s good, you’re going to be fine.’ And so you get your pat on the butt and you go on your way. But I got so tired of hearing that. Like, okay, if I’m going to be fine, why am I blowing up every eighth outing? Back in Chicago, and Kansas City, I was losing a lot of sleep over the fact that it was happening, versus going to work to figure out why it happened.”

I think we underrate, as a baseball-writing community — or, at least, I do personally — the degree to which big leaguers are adjusting their game all the time to changing bodies, changing circumstances, and changing opposition. We know that baseball is all about adjustments, of course, but still tend to get an image in our heads of who a guy is, then have a hard time re-calibrating our expectations of his capacity in the face of something new. And most big leaguers’ anodyne interview answers, in which they blandly confess to nothing much at all, reinforce an image that hides much more change than it reveals.

But change still happens, all the time, sometimes subtly and sometimes rather more dramatically, game by game and pitch by pitch. Grimm’s change, this second half of the season in Seattle, has been notable. He has taken from himself the best parts of what he was and added the best of what he can be now. He has become, seven years into his big-league career, a different kind of pitcher. He has become, at the same time, a father. He has grown up in the game and grown with it.

“This year,” he said, “has obviously had a lot of change. I had a newborn, and adjusting to that has been a lot, plus I had some setbacks this year with injuries and other stuff. But, you know, life goes on. I’m just happy to be healthy now and think that over this past couple months,  I’ve found more of myself and who I am. That’s all you’re really looking for.”

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Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he’s a public policy researcher in housing & homelessness. By night he tweets.

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timmer

I really like Justin Grimm and hope he’s found a way to revive his career.