There was a period where Vaughn Grissom’s MLB was a wild ride. He started the 2022 season in High-A, vaulted to the majors, had a great initial run, and then cratered. During the offseason, it seemed like Grissom was going to be the heir apparent to the shortstop position exhibiting a glaring hole since Dansby Swanson’s departure... but instead, the job went to Orlando Arcia, shunting Grissom to Triple-A Gwinnett, instead. That’s pretty much where he stayed for the whole year, as he faceplanted when given a brief opportunity due to an early-season Arcia injury.
The Braves drafted Grissom in the 11th round of the 2019 MLB Draft, giving him a sizable $350,000 bonus to forgo a commitment to Florida International University. Grissom flew through the minor league ranks and jumped from Double-A to the majors in mid-2022.
What were the expectations?
Forecasting Grissom coming into the year was tough. Offensively, he seemed to have a pretty high floor, as he absolutely thrashed pitching at each minor league level he played at, and finished 2022 with a 121 wRC+ on a .326 xwOBA in 156 PAs. Yes, that wRC+ was the result of outhitting said xwOBA, but he didn’t seem particularly overmatched offensively, at least at the top line.
On the flip side, his defense was horrendous. Playing largely at the keystone position as a fill-in for the injured Ozzie Albies in 2022, Grissom posted an absurd(ly bad) -5 OAA/-3 OAA-runs in what was essentially a quarter of a season. Given that 2023 likely needed Grissom to play shortstop, rather than second, and how poorly he defended the easier position previously, the uncertainty regarding his defensive aptitude was fairly unsettling coming into the year. In total, Grissom managed 0.7 fWAR in 156 PAs in 2022, which is a solid rate.
And, to put it plainly, even his .326 xwOBA was not without its own warts, as it was driven by an elevated flare/burner rate. While flares/burners do happen and are great when they do, they are a batted ball profile element that’s difficult to repeat; xwOBAs driven by lots of flares are harder to repeat than xwOBAs driven by other stuff. Grissom showed below-average exit velocities and hard-hit rates in his majors stint in 2022, as well as a contact-oriented approach that may have suppressed his power output, contrary to what the Braves have been assembling and coaching up and down the lineup.
Put all this together, and you had projections for Grissom generally in the average-to-maybe-below-average regular range, but there was definitely a lot of uncertainty because essentially nothing about his profile had any degree of clarity given his tiny-sample 2022 MLB performance.
Grissom started his regular season in Triple-A, and mashed for all of 12 games (161 wRC+) before Orlando Arcia hit the shelf with a fractured wrist, leading to his first call-up of 2023. The Braves plugged Grissom right into the shortstop position, with unfortunate results. Grissom got the nod at shortstop for all but three of the team’s games while Arcia was out of action, and put together a pretty dreadful line: 70 wRC+, -7 OAA/-5 OAA-runs, negative baserunning, and a net total of -0.7 fWAR in just 70 PAs. (That’s a lot of sevens.)
Pretty much the only saving grace for Grissom was that his xwOBA in that stretch (.299) wasn’t nearly as bad as his outcomes (.278 wOBA). But, other than that, it was pretty much a small-sample worst case scenario for anyone who feared that his lack of defensive aptitude and contact-oriented approach would prove more than problematic: Grissom managed just a 2.9 percent walk rate and only two extra-base hits, both doubles, in the stint. His defense at shortstop was so bad that despite hanging out there for less than a month, he finished fifth-worst in MLB in OAA (which is a counting stat), and tied for fifth-worst in OAA-based runs (also a counting stat).
So, Grissom went back down to Triple-A, and raked there, again, to the tune of a 126 wRC+ over 358 PAs. At this point, I don’t think he has anything to prove against minor league pitching of any stripe, even if the way he beats that pitching isn’t exactly what the Braves might want to see. In mid-August, Ozzie Albies hit the shelf, and so the Braves recalled Grissom in the same capacity in which he made his debut: as a temporary fill-in at second base. However, with Nicky Lopez in the fold, Grissom only got a couple of starts, as well as a couple of pinch-hit appearances.
