When the Dodgers traded Matt Kemp’s decline years for Yasmani Grandal’s prime years, some were a bit mystified but those more acute observers were salivating. Grandal woud fill a position of need, Kemp’s contract was off the books (sort of), he was known as an outstanding pitch framer where incumbent A.J. Ellis was not, and while not destined to hit for a high average, his power and plate discipline seemed to have him on the verge of a breakout phase at the plate.
Much of that came true in 2015, as Grandal posted an outstanding slash of .234/.353/.403. His 115 wRC+ that season was tied for third best in the majors for catchers. Unfortunately, injuries, inglorious bastards that they are, cut his splendid season short and then hampered him into the start of this season. What we’ve been left with is the shell of an All-Star catcher, and along with season-long slumps of Puig, Turner, Adrian Gonzalez in Dodger Stadium, and others, his struggles in the batter’s box have sunk the Dodgers in the NL West standings.
Grandal was slashing .186/.307/.343 coming into last night’s game. Perhaps most disturbing upon first glance was that along with the sunken batting average, his on-base percentage dropped as well. I was concerned that the plate discipline problems that have plagued Yasiel Puig had sunk their teeth into Yasmani.
Fortunately, that hasn’t been the case. His BB% this year is 15.1, essentially the same as last year, and he’s actually shown better judgment at the plate. His outside-the-zone swing percentage is 17.4% this year, down from the 23% mark he posted last year and overall for his career. He’s making the same amount of contact while swinging significantly less.
No, it’s the type of contact he’s now making, not the amount. Essentially, he’s become a pull-happy groundball hitter, and that’s a problem when your spikes are filled with concrete and you are facing a shift every at bat. Grandal is pulling 44.2% of batted balls, up from 37.1% last season. He’s also got a fly ball rate of 31%, down from 37% last year. That makes for a slew of rolled-over groundballs that send Dodger fans scurrying to the concession stand as he dutifully plods his way down the line and then back to the dugout.
One thing Grandal does share with Puig is that pitchers have been throwing him more sliders, also known as Dodger Kryptonite. 13.2% of his pitchers are sliders this year, up from 10.6%. Bottom line is that sliders that don’t hang are simply impossible to elevate, so the best course of action is to lay off them so as to see less of them.
Nothing about hitting at the major league level is simple, so beware of anybody who tells you X Player “just” needs to do Y to solve all his problems. However, this seems like at least a good place to start for Grandal. To elevate more pitches, you need more elevated pitches, and to get those, you’ve got to convince pitchers that you’re not going to offer at non-elevated pitching. Also, clubbing some unintentionally elevated pitches into the pavilions and bleachers around the National League would probably be really helpful.
When you break down the Dodgers and Giants position by position, it’s pretty clear where Los Angeles is falling short. Before Hunter Pence has injured, he was producing at a clip comparable to Bryce Harper. Puig, on the other hand, was producing like a blindfolded man wielding a wet newspaper. Buster Posey is a Hall of Fame Catcher in his prime, and he’s playing like it. Grandal doesn’t have to match Posey for the Dodgers to win, but he can’t spend the season hitting like Bob Uecker either.
There’s still a ton of season remaining, and if Grandal is healthy, one would have to expect his season to turn around soon. That’s probably the best and most realistic bet for the Dodgers, who don’t enjoy much trade flexibility on the 25 or 40-man rosters thanks to their reluctance to part with top-shelf prospects (a policy we all should endorse, especially if you’ve seen Urias’ last two starts).
No, the goal, as Bono, says, is elevation. Induce some elevated pitches, and smash ‘em. It’s not easy, but easy is not what Grandal or the Dodgers signed up for in 2016.