Contracts, Opinion Pieces, Teams, Uncategorized

Grandal’s Excellence Extends Beyond the Box Score

While the majority of the hype surrounding the 2019 free agent class has centered around Bryce Harper and Manny Machado, this class has several underrated players that could wind up being huge contributors to their new teams in 2018.

Over the next few weeks, I will provide a comprehensive breakdown of where I believe one under-the-radar player at each position will end up. I will not be writing the run-of-the-mill articles about superstars who are set to earn nine figures on the open market, but rather the “glue guys” who could take a team to the next level.

In my first article, I will take an in-depth look at where catcher Yasmani Grandal will end up next season.

Grandal’s Greatest Asset:

After yet another productive season as the Dodger’s catcher, Grandal will be the most sought-after free agent catcher this offseason. Grandal ranked just one point behind All-Star catcher J.T. Realmuto in WRC+, while maintaining his defensive excellence behind the dish. Unlike most catchers, his defensive prowess is not confined to throwing out would be base stealers or blocking every breaking ball in the dirt. Rather, it is the subtle artistry of pitch framing that separates him as one of the game’s elite backstops.

Over the past four seasons, Grandal has a higher RAA (Runs Above Average) through his framing than any other catcher in the game. If you aren’t familiar with RAA (and I am sure most people aren’t), it is a rather simple statistic. In essence, RAA is a measure of how many runs a catcher prevents by framing would-be balls in such a way that the umpire instead calls them strikes. The Cuban backstop has also received the most +”calls”, which in simpler terms, means he has turned more balls into strikes for his pitchers than any other catcher in the MLB.

Despite overwhelming evidence that pitch framing is a key component of run prevention, there is still a contingency of fans and coaches that are skeptical about its legitimacy. Unlike the more typical misguided old-timey baseball grouch who still determines player value by using batting average and RBIs, those who have their doubts about pitch framing have more sound arguments.

First, of all, this skill is often times lost due to its subtlety. When a casual fan watches a game and a pitch that veers outside of the K-zone graphic, they expect that pitch to be called a ball. When the umpire instead signals for a strike, the first instinct for the viewer is to insult the umpire. To be fair, they have a right to be frustrated because that pitch was indeed called correctly. However, what they are not asking is why that pitch was called a strike. In most cases, it has nothing to do with the optics of the umpire but instead results from the catcher savvily adjusting his glove positioning. If a pitcher throws a curveball low, the catcher reaches out and receives it in between the top of his knees. If the pitch is inside, instead of opening up the wrist and catching the ball outside the torso, the catcher will slide his elbow ever so slightly so it appears as if the location of the pitch wasn’t missed.

Let me be the first to tell you, I am not an expert at pitch framing, but I do watch enough baseball to be able to tell when an umpire is more inclined to call a ball even though the pitch was technically within the “K-zone”. At the end of the day, the catcher is making a presentation for the umpire that the umpire will then either agree or disagree with. When that presentation is inadequate, the accuracy of the pitch itself often times becomes irrelevant. Ever wonder why when baserunners take off for second base and the catcher stands up to ready for the throw before the pitch has arrived, it is almost always called a ball? Once the catcher stands up, the umpire loses his point of reference and is no longer capable of determining what is and what isn’t in the strike zone. When it comes to balls and strikes, the presentation is everything.

Even though framing has only really been around in earnest for at the most a decade plus, sabermetricians are finding it to be unbelievably valuable. By just taking one look at the WAR leaderboards on BaseballProspectus.com, the significance of effective pitch framing becomes apparent.

Using BWARP (Baseball Prospectus’ version of WAR that factors in additional variables such as pitch framing), Tyler Flowers was 8th in all of baseball. J.T. Realmuto and Yasmani Grandal were 23rd and 24th respectively. Now if ventured over to FanGraphs which does not include pitch framing in its calculations, Flowers goes from the 8th most valuable player in baseball, all the way down to 102nd, while Grandal ranks 98th, and Realmuto ranks 42nd.

