It would take some doing to have a more difficult postseason on either side of the ball, particularly at a pivotal time in one’s career, than Yasmani Grandal has had. As the Dodgers’ starting catcher during the regular season, the switch-hitting 29-year-old (who turns 30 on November 8) hit for power, showed typically excellent plate discipline, and stood out as one of the game’s best pitch-framers. Alas, he’s looked hapless this month, and between some bad breaks defensively and a deepening offensive slump, he’s lost his starting job for the second straight postseason. As a pending free agent, he could be headed for a rough winter, though he should get at least another shot to help the Dodgers overcome their two-games-to-none deficit in the World Series.
In his seventh season in the majors and fourth with the Dodgers, Grandal hit a solid .241/.349/.466 with 24 homers for a 125 wRC+. The last mark was the best of his career as a regular (he posted a 144 wRC+ in 226 PA as a rookie in 2012) and one point shy of the Marlins’ J.T. Realmuto, who was the the majors’ best among catchers. Admittedly, his season was streaky. Here’s how it looked by month, straight from our splits:
Holy fluctuating BABIPs! I haven’t shown his ISOs (SLG – AVG), but you can do the mental math; he swung from two straight months in the .160s to a July with a .364 ISO. About the only thing he did with consistency was knock the ball out of the park. He even had a month (June) where he drew just four walks. On a rolling average basis, however, Grandal wasn’t much streaker than he’d been in 2017, when he hit .247/.308/.459 for a more modest 102 wRC+. Here are his last three seasons by 15-game rolling wOBA (15-game Rolling wOBA is also the name of my new band):
That’s a bit of a rollercoaster ride, but not one that’s especially more dramatic than that of the similarly offensively productive Realmuto, who had a 107 wRC+ in 2017 and a 111 mark (to Grandal’s 116) in 2016:
Realmuto had just one calendar month in 2018 with a wRC+ lower than 100 (79 in August), but he also had a drastic first half/second half split (147 before the All-Star break, 99 after) whereas Grandal was somehow Mr. Consistency in that regard (124 and 126). Go figure.
By our version of catcher defense, which does not include pitch framing, Grandal was nine runs above average en route to 3.6 WAR, second among all catchers behind Realmuto’s 4.8. By Defensive Runs Saved, he ranked ninth out of 47 qualifiers with nine runs above average, including 10 above average in terms of framing (rSZ). By Baseball Prospectus’ numbers, he was an MLB-high 15.7 above average in framing and 17.7 runs above average overall, second to Jeff Mathis‘ 18.2. By BP’s other components of catcher defense, he was 0.8 runs above average in pitch blocking (preventing passed balls and wild pitches), ranking 22nd out of 82 catchers with at least 1,000 framing chances. (For reference, the top-to-bottom spread there was just 8.2 runs.) He was 0.1 runs above average in terms of throwing out baserunners, which either ranked 30th (as displayed on the page) or was in a 21-way virtual tie for 15th (there’s no second decimal place shown) in a category where the top-to-bottom spread is all of 1.9 runs.
By BP’s numbers, Grandal’s 2018 defense was his worst season out of his past four in total but just the second in that span in which he was average or better in framing, blocking, and throwing in the same season:
|Year||Framing Chances||Framing Runs||Blocking Runs||Throwing Runs||FRAA|
In other words, there were no particular red flags about his defense heading into the postseason. And yet in the small-sample spotlight, he had a nightmarish NLCS against the Brewers, after a relatively quiet Division Series in which he caught every inning against the Braves without either a wild pitch or a passed ball, and threw out the only stolen base attempt against him.
The ball didn’t get far but it was enough to advance Cain, whom Kershaw eventually stranded. Two innings later, with one out, men on first and second and Jesus Aguilar at the plate, another Kershaw slider squirted past him, with both runners advancing.
