Why Yasmani Grandal Should Keep His Catcher’s Mitt

Since we last discussed the San Diego Padres catcher situation, a lot has happened:

  • Yasmani Grandal turned in an up-and-down campaign in 2014 after rushing a return from ACL surgery, showing signs of offensive brilliance while also failing to build on his sensational 2012 debut. On the defensive side of the ball, he had some trouble with blocking pitches and only threw out 13 percent of would-be base thieves, but he remained one of the game’s best pitch framers.
  • Rene Rivera somehow emerged as an offensive force, hitting .252/.319/.432 in 329 plate appearances, finishing third on the team in home runs (11) despite the limited playing time. Rivera also excelled behind the dish, seemingly becoming everyone’s favorite guy to throw to along with posting gaudy defensive stats.
  • Rivera’s emergence as Defense-First Catcher, Now With Capable Bat left Nick Hundley as the odd-man out. Despite much improved framing numbers after apparently devoting more time to the craft, another slow start with the bat made it easy for the Padres to deal Hundley to Baltimore in May for Troy Patton.
  • And Austin Hedges, rated as high as the 18th best prospect in the game by Baseball Prospectus last offseason, completely flopped offensively in his first full-season attempt at Double-A. Hedges hit .225/.268/.321 in 457 PAs in San Antonio, with 23 walks compared to 89 strikeouts. The defense — even though some say it took a slight step back in 2014 — is still all-world, but the bat becomes more of a pressing question heading forward. The 22-year-old Hedges has plenty of time to turn it around in the minor leagues, but another trip through Double-A is likely. With Grandal and Rivera in the majors, there’s no rush.

With Hundley out of the picture and Hedges on hold, we’re left with Grandal and Rivera as the current catching combo on the big league roster. When you have an embarrassment of riches at one position and glaring holes at others, there tends to be some discussion about moving players around. First base is one of those holes, as Yonder Alonso has failed to live up to the line-drive, high on-base percentage hype that accompanied him when the Padres acquired him back in late-2011 and Tommy Medica, despite occasional flashes, has yet to show that he possesses enough consistency for an everyday role. Alonso’s batting average hasn’t approached .300 in San Diego and his OBP dipped to .285 last year which is, even before you consider his powerless approach, unacceptable at first base. Medica blasted nine home runs in just 259 major league PAs last year, but he also walked just 14 times while striking out 75.

So, maybe the simple solution is to move Grandal to first base full-time and then let Rivera take over as the everyday catcher. It’s a move that makes so much sense that the Padres tried it plenty of times last year, giving Grandal 33 starts at first base throughout the season, with 18 of them coming in September. There are a few reasons why, in this humble author’s opinion anyway, Grandal shouldn’t trade in the catcher’s mitt for a first basemen’s glove just yet:

His offense is more valuable behind the dish

It goes back to Bill James‘ concept of the defensive spectrum: DH-1B-LF-RF-3B-CF-2B-SS-C

Players can generally glide successfully from right to left on the spectrum, but the opposite, outside of outliers like Craig Biggio moving from second base to catcher, is almost never true. If you start your career as a first basemen, you aren’t going to transition to an up-the-middle position like shortstop or center field. And catcher is almost on an island to itself, as the position takes so much technique and specialized training that players almost never become catchers later in their career after an extended stay elsewhere on the diamond.

What’s naturally true, then, is that positions on the left side of the defensive spectrum are far easier to fill, making game-changing offense an expectation at those positions. Anyone can “play” designated hitter (except maybe the hyper-fidgety Hunter Pence – can you imagine that?) or first base with a bit of practice, so you’ve got to be able to mash the ball if you play one of those positions. On the other hand, finding a shortstop or catcher that can both handle the rigors of the position defensively and hit the ball with authority is exceedingly rare, making the few that can do it some of the most valuable assets in baseball.

Grandal can handle the position defensively (more on that later) and, so far, he’s shows plenty of signs of offensive ability. Consider Grandal’s 111 wRC+ from 2014: among catchers with at least 300 plate appearances, that mark ranked Grandal 11th (just one slot behind Rivera) out of 31. Switch that performance to first basemen under the same criteria, and Grandal’s 111 wRC+ would rank him just 20th out of 37.

Or consider this: since 2010, 22 different first basemen have managed to post a wRC+ of 120 or higher. Catchers? Only four — Buster Posey, Mike Napoli (hasn’t caught since 2012), Carlos Santana (now resides at first base), and Joe Mauer (moved to first base/DH in 2014). By the way, Yasmani Grandal’s 119 wRC+ over that span ranks fifth on the list.

