The White Sox signed Yasmani Grandal to a contract of four years and $73 million today. The combination of team and timing sounds suspicious, like an auto-generated headline from a video game. But it’s very real. In fact, I’m struggling to decide which of the player, team, and timing merits the most explanation. So let’s cover all three!
Yasmani Grandal might be the best catcher in baseball. I don’t mean this in some hyperbolic way, like when people say “James Paxton might be the best pitcher in baseball when he’s on” or “Lance Lynn might be the best pitcher in baseball as long as you mainly care about sweat.” I mean that Yasmani Grandal might be the best catcher in baseball. He finished second behind J.T. Realmuto in WAR last year, on the back of his typical great defense and on-base skills.
But Grandal’s defensive value is a complicated issue. That prowess I’m referring to is due to his peerless framing skills. He’s one of the best, year in and year out, at presenting pitches to umpires and making sure those in the zone are called as such while expanding the edges to flip counts in his team’s favor.
Turning balls into strikes is tremendously valuable. It’s also hard to measure precisely, and it’s becoming less and less stable over time. The top 10 catchers in framing runs above average per pitch in 2017 lost 37% of their value above average in 2018. The top 10 catchers in 2018 lost 60% of their value above average in 2019. Being great at framing one year says less than you’d think about next year.
And the number of great framing seasons continues to decline. In 2009, eight catchers were worth more than 10 framing runs, some of them in part-time roles. In 2019 there were four, and none caught fewer innings than Tyler Flowers’ 679. Austin Hedges accrued 20.7 framing runs above average to lead the league, and that total was only the 20th-best framing season since 2009. It’s not a one-year thing, either; Max Stassi led the majors with 15.3 framing runs above average in 2018. As more and more teams focus on receiving, the skill gets less stable, and standing out gets ever harder.
When it comes to the rest of his defensive game, Grandal is more of a mixed bag. He’s about average as a blocker, his playoff misadventures aside. He’s passable, but not great, at controlling the running game. In short, if you think he’ll continue delivering framing value, he’s one of the best defensive catchers in the game; if you don’t, he’s just okay back there.
His offense is far less debatable. He’s always walked a lot, to the tune of a 13.9% career rate, but he kicked that into overdrive in 2019, walking 17.2% of the time with only 22% strikeouts. That creates a tremendous floor – he could produce 15% below league-average results on contact and still be an average hitter.
But he’s not below average on contact. He hits for power from both sides of the plate, with 18% HR/FB numbers as a righty and lefty despite playing the majority of his career in homer-suppressing San Diego and Los Angeles. He taps into that by putting the ball in the air, a valuable skill for a slow-footed and shiftable hitter.
The total package is everything you could hope for in a catcher. Steamer projects him for a 115 wRC+ in 2020, just below his career average. He’s 31, and catching takes a toll on the body, but even if his production dips in the coming years, he’s far above the baseline at the offense-challenged position.
In the last five years, 26 catchers have recorded seasons with a wRC+ of 110 or higher and 400 or more plate appearances. Grandal has four of those. Even in 2017, when he walked only 8.3% of the time and struck out 27% of the time, career worsts for both figures, he was an above-average hitter. The overall catcher batting line in 2019 worked out to an 85 wRC+. There’s basically no way he won’t blow that number out of the water.
The point is, the White Sox are getting a star catcher. He’s one of the two or three best hitting catchers in baseball, and somewhere between average and elite on defense, depending on how you regress his framing numbers. Parse the figures all you want — the conclusion is the same. Grandal is going to be one of the best handful of catchers in the league, and he’s doing it on a reasonable contract. It’s hard not to like the signing for any team, even if you don’t quite buy his defensive value.
But the White Sox are a particularly interesting destination. For one thing, they already have a catcher. James McCann had a career year in 2019, riding a .359 BABIP to a 109 wRC+ and an All Star berth. It’s not hard to imagine regression — catchers and high BABIP don’t usually go hand in hand, and his previous best season was a .253/.318/.415 2017 that was worth 0.7 WAR. But he was one of Chicago’s better players last year, fluke or not, and teams in their position don’t generally block productive players.