Two pitches later, Aguilar hit a screaming liner that first baseman David Freese dove and caught, but home plate umpire Scott Barry ruled that Grandal had interfered with his swing, and Freese was awarded first base. Cain then scored on an Hernan Perez fly ball, which would have been an inning-ender had Aguilar’s lineout been allowed to stand; the throw home from center fielder Cody Bellinger clanked off Grandal’s glove, allowing both runners to advance and costing the catcher his second error of the inning (the catcher’s interference having been the first).
Thus Grandal became the first catcher in postseason history to complete the trifecta of an error, an interference, and a passed ball in a single inning. Though Kershaw limited the damage in those two innings to a pair of runs, they loomed large in what became a 6-5 loss.
Backup Austin Barnes caught Game 2, but Grandal returned to catch Walker Buehler in Game 3. With the Dodgers trailing 1-0 and Travis Shaw having smacked a two-out triple, the 24-year-old righty bounced a knuckle curve on the plate that Grandal couldn’t come up with, as Shaw scored.
Grandal has caught just eight innings since; two apiece in NLCS Games 4 and 6, with the balance coming in the two World Series games after entering as a pinch-hitter. In that limited time, he’s been party to another couple of wild pitches. In the seventh inning of Game 6, he caught Kenta Maeda with the Dodgers down 5-2. When the Brewers put runners on second and third with two outs, the lead became 6-2 after Maeda bounced a slider near the front left-hand corner of the plate that ricocheted away from Grandal. Aguilar scored and Mike Moustakas took third. In Game 2 of the World Series, with the Dodgers down 4-2, Grandal blocked a Scott Alexander slider in the right-hand batter’s box; Mookie Betts, who was on second, sped to third but didn’t score.
All told, that’s three passed balls, three wild pitches, a catcher’s interference and an error catching a throw on Grandal’s watch. By the Win Probability Added calculations in our play logs, the eight plays add up to -0.245 WPA for the Dodgers’. About half of that came on wild pitches (0.107 on Shaw scoring, 0.026 on Aguilar scoring, 0.003 on Betts advancing) — plays where that the official scorer judged Grandal not to be the primary culprit — but that’s still gonna leave a mark.
Meanwhile, Grandal has hit .120/.241/.280 in 29 plate appearances, with four walks and 12 strikeouts; two of his three hits have gone for extra bases. After striking out three times in four PAs in Game 1 of the NLDS, he homered off Anibal Sanchez in Game 2, walked three times in four plate appearances in Game 3 (he was batting eighth) and went 0-for-5 with two strikeouts in Game 4. He went 1-for-4 with two strikeouts in Game 1 of the NLCS, his defensive game from hell, grounded into a bases-loaded double play as a pinch-hitter in Game 2, and went 1-for-4 with a fifth-inning double (off Jhoulys Chacin) and three strikeouts in Game 3, the last with one out and the bases loaded in the ninth. In his four subsequent pinch-hitting appearances, he’s 0-for-3 with a walk, which was drawn off Ryan Brasier to load the bases in the seventh inning of Game 1 of the World Series.
All told, Grandal has the sixth-lowest WPA of the postseason from an offensive standpoint, though he doesn’t even have the lowest mark on his team:
Meanwhile, Barnes is just 2-for-22 with -0.121 WPA int he postseason, that after hitting a disappointing .205/.329/.290 (77 wRC+) in 238 PA, down from .289/.408/.486 (142 wRC+) lasts year. A good framer (8.3 runs above average) and blocker (1.0 runs) but subpar thrower (-0.2 runs) according to BP’s metrics, he’s thrown out two out of five runners attempting to steal, but was unable to stop the changeup that Ryan Madson bounced in front of the plate on his first pitch upon entering the World Series opener, with both runners advancing and later scoring.
