Yasmani Grandal could make trading Matt Kemp palatable

I’m not going to lie: I am quite happy the Dodgers’ primary catcher is Yasmani Grandal. I’ve been on him for about a year, and with Andrew Friedman’s front office being all about pitch framing, a match was natural. I don’t like the fact the Dodgers had to trade Matt Kemp to get him, but here we are.

Let’s look at just what the Dodgers have in Grandal.

Here’s what I wrote about him last month when looking at who would be the Dodgers’ catcher in 2015.

“This is the guy atop my trade wishlist and is second to only Martin overall. Grandal is young (26), has a good offensive profile (power, high walk rate, low strikeout rate) and is great at framing. So, why would the Padres even entertain dealing him? Well, they have Rivera (whom you’ll read about shortly) and Austin Hedges, who might be the best defensive catcher in the minor leagues. Grandal could be had, but it’d take more than some folks would expect is reasonable. None of the Dodgers’ top four guys would be in play, but it might take a player of Chris Anderson’s caliber to get the Padres to the table.”

Everything there is true, except the last part. Technically, the Dodgers might have been able to land Grandal for an Anderson-led package if they weren’t looking to get out from under Kemp’s contract.

Since defense is the most important thing for a catcher, let’s start there. His framing statistics are undeniably good. Now, it depends how much you put into framing stats, but obviously Friedman and Co., put a lot into it. Just look at Jose Molina‘s tenure in Tampa Bay. Grandal, 26, ranked 13th in the majors in Baseball Prospectus framing runs added by count (12.6). He also added nearly 100 strikes while behind the plate. If you prefer StatCorner valuation, Grandal was 12.8 runs against average — eighth-best in the majors.

Mark Simon of ESPN broke it down further.

“Grandal rated best in the majors at getting strikes called when he should. Umpires called 89 percent of the pitches he caught in the strike zone as strikes, six percentage points above the major-league average.

Grandal also got called strikes on 10 percent of pitches that the Pitch F/X tracking system deemed to be out of the strike zone. That ranked eighth-best among the 40 catchers who caught the most pitches last season.”

By comparison, A.J. Ellis was at 80 percent and 8 percent, respectively. It doesn’t sound like much, but when you factor in 5,272 chances for Grandal and 6,470 for Ellis, it makes a difference.

This is also while having played less behind the plate than he should have for a couple reasons: Rene Rivera and a knee injury.

Rivera was one of the best framers/defenders behind the plate last season, and provided surprising offense. The latter is what had the Padres move Grandal to first base for the last portion of the season (also, Yonder Alonso got hurt). While Grandal hit relatively well as a first baseman (.788 OPS, not great for a first baseman, but Petco), his true value behind the plate was wasted.

Grandal did struggle with receiving, as he allowed an MLB-worst 12 passed balls in just 76 games caught. That could just be his lacking skill (not likely) or him coming back from a knee injury too quickly (more likely). He also had trouble keeping runners from stealing against him (13 percent caught stealing rate; MLB average is about 30), but some of the latter could be attributed to the Padres’ inability to hold runners on. The Padres allowed 116 stolen bases and caught just 40 (26 percent). I’d expect both of those numbers to improve as the Dodgers allowed 86 stolen bases and caught 38 (31 percent).

Pedro Moura of the Orange County Register caught up with a baseball scout who has concerns about Grandal’s knee.

“A major-league scout who evaluated Grandal last season said he has long had the potential to be a top-tier catcher. But the lingering effects of the knee injury are cause for concern, the scout said, speaking on the condition of anonymity.

‘The knee is the major question. The surgery is affecting him on defense. I saw him throw pretty good, but I do think his mobility behind the plate was hampered.’

‘I don’t think he’s a slam-dunk first-division catcher right now, but I see the possibility to get back close to as much potential as he showed before. A left-handed hitting catcher with power as a backup is great, and that’s the worst-case scenario, but I think they’re expecting more.'”

It’s always going to be a question until Grandal proves otherwise. If his 2014 performance is the player he turns out to be for his career, he’s still a valuable player.

As for Grandal’s offense, it projects to be a big step up from Ellis, especially the 2014 version of Ellis. He also hit the ball farther than a lot of other major leaguers last season. Mike broke that down at ESPN early last month.

“The batting average doesn’t reflect that because Grandal is a poor baserunner who never beats out hits — he is a catcher coming off a knee injury, after all — and struck out his fair share this year, but he makes up for that with patience and power. His 13.1 percent walk rate this year, for example, was well above the nonpitcher MLB average of 7.8. More impressively, his average fly ball batted ball distance of 304.13 feet was not only the eighth-best in all of baseball, it was the best by any non-righty hitter. Of his team-leading 15 homers, Hit Tracker measured that 14 of them would have left the yard in at least 80 percent of parks.”

The power is legitimate. Grandal getting out of Petco, in theory, should help in the power department. But his health will be the ultimate determiner of how good he is offensively (and defensively).

Again, from Simon.

“Lastly, Grandal does hit the ball hard at an above-average rate.

Inside Edge, which provides batted-ball data to teams and media, rates every batted ball as hard-hit, medium-hit or soft-hit.

Grandal registered hard-hit balls in 18 percent of his at-bats, 19 percent against right-handed pitching.

When he actually hit the ball, he hit it hard 25 percent of the time.”

So, pay almost no attention to his poor batting average. Hitting the ball hard increases the likelihood of getting hits. He owns a career .291 BABIP, so if he continues the trend of hitting the ball hard, that could go up (as long as he keeps the ball out of the air, something he didn’t do well do last year).

There is one area of concern offensively. Grandal, a switch-hitter, struggled mightily in 2014 against left-handed pitching. He hit just .162/.233/.189 against southpaws. He only had 96 plate appearances against them, but it’s still a frightening triple slash. He was pretty good against lefties in the minors, so perhaps regular playing time could help him improve against them. That remains to be seen. Luckily, Ellis is still somewhat effective against lefties, just in case Grandal falters.

And the elephant in the room for some folks: Yes, Grandal was busted for performance-enhancing drugs in 2012. No, it isn’t that big a deal. I prefer my baseball players to be sans illegal drugs, but I’m not going to ignore the talent and significant ability he holds. He was popped for testosterone. It’s not nothing, but it isn’t the horrific crime some would lead you to believe.

Grandal is a former No. 12 overall pick (2010 MLB Draft) and ranked as Baseball America’s No. 53 prospect heading into the 2012 season. It isn’t like he came out of nowhere. The talent is there and the Dodgers’ scouts liked what they’ve seen. I like what I’ve seen. Let’s hope his knee holds up well enough for him to become the first-division catcher the Dodgers’ brass is expecting him to be.

About Dustin Nosler

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Dustin Nosler began writing about the Dodgers in July 2009 at his blog, Feelin' Kinda Blue. He co-hosted a weekly podcast with Jared Massey called Dugout Blues. He was a contributor/editor at The Hardball Times and True Blue LA. He graduated from California State University, Sacramento, with his bachelor’s degree in journalism and a minor in digital media. While at CSUS, he worked for the student-run newspaper The State Hornet for three years, culminating with a 1-year term as editor-in-chief. He resides in Stockton, Calif.