Catching is hard, and good catching is hard to find. Yasmani Grandal‘s 2016 season has not gone well, at least by batting average, but when Grandal is healthy, he is valuable to the Dodgers regardless of what his batting average is.
Friday night’s wild 10-6 victory over the Padres showcased the best of Grandal. Five hits — including three home runs, plus a rare bunt single — propelled the Dodgers offensively, but he also threw out a would-be base stealer at second and assisted the Dodger pitchers in collecting 110 strikes on the night.
Grandal made history with his five hits becoming only the third Dodger catcher with a three-homer game. The others are two of the all-time greatest Dodger catchers, Mike Piazza and Roy Campanella. He also became the third catcher in MLB history with at least five hits in a three-homer game. Victor Martinez in 2004 and Walker Cooper in 1949 were the other two.
Grandal, 27, has been in a season-long slump, and his slash line of .212/.323/.434/.758 through 65 games has incited some to disparage the catcher and renounce his worth to the team overlooking the difficulty and nuance of his position. His significance to the Dodgers not only in the present but within the long-term plan for the team goes well beyond his offensive production that has been hindered due to injury and the grueling everyday reality of being a catcher.
A prime example was Yas slugging his third home run in Friday’s game after he was hit hard in the jaw area of his face mask with a foul ball. It was surprising that he stayed in the game, but when he did he then continued to wreak havoc on his former team with a third long ball all while handling his pitching staff through all nine innings.
Still, some have gone as far as to suggest replacing him with internal options, but the alternatives aren’t appealing.
More of A.J. Ellis is not the answer, because it’s not 2012 anymore. With a 54 wRC+, .250 wOBA and a slash line of .195/.298/.257/.554 with one home run, Ellis has been much worse than Grandal. His OBP, a trademark for him, is significantly worse than last season (.355) and his career average (.342). Ellis has caught base runners at a 38 percent clip this season, but has had only 21 opportunities in 38 games behind the plate. Potential postseason performance from Ellis aside, his ability to work well with pitchers and call a good game doesn’t allow one to dismiss his shortcomings offensively easily.
The future of the Dodger catching staff could lie with Austin Barnes. The versatility of Barnes is intriguing considering he can play second base as well as catch. He’s hitting .292/.387/.416 with three home runs and 15 stolen bases for Triple-A Oklahoma City this year. Barnes’ strong pitch framing skills, versatility around the infield, offensive potential and good speed for a catcher make it a certainty Barnes will be up with the Dodgers in September. It would make sense that Barnes would be part of the Dodgers’ long-term plan alongside Grandal, but given his performance in the majors so far, it’s a stretch to say he would be an upgrade today.
Beyond that, the Dodgers don’t have a ton of prospects or veteran depth on the cusp of deserving a call.
Offense is only one part of the equation, of course. Defense also matters.
Grandal’s arm is decent, and he’s thrown out 14 of 45 base stealers good for a 31 percent caught stealing rate, which is slightly better than his career 28 percent rate and is at right about league average. If we dig a little deeper and look at rSB, which measures in runs how a catcher compares to the average catcher in terms of preventing stolen bases, we see David Ross of the Cubs with a league-best 4 rSB. Grandal’s 1 rSB is respectable in terms of run prevention and interestingly better than the likes of, say, Jonathan Lucroy who is at 0 rSB.
Speaking of, Lucroy would certainly be a worthwhile acquisition should the Dodgers pursue him in a trade, but with Grandal’s pitch framing ability, decent defense and potentially potent offense, Grandal is the one that seems to be a good fit for the front office right now and over the next few seasons should he remain healthy. A Yadier Molina (career 44 CS%) type Grandal is not when it comes to throwing out runners, but where he lacks in his skills of blocking the ball, he makes up for it in his ability to steal strikes.
Andrew Friedman, a long-time pitch framing devotee, heralded Jose Molina during his time in Tampa Bay. Shedding Matt Kemp’s salary aside, getting Grandal was one of Friedman’s first and arguably best moves as President Of Baseball Operations for the Dodgers so far. Grandal’s special skill to subtly receive a pitch in a way to get the umpire to call a strike even if it is out of the zone adds value to the team in a way that is difficult to quantify much like evaluating the nuances of catcher defense in general.
Thanks to the catching stats at Baseball Prospectus, we can know that Grandal’s 14.9 Framing Runs, runs saved or squandered through stealing strikes compared to the average catcher, places him as third-best in the majors. That’s not all that surprising considering Grandal led the majors in Framing Runs last year, and has shown it to be a major repeatable skill over his entire career.
Grandal’s pitch-framing skills adds more value to the Dodgers in a way less recognizable than mere batting average. But even when you don’t factor in his pitch framing and after a disappointing slump to start the season, he is second amongst NL catchers with 12 home runs, ninth in WAR at 1.0 and eighth in wRC+ at 106 (minimum 100 PA). Not the prettiest, but average as it is, and adding in the framing skills puts him up there with the best.
— Stacie Wheeler (@organicallyrude) June 22, 2016
That’s a short list of some of the Dodger catchers over recent years. It isn’t pretty. Grandal’s contributions, even while rebounding from off-season surgery and mired with nagging injuries, has been integral to a team which has survived primarily on the backs, sometimes literally, of its pitching staff.
Some of the Grandal backlash seems to have spawned out of allegiance to former Dodger Matt Kemp, so the trade will continue to be scrutinized. But Kemp currently holds a .254/.275/.448/.723 line with four more homers than Grandal in 87 games with subpar defense in right field, so the complaints feel hollow.
Grandal had this to say about the trade and his place on the Dodgers.
“It’s not really the fact they traded you, but you play a little harder,” said Grandal, dealt to the Dodgers by the Padres in the Matt Kemp deal. “I’m glad they traded me, I went to a division championship team. I’m happy about that, came to a legendary organization. For me, it’s a win-win situation. I know it’s a business. Them trading me, it’s nothing personal. But when you face a former team, two teams traded me [also Cincinnati], you just seem to have it in for them.”
The Dodgers would certainly like to have a win-win situation with Grandal if he can stay healthy and hit well, and there are signs it’s coming, as he has hit eight home runs in his last 11 starts. Still, a string of injuries and overall battle wounds associated with being a catcher has slowed down his offense. Surgery in the off-season repaired a A/C joint in his shoulder, an injury affecting his second half of the 2015 season, and extra batting practice in Spring Training led to him straining his forearms. Then, in May, he was hit with a foul ball on his wrist in Toronto which led to him having to work through that ailment as well.
Friday’s jawbreaker piled on some more pain, a hazard of the job which Grandal accepts everyday when he puts on his gear and gets ready for baseball combat. Considering the rarity of good catching talent, Grandal’s strike-inducing framing skills gives the Dodger pitching staff an extra edge often overlooked when assessing Grandal’s worth. He’s not going to hit three home runs every game, but if Grandal can stay healthy and be more consistent at the plate, he could shape up to be the most valuable catcher the Dodgers have had since Russell Martin.