Grandal’s comps from BP‘s PECOTA include offense-oriented players like Buster Posey, Chris Iannetta, Carlos Santana, Domonic Brown, and recent breakout (and the guy who helped push Grandal out of Cincinnati) Devin Mesoraco. Of course, his comp list also includes Jeff Clement, Hank Conger, and Chris Parmelee, which gives you an idea of the difficulty in projecting players. Still, there’s enough offensive upside here for Grandal to turn into a legit force behind the plate, and we haven’t even discussed his BABiP and strikeout rate last year, both of which should improve moving forward.

At catcher, Grandal has a chance (a chance) to be one of the better players in the league. At first base, he’s just another guy.

His defense is more valuable behind the dish

It’d be one thing to consider moving Grandal to first if his defense left something to be desired, and while there are things he needs to work on back there, that’s definitely not the case. That said, Grandal’s major weakness as a catcher — the ability to throw out potential base stealers — is something of a concern.

Last year, Grandal threw out just 13 percent of would-be base stealers, well below the league average of 28 percent. Among catchers with at least 500 innings, Grandal ranked dead last out of 35, just behind former teammate and good friend Nick Hundley. Just for kicks, I also looked up how often teams decided to run against Grandal by cooking up a back-of-the-envelope number hereby called “Attempted Stolen Bases Against per 1,000 Innings” or ASBA/1,000.

Grandal ranked 25th out of 35 in this category with a 92 ASBA/1,000 (catchy, huh?), which suggests that while teams ran often on the Padres catcher, they either didn’t run as often as they should have considering his caught stealing percentage or, perhaps, they believed he was better than the raw numbers. (Or — and this is why it’s just a quick-and-dirty number — there are a number of factors left out which would better explain things.) For what it’s worth, teams ran most frequently on Rene Rivera despite his above average 36 percent CS clip, which is interesting and perhaps deserves more attention in another article.

As an aside, Yadier Molina is still awesome. His 48 percent CS% led the league as did his 47 ASBA/1,000. Players don’t run on him much, and when they do, they’re often sent back to the dugout shaking their heads. 

Okay, so this isn’t good. Baseball Reference calculates that Grandal was nine runs below average based on baserunner kills and baserunner advances in 2014. But there are reasons to believe Grandal will improve in this area next year. First off, regression. Second, he rushed back from knee surgery last year and you can safely assume that he wasn’t at full strength. He’s also apparently catching everyday in the Dominican Winter League, making up for lost time. Third, Grandal’s 23 percent CS rate from 2012 offers more hope for improvement, not to mention his 34 percent minor league CS% is the same as Austin Hedges’.

We discussed Grandal’s pitch framing superiority in the offseason, and he only solidified it in 2014. Along with pitch framer extraordinaire Rene Rivera, according to Baseball Prospectus, the Padres led the majors by a wide margin in framing runs (54 runs above average, ahead of Milwaukee by 16 runs), adding a secret weapon to an already solid pitching staff.

By any metric, Grandal rates as well above average. Baseball Prospectus had him at +12.6 runs last year (13th overall) and StatCorner rated him at +12.8 runs (eighth in the majors). On a per-pitch basis, he only gets better, as BPs numbers rated him sixth overall among catchers with at least 5,000 opportunities in 2014.

Another aside: Rene Rivera is even better at pitch framing, it appears. In the above categories, he ranked fourth, fifth, and third, respectively. 

Combine Grandal’s pitch framing with his pitch blocking numbers (and we’ll leave a detailed discussion of that for another time, as we’re already running long), and BP has him at +19.5 runs per 7,000 chances so far for his major league career. Quite an accomplishment for a guy who was originally viewed as an offense-first catcher that needed work defensively. It’s tough to move a guy with a solid bat and even adequate defense off catcher to a less demanding position, but to move Grandal — a guy with plus potential on both sides of the ball — to first base full-time would be a crime against the defensive spectrum.

Rene Rivera is unlikely to repeat his 2014 campaign and Austin Hedges is less of a lock than he was a year ago

Rene Rivera had a tremendous breakout last year, both offensively and behind the plate. He might be one of the best all-around defensive catchers in the game and, last year at least, he hit like he deserved an everyday job. Still, he’s just a year removed from being a minor league journeyman, with both past performance and scouting reports that say last year’s bat won’t return in 2015. Heck, Rivera’s minor league OPS only exceeded .800 twice, once as a 26-year-old in Double-A and once at offense-happy Tucson.

Aside No. 3: Change the Padres makes a compelling case to both sign Grandal to a long-term extension (yes, please) and trade Rivera for a “post-hype youngish player” over at Gwynntelligence. I can certainly see where he’s coming from here, cashing in on Rivera after a breakout season that has every right to be filed in the one-hit wonder category. Still, I wonder if there’s enough of a market for a 31-year-old catcher recently viewed as waiver wire fodder to make a potential deal worth it. And Rivera’s skills, specifically on the defensive side of the ball, are valuable enough to want around. 