Grandal started 110 games behind the plate in 2018 and 113 in 2017, but this is the second straight October that he’s taken a back seat in the postseason. Last year, he went into a tailspin over the final two months of the season while understandably distracted by his wife’s high-risk pregnancy that culminated with the birth of his son on the eve of the World Series; Grandal traveled back and forth to his wife in Arizona on off days, sometimes making five-hour drives on back-to-back days. He started just twice in the postseason, going 0-for-8 with three walks while Barnes made 13 starts and hit .217/.288/.326 in 52 PA. Grandal now owns a dismal .099/.256/.197 line in 87 postseason plate appearances, all with the Dodgers. Among players with at least 75 postseason PA since 1969, only one has a lower batting average (Dan Wilson at .091) and only two have a lower slugging percentage (Wilson at .102 and Mike Bordick at .174).
As reported by the Orange County Register’s Bill Plunkett, Grandal credited the Brewers for holding him in check but blamed himself for “a horrendous job by continuing to not make an adjustment” at the plate. As for the defense, he struggled to accept the notion that he’s in some kind of slump:
“How much control do I have on a ball that hits the dirt? That’s the best way I can put it. … How many guys did I throw out during the two series? If you’re strictly basing a defensive slump off of three blocks that could have gone either way, three blocks that I talked to three, four other catchers about and they’ve all told me the same thing – if you go off of those three, then I guess you can say I’m in a slump.”
The catcher did say that after reviewing video of Game 1, he was too “flat-footed” in his setup, which affected his positioning in blocking a ball, but that he had fixed that issue. In his view, the bounces just haven’t gone his way:
“You’ve got one of the best defensive catchers in the game in [Gold Glove winner] Martin Maldonado and he’s blocking balls where they hit him dead on, the way it should be hitting, and the balls going other places. You’ve got [Brewers catcher] Erik Kratz, same thing in L.A. Ball hits him perfectly and it goes somewhere else. There’s nothing you can control as soon as that ball hits the dirt.”
Before Game 1 of the World Series, manager Dave Roberts said he anticipated starting Grandal at some point and was looking for the right matchup. With Barnes not hitting and with righty Rick Porcello on the mound, Game 3 would be a good spot. Grandal has been considerably stronger while batting from the left side of the plate, with a 120 wRC+ over the past three seasons and a 131 mark this year; he’s at 103 for 2016-2018 and 106 for this year from the right side. Via Statcast, he had a .447 wOBA against fastballs from righties this year, .365 for those 95 mph or faster (relevant for a potential Nathan Eovaldi start in Game 4).
As to what lies beyond this World Series, the assumption is that Grandal won’t be back in L.A., given that the Dodgers have, according to our own Kiley McDaniel, “two of the top three catching prospects in the game waiting in the upper levels” in Keibert Ruiz and Will Smith. They may need a stopgap to pair with Barnes in 2019, but don’t seem likely to make a multiyear commitment to Grandal, who will share top billing among the free agent catchers with Wilson Ramos.
Ramos has been slightly better hitter over the past three seasons (120 wRC+ to Grandal’s 116), albeit in about 300 fewer PA, but not nearly in Grandal’s class as a defender (79 runs above average to 6 via BP’s metrics, 39 to -11 via DRS). While the industry consensus is that Grandal may have cost himself money with his play this October, he’s 15 months younger and more durable than Ramos. He’s averaged 128 games per year to Ramos’ 104 over the past five seasons, and has had one knee surgery (2013) to Ramos’ two (2012 and 2016) — though he did also have A/C joint surgery in 2015.
We’ll have more to say on those two free agents — and all the others — after the World Series, of course. For now, we’ll see if Grandal can do anything to reverse the course of a very rough October.
Brooklyn-based Jay Jaffe is a senior writer for FanGraphs, the author of The Cooperstown Casebook (Thomas Dunne Books, 2017) and the creator of the JAWS (Jaffe WAR Score) metric for Hall of Fame analysis. He founded the Futility Infielder website (2001), was a columnist for Baseball Prospectus (2005-2012) and a contributing writer for Sports Illustrated (2012-2018). He has been a recurring guest on MLB Network and a member of the BBWAA since 2011. Follow him on Twitter @jay_jaffe.