Vaughn Grissom went from being an afterthought for the 2022 season, starting all the way down in A-ball, and not only making his way to the big leagues, but providing the team with a real spark while Ozzie Albies was injured. He eventually slowed down at the end of a long season filled with new firsts for him, but made quite the impression in a fairly short time.
The Braves drafted Grissom in the 11th round in the 2019 MLB Draft out of Hagerty High School in Florida, where he was teammates with Detroit Tigers top prospect and fellow 2022 debutee Riley Greene. Despite going on Day 3 of that draft, Grissom was hardly a Day 3 talent, as he went on to sign for an overslot bonus.
What were the expectations?
Honestly there were none, at least as far as big league performance in 2022. Grissom entered the year starting in High-A Rome, and even his biggest supporters likely didn’t imagine him moving up three levels while also skipping Triple-A completely to suit up in Atlanta. That’s not to say there were zero expectations, as he ranked highly on our Top 30 prospect list this spring — seventh, or fifth if you cross off the pair of guys traded away before the season for Matt Olson. Grissom was expected to reach the upper levels of the minors sometime in the 2022 season, and maybe make his debut sometime in the 2023 season as of the start of the spring.
Grissom completely changed those preseason expectations by simply hitting the ball well all year at every stop he made. As mentioned, he started in High-A Rome, where he spent the bulk of his season. In 74 games there, he went on to hit .312/.404/.487 with 11 homers and 20 steals over 344 plate appearances. In those 74 games, 55 came at shortstop, with six apiece at second and third, and the final seven as the DH.
Grissom’s Rome success earned him a promotion to Double-A Mississippi on July 12, right around the midpoint of the season. In Pearl, he played in 22 games, totaling 98 plate appearances, and hitting .363/.408/.517 with three homers and seven more steals. He made 21 starts at short and one at second. That gave him a combined minor league slash line of .324/.405/.494 with 14 homers and 27 steals, walking 36 times to 54 strikeouts in 442 plate appearances.
Less than a month into his stay in Mississippi, Ozzie Albies got hurt for the first time, and on August 10, after Albies fill-in Orlando Arcia hurt his hamstring running out an extra-innings double at Fenway Park, Grissom got the call to the show - skipping over Triple-A in the process. Grissom went on to play in 41 games and make 156 plate appearances in Atlanta, hitting .291/.353/.440 with five homers and five steals, walking 11 times and striking out in 34 at bats. In total, Grissom compiled 0.7 fWAR with a 121 wRC+ in those 156 PAs — his line was dragged down by some poor defensive numbers.
What went right? What went wrong?
A lot went right. A lot went wrong. Grissom started out red-hot as soon as he arrived to MLB, but cooled off to the point that he ended up losing the starting second base job to Orlando Arcia towards the end of the year and through the playoffs.
Grissom’s first 26 games saw him hit .347/.398/.558 with all five homers that he recorded with seven walks to 18 strikeouts in 103 plate appearances (165 wRC+). Sure, he was outhitting his xwOBA by a ton, but the xwOBA itself was still more than fine and worlds better than anyone probably expected for a guy thrown into the fire (.410 wOBA, .353 xwOBA). Then starting September 9th and continuing for the rest of the year, he played in 15 games and recorded 53 plate appearances while hitting just .174/.264/.196 with four walks and 16 strikeouts, recording just one total extra base hit (35 wRC+, .220 wOBA, .276 xwOBA).
So which player is he? Probably neither. He’s a very good hitter, but not a guy you’d expect to have an OPS over .950. He’s also too good of a hitter to have a .460 OPS and a 30 percent strikeout rate. With his early success, along with the rookie seasons of Michael Harris II and Spencer Strider, it’s important to remember that he was a still 21-year-old rookie that began the year in Rome and wasn’t expected to reach Atlanta this season.