Here, again, Grandal is so good that he provides an answer. Worried about blocking McCann? Grandal can slide to first base on Jose Abreu’s day off, or play DH when necessary. He logged 143 innings at first with the Brewers in 2019, and while UZR didn’t like his play there, it’s in a vanishingly small sample. His glove is so good that he shouldn’t move off catcher — but his bat is so good that he’s still valuable at other positions.
McCann aside, signing Grandal is an intriguing move for the White Sox. His $73 million contract is the largest in team history, which says a lot about how rarely they’ve dipped into the free agent market in recent years. The young core of the team, which looked disappointing a year ago, arrived in droves in 2019, and they look to be even better in 2020.
Yoán Moncada, acquired as part of the Chris Sale trade, was the team’s best player in 2019, and he deserved more MVP consideration than the single 10th-place vote he received. Lucas Giolito had a 5.1 WAR season, which boosts his career WAR to 4.8. His retooled delivery and devastating fastball look like locks to top the rotation for years to come.
The hits don’t stop there. Tim Anderson led the AL in batting average and hit for a bit of power, though he looks like a prime regression candidate (2.9% walk rate and 21% strikeout rate, oof!). Abreu was roughly a league-average player (though he deserved less MVP consideration than he received), and he’ll be back in 2020 after accepting a qualifying offer. Eloy Jiménez scuffled at times, but the overall line played and he absolutely raked in the minors in 2018. He also faked outfield defense credibly enough that the team should feel comfortable keeping him in left next year.
The farm system has reinforcements coming up to bolster the roster. With Moncada now playing third, the path is clear for Nick Madrigal and his 3% strikeout rate to play second base. Luis Robert looks ready as well — Steamer projects him for a 110 wRC+ in the majors next year despite no experience at the level. Michael Kopech is a wild card, having missed all of 2019 recovering from Tommy John surgery, but his explosive fastball and lights-out slider would look right at home near the top of a rotation. Dylan Cease is somewhere in between a prospect and an established piece, but he looked intriguing, if inconsistent, in his 2019 debut.
In short, the White Sox are awash in promising, cost-controlled players. That gives them the financial flexibility to address holes in the roster, and while catcher wasn’t the most immediately pressing spot, Grandal is so good that he might represent the biggest upgrade available short of signing Gerrit Cole or Stephen Strasburg. The team shouldn’t declare mission accomplished just yet this offseason — they could badly use an outfielder or two to pair with Jiménez and Robert, and plenty of pitching help — but with one preeemptive strike, they’ve declared their entry into a very winnable 2020 AL Central race.
That preemptive strike is interesting in itself. Last year cemented a new normal for free agency, where the stars at the top of the free agent market waited until deep into the offseason to sign contracts. By this point last year, no one notable had signed aside from qualifying offers. Josh Donaldson signed a pillow contract in late November, Patrick Corbin went to the Nationals in early December, and Michael Brantley signed with the Astros just before Christmas, but for the most part, January was the time for deals.
This year, we’ve already seen a flurry of action. The Braves have already raided the relief pitcher cookie jar, and with the White Sox entering the fray, the 2020 market feels far healthier than last year’s. This isn’t to say that all the problems with free agency have gone away — Grandal’s deal, while higher than both Kiley’s and the crowd’s projections, seems like a bargain for the White Sox — but things feel, for lack of a better way to describe it, normal again.
This is a lot of words for a team that won 72 games last year. And they’ll need to follow up on this signing with pitching and outfield help if they want to seriously contend for the playoffs in 2020. But this feels, to me, like a declaration of intent. The White Sox have future stars across their roster and room to spend. Before their recent retrenching, they generally spent around the MLB average on payroll, which leaves them plenty of room to add from here.
Acquiring Grandal was a great start. The White Sox got the best catcher on the market at a reasonable rate, and even if they don’t contend in 2020, they got him for four years. Grandal got the average annual value he wanted last year. Baseball fans got a signing that filled a dead period in the schedule but also wasn’t on Thanksgiving, which would be inconvenient at best for fans and writers. Everyone is a winner in this deal.
Ben is a contributor to FanGraphs. A lifelong Cardinals fan, he got his start writing for Viva El Birdos. He can be found on Twitter @_Ben_Clemens.