The Not So Surprising (Early) Breakout of Yasmani Grandal

Former Padres catcher Yasmani Grandal did this yesterday in the Dodgers 14-4 win over the Brewers. His historic day included four hits in four at-bats (two home runs and two singles), two walks, eight RBIs, and 129 masterfully received pitches behind the plate.

Grandal has quietly — at least until yesterday — put together one of the best catcher seasons in the majors, as he’s now hitting .301/.414/.534 on the season. Here’s where he ranks in the following categories among catchers with at least 50 PAs:

ISO: .233 (third)
Walk percentage: 16.1 (second)
On-base percentage: .414 (second)
wRC+: 168 (third)

He’s doing really well, but we’re going to stress, right here, that it’s only 87 plate appearances. We even italicized it to add extra stress. That’s important because, even as saber-minded fans (if you fit that mold), we often have a tendency to get swayed too much by early season success or failure. So, acknowledging that Grandal almost certainly isn’t go to keep producing at this rate all season, let’s at least discuss what’s got him to this point and why it isn’t overly surprising.

Last offseason, I wrote way too many articles about my love for all things Yasmani Grandal, so many that Grandal — apparently! — considered filing a retraining order that would have limited me to one article per month that was focused primarily on him. Luckily that restraining order was shelved, as A.J. Preller didn’t share my affinity for Grandal and dealt him to the Dodgers as the main piece of the Matt Kemp trade.

Why, then, has Grandal’s breakout not been particularly surprising?

Well, we discussed a lot of these very things over the winter, so I won’t rehash them all in-depth. But the main ones: (1) age, recent injury history, track-record, (2) hits ball very hard, very far, (3) great defensive catcher, mostly thanks to outstanding pitch framing ability.

Let’s discuss each number, somewhat briefly.

1. If you’re looking for a breakout player, most of the time you’re going to look like a fool. Who knows what makes a good breakout candidate! Don’t look for breakout players. But if you insist, it’s probably a good idea to look for young guys, guys with a chance to improve and make adjustments to further refine their game. Grandal turned 26 last November, and he had played just 216 major league games in parts of three seasons heading into 2015.

Maybe it’s a good idea to look for players returning from injury. Grandal somewhat famously rushed back from a knee surgery that ended his 2013 season to be ready for the start of the 2014 season. While it’s unclear how that knee injury affected Grandal’s 2014 performance, the further behind him he can put the injury, the better off he’ll likely be.

If you must look for a breakout candidate, maybe look for a post-hype prospect, the sort of player who puts up great numbers as an amateur or a youngster in the minor leagues, gains a lot of early traction among scouts and on top prospect lists, then performs at a disappointing level in the pros or upper tiers of the minors. Grandal, arguably, could be classified as that type of player, drafted 12th overall in 2010 by Cincinnati, reaching the heights of the 38th-best prospect in the game, per Baseball Prospectus, prior to the 2012 season, and posting generally gaudy numbers in the minor leagues. Then, in the majors, he kind of scuffled: there was the steroid thing, the knee injury, and offensive numbers that, while good, didn’t always scream future star. These players don’t always end up as success stories, of course, but occasionally they’re able to find whatever once made them stars and rebound as productive big leaguers.

2. As I mentioned in one of those articles from last year, Grandal had the eighth-highest fly ball distance in the majors in 2014, surrounded by renowned sluggers like Paul Goldschmidt, Giancarlo Stanton, Jose Abreu, and Kemp. We might not know exactly what that means, but it’s probably a good thing. For a fly ball hitter — really, any type of want-to-be slugger — hitting the ball far is a good thing. Grandal did that last year, even if the power numbers weren’t overwhelmingly great.

This year, he’s doing the same, hitting the ball hard. Among players with at least 20 at-bats tracked by MLB’s new Statcast system, Grandal’s average batted ball velocity — 95.49 miles-per-hour — ranks him fourth in all of baseball, and that doesn’t even count yesterday’s hard-hitting display.