Rivera seems like the perfect backup/platoon catcher, but not an everyday guy. One of the early projections system out for 2015, Steamer, pegs him at .233/.291/.362 with an 87 wRC+, almost a .100 point drop in OPS from 2014. Dealing with that kind of offense day in, day out might get tiresome, and with Grandal still catching the Padres would be able to pick their spots more with Rivera, hopefully putting him in situations to succeed.

And Austin Hedges, who we briefly discussed up top, looks like he might be more Brad Ausmus than Buster Posey. That’s not necessarily a bad thing: first-class defense at catcher on a cost-controlled contract is never a bad thing, and there’s still a legitimate shot Hedges turns into a fine offensive player. The point, though, is that Hedges’ inevitable place as Padres Catcher of the Future took a pretty significant step backwards last year, adding just another reason to see what Grandal’s capable of before moving in another direction.

***

In a perfect scenario, Grandal takes the everyday catching role in 2015, while Rivera still garners somewhat significant playing time depending on the Padres pitcher, or pitcher-batting match-ups, or the opposing team’s running game. Grandal, on some of the days he doesn’t catch, can platoon at first base with an Alonso and Medica (assuming the Padres don’t go out an acquire a replacement there). This way, you give Grandal’s knees an occasional break while keeping his bat in the lineup on most nights, and you also get Rivera’s glove behind the dish every fourth or fifth night.

If there’s anyone on this current Padres roster poised for a breakout in 2015, it appears to be Yasmani Grandal. But he loses a lot of the sizzle if he moves to first full-time, shelving his excellent framing ability in return for more time at a position that demands offense — and a position we’re not even sure Grandal can capably handle defensively.

The guy is a catcher, let’s sit back and watch what he can do back there.

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  • Billy Lybarger

    There is just one major problem
    Bud Black is going to start Rene Rivera all the way down the regression trail. Your opening day starter will most surely be Rene.
    Yasmani will get at most 350 ABs there. If AJ Preller can’t find a 1B (and they are exteremly difficult to obtain, thanks Josh Byrnes!), you can bet Buddy will pencil Grandal into the 1B slot. Maybe 2016 will be his year to move back behind the dish permanently.

    • Dustin

      Thanks for the comment, Billy.

      But I don’t think I totally agree with you there. I think the fact that Grandal’s in the DR working on his catching is a hint that the organization still views him as a catcher. And with the new front office now in place, Preller and co. are probably going to have more of a say over where Grandal plays than Black. I’m certainly hoping it doesn’t turn into a situation like last year, where Rivera assumes the everyday catcher role and Grandal ends up sliding over to first because the Padres don’t have an adequate bat there.

      Even if that does happen, though, I guess there’s always a chance — like you mention — to move Grandal back to catcher down the road. Guess we’ll see.

      • Eric Fisher

        I guarantee you Grandal is not going to want to play 1st. He has the potential to hit 20 HR in petco while being behind the dish. On another note, Padres pitchers don’t have a clue as to hold a runner on. Plus if you guys have been watching games all Rivera does it call out side fastballs to give him a better lane to throw from. Back to Grandal and 1st base, If he did he would of gone to Dominican to play first. Rivera had a break out year but think about it Riveras breakout year looked more like Grandal worst years. The is a reason why Grandal only played a year and a half in the minor leagues. The guy can play the game, maybe not last year because of different reasons but once he got helthy towards the end lets face it the dude looked like a future all star to me. Plane and simple Grandal will be the starting catcher from opening day on. If it’s not in SD then he will be somewhere else guarantee.

    • Robby Deming

      It’s not just Buddy, though. Our elite pitchers only want to throw to Rene. I doubt Buddy overrules Cash and Ross, and while that’s the case, I’d rather see Grandal at first.

      I’d also be really curious to see the numbers on the pitch blocking front. In terms of the eye test, it sure seemed like Grandal struggled mightily in that area.

      • Dustin

        Yeah, that’s something you have to deal with, I guess. I wouldn’t mind Rivera becoming the personal catcher for one of those guys, if all parties involved really feel that it makes that much of a difference.

        Regarding the pitch blocking numbers, Baseball Prospectus says that Grandal allowed five more wild pitches/passed balls than average in 2014, which equates to 1.4 runs below average or 3.3 runs below average per 7000 chances. For his career, Grandal is right around league average in this category. For what it’s worth, Rene Rivera was 1.3 runs below average per 7000 last year and he’s also right around league average for his career. In general, pitch blocking doesn’t appear to have anywhere near the impact that pitch framing does.

  • Patrick R.

    Great article. I’m looking forward to seeing how things play out next season.

    • Dustin

      Thanks, Patrick — definitely will be interesting to see how it plays out.

  • TommyL

    Dodger fans are greatly looking forward to how things play out as well.