All in all, there is a skill that has existed and has influenced hundreds of pitches per game since the mid-to-late 1880s, but instead of recognizing the advantage gained by skillfully employing it, we instead opt to scream at the umpires on our televisions as if their final determination was uninfluenced by trained masters at sleight of hand.

So for those who are not yet privy to framing statistics, I am about to introduce you to an aspect of the game that saves teams (or costs them) more runs per season that almost anything else that happens on a baseball field.

Let’s take a look at a few examples of how framing can help your pitcher escape jam at a critical juncture:

So while it is hard for some to wrap their head around the fact that elite pitch framers can produce anywhere from the 14.1 RAA that Jeff Mathis produced this year all the way to the 44 RAA Jose Molina posted in 2008, it would behoove these skeptics to start accepting that the nuances of winning a baseball game in 2018 extended far beyond having a high batting average and driving in runs.

Conceding that Molina’s gaudy pitch framing numbers were some of the greatest we have ever seen, the fact still remains that a +44 run contribution to a team can help save more runs than even the best offensive catchers could produce.

While the importance of pitch framing has become an integral part of becoming catching at the major league level, there are still guys out there who are so inept at stealing strikes for their pitchers, that even if they are well above average offensively, there is a high likelihood that they are still hurting their team.

While the strike zone graphic shows that this offering from James Sheilds was clearly a strike, the umpire disagreed. It is easy for fans to heckle and boo umpires when a what they perceive as a bad call goes against their team, but in cases like this, the umpires are vindicated by how poorly White Sox catcher Omar Narvaez presents this pitch.

Narvaez sets the intended location for the outside corner, so when Covey’s sinking fastball tails from the outer-middle to low and inside, it creates the illusion that the pitch was off the plate inside. When pitchers miss their spots it puts an extra burden on the umpire to keep the ball in the center of their body and hence make the pitch look presentable, generally making a sudden adjustment to do so. When an umpire sees that a catcher has to reposition his body to the other side of the plate, that pitch will naturally look like it is out of the strike zone. In situations like these, the pitcher has made his catcher’s job more difficult but framing pitches that miss their spots remains a tool that should be in every professional catcher’s toolbox.

When we look at the video again, we see that Narvez catches the ball, he is forced to flip his forearm in order to catch the ball cleanly. When a catcher’s glove hand opens up, it means he has received the ball outside of his frame, which is generally a tell-tale sign that the pitch was not a strike, to begin with. Lastly, Narvez allows the heaviness of Covey’s sinker to carry the momentum of his glove slightly downward and even further out of the zone. Anybody who has ever tried to play catcher knows that “sticking it” (keeping a firm glove hand upon receiving the ball) is rule number one when trying to make a pitch look presentable for an umpire.

While I am aware that was a long-winded explanation outlining the importance of framing, the analytics community holds these numbers in such high regard, that if I failed to mention Grandal’s unique prowess for framing pitches, I would be leaving out perhaps the most valuable aspect of his game. As a final aside, there have been discussions in recent years regarding the correlation between pitch framing and age, with some analysis showing that framing is a skill that can drop off quickly. While it is not out of the realm of possibility for a catcher’s framing statistics to drop off as they age, there is not enough data to refute that sentiment. After all, the best framing season of all time came from Jose Molina when he was 37 years old. While Grandal’s framing ability will be crucial for him and his agent Greg Genske to leverage into a lucrative offer, he also has been one of the best offensive catchers in the league over the past several years (albeit at times inconsistent).

Elite Offensive Catcher:

I know, I know, unless your name is J.T. Realmuto, Wilson Ramos, Buster Posey with access to a time machine, or Gary Sanchez circa August – September of 2016, calling any MLB catcher “elite” is a bit of an oxymoron in most cases. With that said, Grandal ranks only behind J.T. Realmuto, Buster Posey, and Gary Sanchez is wRC+ over the last four seasons. Of the catchers ahead of him, he has the best BB%, ISO, and has the second-best hard-hit rating, with Sanchez beating him out by less than one percent.