There are other factors here if you wanted to look more in-depth, like Grandal’s recent bad luck on balls in play, as he posted BABiPs of .257 and .277 in 2013 and 2014, respectively. But we’re not going to go that deep. Grandal hit the ball harder and farther during his Padres career than his conventional stats suggested, and this year those hard hit balls are starting to drop, either in the outfield or in the seats.

3. One of the pleasant surprises in Grandal’s game is his expert ability to frame pitches, something offense-first catchers aren’t supposed to have in their arsenal. This was never really a breakout indicator, though, just something that makes Grandal valuable even if the offense never materialized. So far this season, he leads the majors in pitch framing with 28.3 extra strikes (worth around four runs), according to Baseball Prospectus. (Derek Norris, by the way, ranks second to last, ahead of only Carlos Ruiz, at -18.5 strikes.) Over his career, Grandal’s framing has been worth 27.5 runs per 7,000 pitches.

Other parts of Grandal’s defensive game aren’t as bad as they seem. After struggling with stolen bases allowed in San Diego, an issue that likely had something to do with the Padres pitching staff, he’s caught three of 14 would-be base stealers in 2015. That’s six or seven percentage points below the league average (and a small sample!), but it’s not something that seems particularly worrisome. And while Grandal didn’t always look like a great pitch blocker in San Diego, Baseball Prospectus says he’s actually been a net positive, though only narrowly, in that category for his career.

The story on Grandal is far from written.* Remember, we’re only 87 plate appearances into the 2015 season. So far, though, Grandal’s continued to show the broad skill-set that made me cringe when he started appearing on Preller’s trade rolodex last offseason. He’s a 26-year-old catcher with patience, power, improving contact ability, and plenty of defensive value behind the plate, the kind of player that doesn’t come around everyday. Grandal’s future looks bright, and I still think the Padres sold way too low on him.

In fact, so long as another restraining order doesn’t crop up, I’ve got a contract with McFarland to tell that story as a series of pitch framing-focused pop-up books, generally geared toward children but also useful for adults, when Grandal’s career is over. 

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  • ballybunion

    Well, you left out pitch-calling/rapport with the pitchers, and that’s a key to having an effective pitching staff. Grandal’s personality rubbed some Padres pitchers the wrong way, and has already gotten Kershaw to ask for Ellis. I don’t know if he can adjust his “bedside manner” since neither can doctors. Given the severity of his knee injury, he’ll have to move from catching anyway, and can hold 1B after 2018 when Adrian’s contract runs out.

    It’s not so much letting Grandal go cheap, but that Obtaining Kemp was the absolute pivot point for AJ Preller’s off-season moves. Kemp signaled a huge change, and without that move a lot of AJ’s other calls might have been put on hold or not answered. With Kemp, the team got a personality transplant – and legitimacy. It’s hard to put a price tag on that, but with Hedges in the wings, Grandal was part of the price.

    • Those are fair points, of course, but I don’t necessarily buy either of them.

      I still don’t see why the Padres needed Kemp to acquire Upton or Kimbrel or anyone, and I think the team would’ve been better off with Grandal behind the plate, Hahn in the rotation, and, let’s say, Upton and Myers in the corners with a legit defender in center.

  • Tom Waits

    Grandal’s relationship with the pitchers seems like a grain of sand that people transpose into an oyster. Pitchers always want the best glove back there, just like they want the best possible defense behind them, even if it means they don’t get as much run support. It’s the manager’s job to handle that stuff. It just so happened that Rivera hit last year and Alonso got hurt, so Black had little reason to force the issue.

    I doubt Hedges was any part of the calculation. Preller was ready to move him in the right deal, and for a couple of years Hedges hadn’t hit , which was the skill Preller sought the most.

    I also doubt that other GMs would ignore Preller without the Kemp deal. He offers Fried plus for Upton, Hart takes that call at 3 am. He offers Hahn plus to a team that lost Lester and traded the Shark, Beane gets up from dinner with his family.

    I wasn’t violently against the Kemp deal, and I hope he (and Myers) hit enough to outweigh their comedic defensive work. But as Dustin points out, there were other ways to make the Padres competitive.