Curtis Granderson Was a Master of Staying Power

At the very start of Curtis Granderson’s career, he was expected to make a plane with fellow Tigers prospects Ryan Raburn and Roberto Novoa. According to the Detroit Free Press, only Raburn made the flight in time; Granderson and Novoa got hosed by security and had to truck it four hours to Detroit all the way from Erie, driving around the big lake they have there, and finally arriving at Comerica Park. Granderson would have driven across Lake Erie if he could have, but as it were, he started his big league career a day late, and yet still found a way to get there in time. The perfect start to a major league run of making adjustments.

Through a 16-year career, which Granderson announced was over last Friday, expectations are going to shift. Granderson was expected to never commit an error, because he didn’t for the first 151 games he played. In the late 2000s, he was expected to be among the league leader in triples. By the mid-2010s, with age chewing up his knees, those expectations faded.

With his uniform, his output, and the sport itself changing over a decade and a half, Granderson always found a way to make an impact, even when he was 33 and in the first year of his four-year deal with the Mets: He was only good for a 98 wRC+ in 245 PA, but did see more pitches per plate appearance than anyone else on the roster. Did it help? Maybe not directly, but he probably tired a pitcher or two out and forced him to make a mistake with the next guy. Why not?

Autumn in Milwaukee is a lot like autumn anywhere else in the universe. The leaves change color. The air grows cooler. The sky flashes a rainbow of ripened hues as the sun rises and sets. Occasionally, there is playoff baseball to speak of. And Granderson was able to get there without missing a flight.

By early fall of 2018, Granderson was part of a purge of veteran talent from the Blue Jays locker room as the team exploded its roster in an attempt to bring in new, young talent. He had three All-Star appearances, a couple of MVP nods, a Silver Slugger, and a career of offensive accolades behind him, but he arrived in Milwaukee for the last month of the regular season with a job to do. At this point in his career, that job was to take pitches, be available, and show these other guys how a playoff run is done. He may not have led the league in triples anymore (he hit a combined 36 from 2007-08 and a combined five from 2017-18), and he had committed 31 errors up to this point (though he wouldn’t commit anymore for the rest of his major league career), but Granderson still knew how to take a pitch.

It was a mad scramble at the trade deadline in Milwaukee, as the team made three separate deals in a day for Granderson, Gio González, and Xavier Cedeño. The Brewers wanted guys with postseason experience; that sweet, sweet intangible nectar off which younger teammates suckle into October. Granderson was slathered in it, having appeared in 57 playoff games leading up to his time in a Brewers uni.

Truthfully, the Brewers didn’t need much. González was to give them starting pitcher depth, Cedeño would slot into the pen, and Granderson was the left-handed bat they’d been after for cheap. Five games out of first place in the NL Central, they just needed a boost. They needed to look at their bench and see options. They needed to never be out of a game. They had to scurry up a small hill and they had 30 days to reach the other side.

That wasn’t all on the shoulders of a 37-year-old outfielder hitting .243 with a 112 wRC+, but he was there to help. And there was no time wasted between his arrival and a demonstration of his value.

In a huge game against the Cubs, the team against whom they needed to gain ground, Brewers manager Craig Counsell was able to look to his bench late in the game and instead of a back-up catcher and a bucket of gum, he saw Granderson and Mike Moustakas, a pair of left-handed hitters, to dispatch against right-handed Cubs reliever Carl Edwards Jr. Counsell went with Granderson, who worked the count to 3-1 before lining a single to right and becoming a lead-off base runner. Edwards wasn’t soft-tossing up there, either; he struck out Christian Yelich and Jesús Aguilar in between loading the bases, and it was Moustakas who worked the walk that let Granderson score the tying run without even breaking a sweat.

That’s how the Brewers pieced together wins around this time. Sometimes, it was just letting Yelich go ham on a fastball. Other times, they had to shove somebody out there and hope for a weird bounce. In the ninth inning of the game Granderson had tied in the eighth, Counsell had Keon Broxton pinch run for Erik Kratz, who’d just walked. Two hit batsmen later, the bases were loaded for a walk-off Yelich ground-out that won Milwaukee the game without them logging a base hit in the final frame.

Granderson’s patience and experience had paid off to get Milwaukee a crucial win early in his Brewers career. But of course, you don’t always have to scour the box score or squeeze compliments out of the manager to learn a player’s value. Sometimes he does you the favor of knocking the crap out of the ball, which Granderson did in his next appearance as a pinch hitter when he smashed a two-run home run in another key spot.