The thing with Grissom is that, even when he was rollicking early, he never really did so the “usual” way these days. If you cut his season into overlapping 25-PA chunks, he literally had one where his average exit velocity exceeded the MLB average. In overlapping 50-PA chunks, you get zero. Hard-hit rate, perhaps a more useful indicator, is only somewhat more generous. Early on, Grissom hit a ton of flares — which actually have a high xwOBA, but it’s not clear whether repeatedly hitting flares is really a skill — which drove his numbers; over time, those flares became flies, and given that he really didn’t make hard contact, it seemed to send him into a tailspin. First he made a lot of fly ball outs, then he stopped aiming “up” and made a lot of grounder outs, and so on. All told, he swung a lot, at both strikes and balls, made a fair bit of contact, and didn’t really make much of that contact loud. It’s not something you see from a Braves player much these days, and unless the Braves end up moving Grissom this offseason, it remains to be seen whether or not they keep working to change his profile into something that resembles their other hitters. Of the 14 Braves to put 100+ balls into play in 2022, only Eddie Rosario, Albies, Robbie Grossman, and Grissom were more than 0.5 mph below league average, and of those, one couldn’t see, one didn’t spend his entire season with the Braves, Albies had some relatively new issues with pitch selection, and Grissom was dead last on the team.
His defense was also an enigma, and not really the good kind. All three of DRS, UZR, and OAA agreed his defense at second base, in a small sample, was pretty bad. He notched -5 OAA, three runs below average, in about a fourth of a season, which is a brutal rate.
I don’t think many will forget his August 10th big league debut against the Red Sox at Fenway, where he went 2-4 with a homer and a pair of runs batted in.
Crazy to think the @Braves have even more young talent— MLB Network (@MLBNetwork) August 11, 2022
Their No. 1 prospect Vaughn Grissom made his debut in historic fashion hitting a HR and stealing a bag in last night's win vs the Red Sox! #ForTheA #MLBCentral | @markdero7 | @mikelowell25 | @LaurenShehadi | @RoFlo pic.twitter.com/6K42uCP06H
Also memorable was his last hurrah, the last game before his collapse, where he reached base three times, including hitting a game-tying two-run homer, and then scoring the go-ahead run after singling later.
Sometimes, though, even before he really struggled in earnest, the soft contact did him in. In what ended up being a brutal loss to the Cardinals on August 28, Grissom went 0-for-4. His first PA saw him line a 1-0 curve over the plate softly to short, a flare that usually drops in but didn’t this time. Next, in probably one of his worst swings of the season, this happened:
He then had another instance of extremely weak contact (56 mph off the bat) leading to an out, and finally, with the game all but over, gave the ball a ride at 100 mph off the bat in his final PA, but hit it at an angle of nearly 60 degrees for an easy fly out.
There was also whatever this was — there’s just no real reason to make this weak of contact when ahead in the count like this:
Stuff to work on, for sure.
It’s hard to give a good outlook on Grissom’s 2023 season, mostly because the team probably doesn’t even know what his role will be as of right now.
If Dansby Swanson is not re-signed, the Braves will have to turn to a trade for a proven shortstop or else go with one of the internal options — Arcia or Grissom. If Swanson does return, or a veteran is acquired via trade, then it becomes a matter of what to do with Grissom. Obviously second and third are already spoken for, but the Braves could try him in left field, or even at DH after William Contreras was dealt away. There is also the chance he ends up playing as an almost full-time guy in a super-utility role, as he does bring some defensive versatility, though it’s not clear if that defense will actually be beneficial. Or the Braves could land another shortstop, bring in a left fielder, and decide to send him to Triple-A to open the year to get him more regular at-bats.
The projections on him are quite positive at this point, and word is that ZiPS, when released, will have a sanguine one for Grissom as well. Currently, he looks like an above-average bat (something he still managed, even on an xwOBA basis, despite his late-season collapse) with serious defensive questions. That’s still an above-average player, but one wonders whether, and potentially how, a propensity for relatively soft contact might upend a trajectory towards success. The defense also remains a huge question — we don’t really have enough data to go off of, but what he showed in 2022 wasn’t good.