Rather than parsing individual attributes about Grandal’s game, using context-dependent metrics such as Win Percentage Added is probably a more accurate representation of his actual on-field production. Using WPA+, Grandal ranks 4th among all MLB catchers in the last five years, which is staggering when you consider his abysmal showings in high leverage situations.

With a clutch rating of -5.34, Grandal is not only last among all qualified catchers when it comes to clutch hitting, but his Clutch rank is also last in all of the MLB across the last five seasons,

Now obviously this is not an enviable statistic to have, but as most people who in tune with basic sabermetric thinking know, the “clutch gene” is not predictive. Does Grandal just completely forget how to hit in higher leverage situations, or it more likely that he has just so happened to record more outs when there is a higher leverage index.

Versatility:

While elite framing statistics and well-above-average offensive production are the main selling points for Grandal to enjoy a big payday this offseason, the Dodger’s backstop has some other subtle attributes that will help his future team win games. First off, Grandal is a switch-hitter, which becomes increasingly more valuable with every passing season as platoon-obsessed managers strive to create advantages in every at-bat possible (aloof to the drudging pace that these constant pitching changes cause). While some switch-hitters hit much better from one side of the plate, Grandal has a relatively even split (120 v/RHP, 106 v/LHP). There are far too many instances where managers are handicapped offensively by their catching situation because of their starter’s complete lack of ability to hit same-handed pitching, but with Grandal, that position becomes more or less matchup proof.

Not only can Grandal anchor a pitching staff and lead a defense from behind the plate, but he has also demonstrated the ability to play first base if the team needs him. In his seven-year career, he has manned first base close to forty times.  If Grandal finds himself over there again, it would likely spell trouble for his 2019 team, but just the fact alone that he can hold his own at a different position provides his next manager with just a bit more versatility to work with.

Concerns:

The largest factor that could drive Grandal’s price down is his age. At 30 years old, he has yet to show any significant signs of aging, but in an era where front offices place more emphasis on what a player will do as opposed to what he has done, there will teams that will stay away from Grandal for fears that a sharp decline is imminent. Furthermore, the snail’s pace of last offseason’s free agent market was any indication of what’s to come, then we should not be surprised if teams are reluctant to offer multi-year deals to players whose best years could possibly be behind them. While these shrewd tactics have spurred animosity from the MLBPA, the logic behind choosing young, inexpensive players as opposed to wasting payroll on more costly veterans is a rational strategy. For nearly every 30+-year-old free agent heading into this offseason, I would advise them to temper their expectations, given baseball’s current economic landscape.

Grandal’s pending free agency feels different to me because well, Grandal himself is different. As I outlined above, Grandal’s framing ability prevents runs better than perhaps any other catcher in the league and couples it with offensive production 80% of MLB catchers could never come close to.

Predicting Grandal’s Contract Using Recent Precedents:

In order for us to come up with an educated prediction on what Grandal will receive on the open market, we must first start with recent and analogous precedents to give ourselves a baseline. In order to define the criteria that would make these comparisons useful predictors for Grandal’s future market, we will evaluate performance on the field as well as the age a given player reached free agency. While these two factors are generally the most helpful when making a contract prediction, other factors like injury history and playing time considerations.

With a limited injury history, which is extremely rare for a catcher, and a near guarantee that he will be thrust into a starting role right away, those minor criteria that can sometimes influence a player’s decision-making process, will most likely not factor in for Grandal.

To find players whose situations were somewhat similar to Grandal’s as they entered the free agent market, I looked towards candidates that had roughly the same three year average for WAR as well as their age when they hit the open market.

All three of these players were between 29-31 when they entered free agency and posted between 8.2 WAR and 13.4 WAR across their pre-free agency seasons.