As the fight for the NL Central continued, Granderson came up again against Cincinnati on September 17, a day on which he had one hit but scored three times. As usual, Granderson was a small part of the larger picture, not just the Brewers’ 8-0 shellacking of the Reds, but of Christian Yelich becoming the first player to hit for the cycle twice in the same season against the same team; Granderson had worked a walk and was standing on first when Yelich’s home run sailed over the fence.

But his biggest game of the Brewers’ stretch run was on September 12 at Wrigley Field, when he had three hits —including another home run and the second to last triple of his career — in a 5-1 win that brought the Brewers within a game of first place. Having sunk back to 2.5 games out by the 23rd, Milwaukee had to go into push mode, and they won out the rest of the regular season: eight straight games, including the tiebreaker against the Cubs to seal their postseason entry. Granderson didn’t play in the last one; he was likely standing in the dugout, arms folded and nodding before fading away, but the Brewers duct taped a win together with three runs on 12 hits, 11 of which were singles.

When it came time to set the playoff roster, Granderson made the cut; despite a .220 batting average, he was still working with a 22.2% walk rate and a 18.5% strikeout rate, worth a 135 wRC+ in 54 PA. Plus, if Moustakas and Travis Shaw were in the lineup, Granderson was Counsell’s next left-handed option off the bench, as Eric Thames had been left off. That meant 37-year-old Curtis Granderson was going back to the postseason… one. Last. Time.

“Fluky but productive,” was how the Brewers lineup was described in the Wisconsin State Journal, and Granderson excelled in that type of lineup. He came in to pinch hit in Game 3 of the NLDS against the Rockies in the second of two at-bats for the series, and so unnerved Rockies hurler Scott Oberg that he dropped the ball, causing a run-scoring balk.

Among a spiraling litany of NLCS narratives, Granderson’s personal thread in the media was about how the Dodgers had left him off their World Series roster the previous year, only for him to get the chance to knock them out of the playoffs this time around. Anyone who has seen Granderson’s trademark smile and positive attitude can, I am sure, picture him overcome with a thirst for vengeance, his back hunched and eyes black as he fully succumbed to revenge-fueled derangement, cackling madly into the recording devices of media day.

And Granderson did get some payback, if you ignore all of the circumstances surrounding his at-bat in Game 5: He robbed the Dodgers of a shut-out after Jesús Aguilar had reached on a two-out double and knocked him in to make it a 5-1 game in the ninth. Mike Moustakas then struck out to end it; the Brewers pushed the series to seven games and lost, and the story of Curtis Granderson in Milwaukee was over.

Granderson was young once, rushing through an airport with nothing between him and his wildest dreams except a big lake. But like all of us, he got older; his bones weakened, his muscles snapped, and at one point he nursed a broken knuckle. Power in baseball is one thing; it’s thrilling to see on display and its lifespan is typically short. Staying power is a much more formidable accomplishment, as life eats away at you and the game asks for more and more. His time in Milwaukee was but a blip of time in a career of on and off-field contributions. But whatever lineup he was in, Curtis Granderson was right where he was supposed to be.

Justin has contributed to FanGraphs and is a contributor to Baseball Prospectus. He is known in his family for jamming free hot dogs in his pockets during an off-season tour of Veterans Stadium and eating them on the car ride home.

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David Klein
4 years ago

Love Grandy what a class act and what a criminally underrated career as he finished up at over 45 wins above replacement. Grandy was meh in his first year as a Met, but was a monster in 2015 he was worth five wins and put up a wRC+ of 131 as the lead off hitter— he was that teams mvp. Grandy was a monster in the playoffs in 2015 but got overshadowed by Murph’s October. Grandy also was huge down the stretch in 2016 and made an unreal catch in the wild card game— one of the best free agent signings the Mets made.

J. T.
4 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

I forget how great he was for the Tigers…I remember him being a part of that crazy 2006 resurgence (4 WAR is great), but 7.9 WAR the next year? Sucks we moved on from him, though Austin Jackson was a good reason to at the time. If the ending of Grandy’s career could’ve been a bit better, maybe we’d be having the conversation of him being a fringy HOFer. I feel like he just missed the cut.

4 years ago
Reply to  David Klein

As a Mets fan, I hated when they signed him for 4 yrs/60 mill after 2013. I felt like it was an overpay for a guy on the downside of his career. I felt like his power wouldn’t translate outside of Yankees Stadium, and worst of all, I hated the fact that he was coming from the Yankees!

And his first year as a Met was pretty rough, 1.2 WAR, definitely looked like he had lost a step. Didn’t matter, still loved the guy. You simply could not hate Curtis Granderson. He was too good of a person, too good of a teammate, and you always felt like you were getting his best, no matter what happened.

Then of course, he had a great 2015, really solid 2016, and part of 2017 before the Mets traded him. All-time great guy, and I’m glad I got to watch him…