He then went back down to Triple-A and had a brief Injured List stint before wrapping up his Gwinnett slate with a 163 wRC+ in his final 62 PAs.
All in all, Grissom finished with -0.7 fWAR and a 78 wRC+ (.301 xwOBA; .289 wOBA) in MLB across 80 PAs, and a 135 wRC+ at Gwinnett.
What went right?
Well, Grissom mauled International League pitching, so that was certainly a much better way for him to spend 2023 than if he had struggled there after being shunted to the minors following his MLB debut.
Still, the seas for him when he returned to MLB were rough, to say the least, so there’s not too much to say on that front. If you want some positive takeaways, check out this Fanpost, or just skip ahead and consider that Grissom hit four homers in his final 85 PAs of the year at Gwinnett, after hitting just four homers in the 383 PAs prior. He also substantially upped his walk rate while cutting his strikeout rate in that span, perhaps suggesting the potential for some degree of evolution beyond the high-contact, low-power approach he’s evinced in the majors.
Grissom’s best moment in the bigs came fairly early on — he collected the game-winning hit in the ninth to secure a sweep of the Royals:
As nice as it was to win that game, even that hit shows the challenges posed by Grissom’s then- (and perhaps now?) approach — in a 2-0 count, Grissom got a breaking pitch down the middle and hit it on the ground, the other way.
What went wrong?
Not to belabor the point, but Grissom’s -0.7 fWAR was a bottom-50 mark among all position players in MLB... and Grissom had fewer PAs than all but four of them. There’s also the fact that while he may have started changing his approach at Gwinnett, eventually, this wasn’t a thing that really seemed like an imperative to him from the get-go. Through July 31, his Triple-A ISO was .151, which is lower than the MLB average (.166); only with that mid-August-and-on surge did he get the ISO into the .170 range.
A few specific performances stand out, too. On May 4, he went 0-for-5, taking the strikeout hat trick against Jesus Luzardo in his first three PAs, then striking out again when facing a reliever, and finally hitting a tack-on sacrifice fly in the ninth. He also hit into this ultimately-irrelevant double play in his final start. It’s hard to fault him too much for getting beat on a changeup when behind in the count and playing into Jose Quintana’s hands, but this is the sort of thing that really can’t happen if he’s not going to be smashing pitches in the zone, either:
And, of course, there was the final ignominy for Grissom. He made the NLDS roster and appeared in one game, garnering one single PA. That PA was, of course, the very final one of the NLDS. With runners on the corners and Grissom himself representing the go-ahead run, the Braves had him pinch-hit for Nicky Lopez against Matt Strahm. Grissom took two strikes and a ball, fouled a pitch off, and then went down on a meek check swing to end the Braves’ season. Not a huge indictment of him or anything, especially given that he hadn’t seen game action for over two weeks when it happened, but a fitting end to a 2023 that probably didn’t go the way he wanted it to.
Is Grissom any easier to project for 2024 than he was for 2023? I don’t think so. He can probably hit, in some capacity, even if it isn’t with the style and aesthetic the Braves prefer. Steamer projects a 107 wRC+; that may even be conservative in some respects. But, how good is above-average offense when the defense could be disastrous? Steamer is normally all about regressing defense, but it’s slapping negative marks on his defensive value at the moment. Again, hard to argue there, as Grissom’s time in the infield dirt has been awful thus far. Sure, he’s finally playing left field in winter ball, but left field is not a route to major league value in and of itself, either. All-in-all, Steamer currently projects Grissom as a marginally below average regular that won’t get full-time usage. I find it really hard to argue with that.
Even beyond his production, the question swirling around Grissom seems to be whether he’ll even be a Brave by the time the 2024 season begins. The Braves got through 2023 without really relying on him, and it’s not clear what would have to happen for him to force himself into the team’s plans. Sure, maybe he finds himself in a left field platoon with Jarred Kelenic, but there are lefty-mashing outfielders that the Braves could sign for cheap. Grissom also has little left to prove at Triple-A at this point, so trading him seems logical... but these Braves have employed the ol’ lateral thinking noggin far too many times to just Occam’s Razor this whole thing and be done with it. In other words: stay tuned.