Yasmani Grandal is a really good baseball player. That isn’t exactly breaking news, but his presence in the lineup is unmistakably important, as is his presence behind the plate.
It’d take one hell of an argument, but I could be convinced he’s the hitter with the most talent in the lineup. That would be ignoring the immense potential of Corey Seager, the sustained success of Adrian Gonzalez and the flashes of brilliance by Yasiel Puig, but Grandal has been quite good in his time as a Dodger.
This isn’t a slight to A.J. Ellis at all. At age 35, he isn’t going to suddenly find the fountain of youth and hit like he did in 2012. He’s a fine game-caller and works well with the pitching staff, but his best offensive days are probably behind him — despite a solid close to the 2015 season. He is what is his at this stage of his career.
This season, he’s averaging just 86.2 MPH in exit velocity — 2-3 MPH worse than league-average. The results have been in line with the poor exit velo: He’s hitting just .226/.314/.355 with an 85 wRC+ (that was helped dramatically by Coors Field over the weekend as it was 37 before Friday’s game) and .250 BABIP. That’ll probably even out near his career average of .281 as the season progresses, but I’d don’t see him getting close to the 116 wRC+ he posted in 2015.
By comparison, Grandal is hitting a strong .320/.485/.480 with a 166 wRC+ and .348 BABIP. He also has a 24.2 percent walk rate. He’s second on the team in walks despite playing in just seven of their first 16 games. He’s averaging 97.3 MPH on his 22 batted balls events, which is the third-highest exit velo in the majors behind the Rockies’ Ryan Raburn and the Phillies’ Cameron Rupp. Last season, he averaged 91.6 overall — still above average, but not close to what he’s doing in 2016. That was also hampered by an 89.1 average exit velo after Aug. 6 (i.e., when he hurt his shoulder in Philadelphia). It was 92.4 MPH before that. Exit velocity tends to stabilize for hitters at around 40 balls in play. Grandal is about half way there, so we’ll keep an eye on how he does over his next 20 or so batted ball events. If he’s till at 97-plus MPH on his exit velo, then he is absolutely tearing the cover off the ball (and still might not be indicative of where his actual number will stabilize).
One tweet from Daren Willman of Baseball Savant and MLB.com can put this into perspective.
— Daren Willman (@darenw) October 24, 2015
This was for 2015. Players hit .277 on pitches with exit velos of 90-94 MPH (Grandal at 91.6 last season). While the data for 2016 are not yet available, the 5-MPH jump on both ends to 95-99 MPH is quite dramatic, as players hit .399 on pitches hit that hard (Grandal at 97.3 this season). A 122-point difference for 5 MPH in batted ball velocity is pretty amazing. Not the end-all, be-all by any means, but it goes to show hitting the ball hard pays off most of the time.
I would be remiss if I didn’t mention all this damage was coming from the left side of the plate. He has just two plate appearances against left-handed pitchers this season and has been markedly worse as a right-handed batter than a lefty in his career. That’s why, in part, he’s still basically in a platoon with Ellis.
The other nice thing about having Grandal back is his pitch framing. The pitch he framed on Sunday with DJ LeMahieu at the plate an Adam Liberatore pitching was textbook. It got the Dodgers out of a jam. Ellis doesn’t get that call. Even Austin Barnes, a guy with a solid framing history in the minors (and in his short time in the majors), probably doesn’t get that call. Grandal is, unsurprisingly, near the top of Baseball Prospectus’ adjusted framing runs against average leaderboard. He’s eighth behind some of the usual suspects — Jason Castro, Yadier Molina, Russell Martin, Francisco Cervelli — but they all have at least double the framing chances Grandal has had so far this season. In 2015, he led baseball with 25.4 adjusted framing runs above average, while Ellis checked in at -4.8 (100th out of 117 catchers).
It’d be nice to have Grandal in the lineup more frequently, but he has shown a propensity to get hurt in the past and struggle (though, not unplayable) against left-handed pitching (.244/.352/.386 for his career). Ellis gets points for some of the intangibles, but his talent level is far inferior to Grandal’s. He’s probably the best backup catcher the Dodgers could hope for. But as long as Grandal stays healthy, that label probably won’t mean much.