“From what I’ve seen, he receives the ball well and has a nice feel for catching. He looks like a guy who should get better with experience.” – Mike Scioscia
“I still think there’s more in there with him. I don’t think people realize how good he was swinging the bat at the end of last year.” – Don Mattingly
First, ESPN’s Jayson Stark, Dave Schonenfield and Jim Bowden predicted it. Now, the American public has ratified it.
A half-season removed from his tenure as a San Diego Padre, Yasmani Grandal “Version 2.0” is headed to Cincinnati, Ohio to take part in the All-Star Game. As a Dodger.
Feelings, politics and biases about this “Game” aside, it’s a huge achievement for the 26-year old Cuban, and one that’s worthy of deeper analysis as the ramifications of A.J. Preller’s many off-season moves become, well, increasingly apparent.
Now, for a bit of context, let’s go back to the spring of 2014 when Rene Rivera supplanted Yasmani as the Padres’ starting catcher. A primary reason for that, according to FOX Sports’ Ken Rosenthal, was his attitude. “Grandal walks the line between self-confidence and stubbornness, according to major-league sources,” he wrote. “Over time, he lost his rapport with right-handers Tyson Ross, Ian Kennedy and especially Andrew Cashner.”
“Last year was a big eye opener, a learning experience for me,” said Grandal in response. “I never had anybody say, ‘We want to throw to this (other) guy.’ It had always been me. How do you deal with that? It was, ‘All right, concentrate on the guys you’re going to catch, be ready to catch the other guys just in case.’ And from there on, just play.”
The end result was eye-opening. And to the Dodgers’ front office, eye-catching. While Rivera finished the 2014 season with a 3.10 catcher’s ERA over 734 innings, Grandal’s ERA was 3.35 over 607-2/3 innings – this with Eric Stults, Jesse Hahn and Odrisamer Despaigne as his primary battery mates.
What’s more, his pitch framing skills distinguished him as an elite backstop who could influence calls and scorecards alike with his mitt. According to Baseball Prospectus, Grandal got 120 “extra” strikes called last season – and that was in just 76 games.
Mark Simon of ESPN noted that “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. (He) also got called strikes on 10 percent of pitches that the Pitch F/X tracking system deemed to be out of the strike zone.”
And Mark Saxon of ESPN wrote a great post-trade Spring Training piece (http://espn.go.com/blog/los-angeles/dodger-report/post/_/id/13162/yasmani-grandal-and-the-art-of-stealing-strikes) about how he developed these skills in the first place: “Grandal said he used to play a game with himself when he was behind the plate, counting how many pitches he considered balls he could get called strikes. He would be happy if he could get a half-dozen a game to go his pitchers’ way. On some days, getting that many borderline calls could be the difference between a win and a loss. Then, a couple of years ago, people finally started noticing. ‘Once somebody brought to my attention that it was a stat, it was kind of funny, because I was like, ‘I’ve kind of been playing this game for a while,’ Grandal said.”
Saxon went on to write that Grandal “learned his receiving skills from University of Miami assistant coach Joe Mercadante and then refined them over the years in pro ball working with veterans such as Ramon Hernandez, Pat Kelly, Brad Ausmus and A.J. Hinch. He doesn’t view pitch framing as fooling the umpire, but as making it easier for him to see the ball”:
As Yasmani puts it, “I’m trying to make the umpire’s job easier. The better lane I give them to see the ball, the better relationship I’m going to have with them, the more they’re going to trust me. I’m always talking to them, trying to see, ‘Hey, do you have a good lane to see? Am I cutting you off? Are you seeing this pitch?’ The relationship between the catcher and pitcher is pretty important, but you also have to have a relationship with the umpire.”
It’s that kind of mindset that made Yasmani such an attractive and worthy piece of the Matt Kemp trade the to the Dodgers front office.
“I wasn’t surprised that (the Padres) traded me,” said Grandal to MLB.com writer Barry M. Bloom (http://m.dodgers.mlb.com/news/article/133970746/yasmani-grandal-paying-dividends-for-dodgers). “It was just a matter of who was going to go in the deal, but I knew I was going to go. It did surprise me that I went to a team in the same division. And it really surprised me that I went for Kemp. I mean, he’s a top-of-the-line player. You don’t really think that you’re going to get traded for a guy like that. Obviously, they saw something in me, and it is what it is now.”
Yasmani, ironically, learned about the trade while playing winter ball in the Dominican Republic. Though his intent in going there was to work on his hitting and build endurance, he discovered an unexpected benefit as well: “I think the one thing that helped me a lot was going into winter ball and having a brand-new pitching staff, guys that I never caught before and starting that interaction with them,” he said.
That epiphany came in handy upon his arrival at Camelback Ranch, where Grandal promptly made a strong impression with his new manager and teammates alike.
According to Bob Harkins of SportsNetLA.com, Zack Greinke quickly became an ally: “He’s been unbelievable back there. His catching is better than advertised, and working with me individually, he’s been as good as you could expect. I don’t think, from what I’ve seen so far, you could ever have expected anything more.”
Clayton Kershaw added, “The only thing you want in a catcher is that he works. He does that. …Not only with catching, the physical part of it, but the mental side. He knew what I did before I even talked to him.” Fellow catcher A.J. Ellis echoed that as well, saying; “I’ve been blown away by his work ethic”.
And the love fest was mutual from Grandal’s perspective: “It’s been awesome so far — the more I catch the (Dodgers’ pitchers), the better I get. The relationships will start building the more I catch, the more they see what I’m thinking back there, the more I see what they want to do.”
It’s been Yasmani’s bat, however, that’s proved to be the bigger revelation in 2015. And just to rub salt in the wound, his offensive numbers vs. Matt Kemp’s are particularly revealing.
After 65 games (with a team-high 57 starts behind the plate, including seven of the last eight,) Grandal has 13 HRs, 34 RBIs, .271 AVG, .384 OBP, .507 SLG & a . 892 OPS. Kemp, by comparison, has 6 HRs and 42 RBIs for the Padres in 84 games with a .239 AVG, .279 OBP, .355 SLG & a .634OPS.
And this was after surviving a demoralizing first month at the plate when Yasmani was batting .189/.317/.283 with 13 strikeouts and 10 walks in 63 plate appearances.
“You’re on a new team, and you just want to do good, you want to belong here and turn it around at some point,” Grandal said at the time to Ken Gurnick of MLB.com. “[Mattingly] just said, you know the numbers will be there. Just relax and play.”
The manager, in turn, stood by his new acquisition. “Yaz has got a really good eye, and he sees the ball good. He’s got to use that and attack. He’s a little like Joc (Pederson). He’s got to use the whole field.”
Clearly, the manager’s advice worked. Or maybe it was the major haircut he got in May that lightened the weight of huge expectations. Or the support of his teammates and coaches. Or the novelty of playing in a different – translation: winning – environment. Whatever it was, the improvement in Grandal’s play has been noteworthy. #ASGWorthy.
“It’s new scenery,” he told Barry Bloom. “Ever since I’ve come here, they’ve done everything in their power to make me feel welcome. I’ve been in two organizations before, but by far this is the best of all those organizations.”
Yes, it’s a hard, cruel thing for San Diego fans to hear. But it’s coming from a guy whom the Padres deemed expendable. A guy who is now headed to Cincinnati.