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Baseball Remembers: Johnny Grubb, Platoon Hitter
Before we get into the odd arc of Johnny Grubb’s career, let’s first note that he was very particular about where he intended to play baseball, right from the beginning of his career. Since this was in the years before free agency, it took some unique circumstances to achieve this, but unique was pretty much Johnny Grubb’s brand right from the get-go.
In January of 1969, Grubb was 20-years old and played at Manatee Junior College in Florida. At the time, baseball had a January draft in addition to the main draft in June, and Grubb was selected by the Red Sox in the third round. The team drafted four players in the draft, and signed two of them, but Grubb turned them down and went back to school.
A few months later, during the June draft in 1969, the Reds took Grubb in the first round with the 14th overall pick. They bypassed some pretty good players to take him, including Mickey Rivers, Jim Barr, and Doug Bird. Again Grubb decided not to sign. He finished his time at Manatee and transferred to Florida State University for the 1969-70 school year.
In June of 1970, after his junior season, Grubb was drafted again, this time in the 3rd round by Braves. That was a pretty good draft class, featuring players like Dave Kingman, Bucky Dent, Doug Rau, Lenny Randle, and Duane Kuiper, but it wasn’t great for the Braves. They drafted four players in that draft and none of them signed, including Grubb, who returned to Florida State for his senior season.
Finally, in January, 1971, Grubb’s was drafted yet again. The Padres made him the 24th overall pick in that draft, ahead of players like Roy Smalley and Mike Vail. He could have turned them down and waited until the June draft after the college baseball seasons was over, but the Padres were an expansion team, so Grubb had a much better chance of reaching the big leagues quickly, and they were playing in San Diego, pretty much the nicest destination in terms of weather in the major leagues. This time, he decided to sign.
As expected, it didn’t take long for him to reach the major leagues. Grubb spent the 1971 season at Lodi of the Single A California League, where he batted .308 and hit 12 homers in 116 games, earning a promotion to Double A Alexandria of the Texas League for 1972. He had pretty much the same season there, hitting .296 with 10 homers in 126 games. Though he played a lot of third base in his first season, by now the team had given up on that and had moved him permanently to the outfield. His performance earned him a September call-up to the majors, where he did well in the seven games he played, batting .333 and posting an OPS of .840 in 22 plate appearances.
When the Padres broke Spring Training camp in 1973, Grubb was on the team. He started in center field on Opening Day. Batting second in the lineup, Grubb singled off future Hall of Famer Don Sutton, scored a run, and had a sacrifice bunt in the 4-2 victory. So far, so good.
Two things emerged pretty quickly about Johnny Grubb. The first was that he was not a good fielder. He’d already been moved from the infield to the outfield before even getting out of the minor leagues, and now he was showing he wasn’t a great center fielder, either. Grubb had worse range than the center field average in the league, and posted -7 Fielding Runs despite having a decent arm and not making many errors. Within a couple of years, he was mostly playing left field, and his career defensive totals were -63 Fielding Runs and -11.5 defensive WAR. Even if you’re not familiar with those stats, you likely instinctively know that it’s bad that they are both negative numbers.
The other thing about Grubb that emerged was that while, as a left-handed hitter, he really hit well against right-handed pitchers, he was not good at all when facing lefties. In 1973, Grubb batted .315/.377/.461 against righties, but just .273/.333/.273 against lefties. That’s right, his batting average and slugging percentage against lefties were identical, because he didn’t manage even one extra-base hit against a lefty all year.
In fairness, he wasn’t given many opportunities. Manager Don Zimmer pretty quickly established that Grubb simply was not going to play much against left-handed pitching. Of his 432 plate appearances that year, just 36 were against lefties. That’s less than 9% of his appearances.
The good news for Grubb was that, as a lefty, he’d get more plate appearances than whoever platooned with him because there were simply more right-handed pitchers to face than lefties. That year his platoon partner was Jerry Morales, who raked against lefties to the tune of .305/.351/448, so it was a pretty successful platoon. The bad news for Grubb is that the platoon’s success meant that he was going to have to prove it shouldn’t continue.
If Zimmer had remained the manager, that’s probably exactly what would have happened, but he was replaced by John McNamara before the 1974 season began, and Grubb was given the regular center field job for the most part. He splayed 114 games in center field and another eight in left, and totaled over 500 plate appearances. He wasn’t notably good, and in fact hit worse than he had the year before, but he was selected as the Padres’ representative on the NL All-Star team because they had to have someone and he was the best guy on a pretty bad team that lost 102 games. Despite seeing his chances against lefties nearly quadruple to 129 plate appearances, he gave no one any reason to believe he could hit them. His batting line against righties was still an excellent .307/.384/.426, but against lefties he hit just .229/.268/.339.
This didn’t deter McNamara, who gave Grubb even more regular playing time in 1975. His 625 plate appearances would be a career high, and he never again totaled even 500 in a season. The gap between his performance against righties (.276/.351/.382) versus his performance against lefties (.253/.322/.317) narrowed a bit, but that was because he hit worse against righties than he had before rather than hitting lefties any better. On top of that, he posted an appallingly bad -20 Field Runs and -2.2 defensive WAR, numbers so bad that he only played 47 more games in center field for the next 12 years of his career combined.
When the 1976 season began, it was clear that Grubb wasn’t going to be an everyday player. He still got played 109 games and got 461 plate appearances because he continued to be a solid hitter against right-handing pitching (.297/.401/.416), but his continued struggles against lefties (.239/.359/.284), couple with his defensive limitations and the emergence of outfielders Dave Winfield, Jerry Turner, and Gene Richards made Grubb expendable. After the season, he was packaged with two other players in a trade to Cleveland in exchange for George Hendrick.
With the Indians, Grubb had a great start to the season, batting .308/.432/.473 through June 25, even hitting well against lefties for the first (and only) time in his career. But his luck didn’t last, as he suffered a pinched nerve in his right hand that prevented him from hitting or throwing. The condition didn’t resolve itself for the rest of the year, and he was limited to just 34 games and 113 plate appearances, none of them coming after June. Though it was resolved by the time the 1978 seasons began, by then he had reverted back to being terrible against lefties, hitting just .194/.301/.306 against them.
But he could still hit right-handed pitching, so the Rangers traded for him at that year’s deadline. He stayed in Texas for the next four years, and was purely a platoon player from that point forward. For the most part, he was a good one. He had a down year in 1981, but in his other three full years in Texas his OPS against righties was .799, .820, and .737. In those four years, Grubb was only allowed to face a lefty 139 times.
Grubb was good enough in the role that the Tigers traded for him before the 1983 season. Manager Sparky Anderson loved using platoons and substitutions, and Grubb’s specialty of hitting righties was exactly what he wanted to pair with his mostly right-handed hitting outfield of Chet Lemon, Glenn Wilson, and Larry Herndon. Grubb didn’t disappoint. In 165 plate appearance, all but one of them against righties, he had a .798 OPS and 124 OPS+.
He continued in that role for Anderson and the Tigers for the rest of his career. In 1984, when the Tigers won the World Series, Grubb had an OPS of .827 and OPS+ of 131, with all but six of his 216 plate appearances coming against right-handers. He fell off to a .742 OPS in 1985, but bounced back to have a great 1986 campaign, batting .333/.412/.590 in 243 plate appearances, only 15 of which were against lefties.
The road came to an end for him in 1987 when he was 38, though he finished his career with a remarkable AL Championship Series against the Twins in which he had four hits in the seven times time he came to the plate, giving him a career postseason batting average of .429, with every last one of his 16 career postseason plate appearances coming against righties.
Overall, a remarkable 85% of Grubb’s 4,823 career plate appearances were against right-handed pitchers. He hit a collective .285/.377/.428 against them, a .805 OPS. In the 737 times he was allowed to face a lefty, he hit just .238/.308/.331, a .639 OPS. Essentially, when facing righties Johnny Grubb became Bill Mueller, a wonderful hitter who batted .291/.373/.425 for his career and is a postseason hero in Boston where he likely will never have to buy a beer in that city again if he so chooses. Against lefties, though, Grubb became Tilson Brito, a utility infielder who hit just .238/.305/.329 during his two-year career with the Blue Jays and A’s.
Still, there are worse ways to spend your career than being a professional lefty hitter who got to play in the big leagues for 16 years, went to an All-Star game, won a World Series, and hit .429 in the postseason.
Not bad for a guy who turned down the first three teams to draft him.
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