Here are the names that agents should be using templates for contract negotiations:

1. Jason Castro – 3 years, 24.5 million (2017) (8.5 WAR previous four seasons
2.83 WAR per season, 8.125 AAV = 2.87 million per win above replacement 

2. Russell Martin – 5 years, 82 million (2015) (13.4 WAR previous four seasons)
3.35 WAR / season, 16.4 AAV = 4.90 million per win above replacement

3. Francisco Cervelli – 3 years, 31 million (2016) (9.6 WAR previous four seasons).
2.4 WAR per season,  10.3 AAV = 4.3 million per Win Above Replacement

  1. Yan Gomes – 6 years, 23 million (2014) (8.2 WAR previous four seasons)
    2.05 WAR/season, 4.25 AAV = 1.95 million per Win Above Replacement

As you try to decipher the table above and derive meaning from it, I will put these four contracts in simpler terms. The most important piece of information that is left out of this calculation is the Fangraphs Value metric, which states that one win above replacement on the free market costs somewhere between 8.5-10 million dollars. However, after reviewing some of the more high profile catcher signings in recent years, we can see that the relatively cheap cost for catchers relative to other position players gives these free agent signees ample opportunity to exceed their projected value. Overall, the average years and dollars on these contract are 3.67 years 45.83 million. That basic guideline serves as a barometer for what Grandal could reasonably ask.

While the examples I used in order to predict Grandal’s contract are far from perfect as it fails to include some of the aforementioned positives attributes I discussed earlier such as pitch framing and versatility, his WAR figures stack up quite nicely with the other four guys. Grandal has averaged 2.83 WAR per season, which puts him right between Francisco Cervelli and Jason Castro in terms of WAR per season leading up to free agency.

At this point, I have written exhaustively about Grandal’s pitch framing prowess when some skeptics still claim that framing metrics remain volatile. While the skill of deceptively coercing an umpires ball and strike calls does seem like it could be subject to randomness, the fact that the same handful of catchers (Grandal, Maldonado, Hedges, Mathis, Leon) consistently rank towards the top of the leaderboard while their less adept counterparts finish towards the bottom year after year puts that argument claiming volatility to rest as far as I am concerned.  While the numbers alone say that Grandal should expect to make either the same or slightly more than what the aforementioned former free agents have made, his intangibles, veteran leadership, and postseason experience will fetch him a few more dollars when the time comes.

Final Contract Prediction:  3 years, 36 million dollar deal with a 10 million dollar club option for the fourth season.

Why Other Possible Suitors Will Not Fit:

Suitors: After perusing the current roster constructions and payroll flexibility of the six teams that I have deemed to be the most catcher-needy this offseason, it has become clear to me that many of these teams either don’t have to capital to shell out for Grandal or are more likely to find a more creative options in addressing their catching situations.

Twins:

With the emergence of Willians Castillo (the plump, human bowling ball that America fell in love with over the season’s final weeks) lead all MLB catchers in batting average, K%, and wRC+ since his call-up. In addition, an offensive surge by Mitch Garver (102 wRC+ in just 103 games), will be enough for the Twins to keep him around heading into 2018. With just Astudillo and Garver, the Twins have a competent catching corps, and that’s without even factoring opening day start Jason Castro, who will come back from injury sometime next season.

The Twins current options at catcher are far better than the more dire situations that most teams currently face, which is why I would find it puzzling for a club to expend their limited resources on a catcher that they don’t really need. I would advise the Twins to allocate their funds to improve their bullpen and the back end of their starting rotation.

Red Sox:
The Red Sox historic season did well to overshadow the fact that they were dead last when it comes to offensive production from their catchers. Red Sox backstops were worth -2.1 WAR this season and had a 44 wRC+ at the position, which ranks dead last in baseball across the past five seasons.

Sandy Leon and Christian Vasquez have performed adequately on the defensive side of the ball. According to StatCorner, Leon has been in the top five in terms of RAA and +calls. Vasquez, on the other hand, has received poorer ratings for his pitch framing ability, ranking 20th in the MLB in both RAA and +calls.

Ultimately, the Red Sox have enough firepower in their lineup to receive weak production out of their catchers as long as their backstops can continue to manage a pitching staff and play above average defense night in and night out.

All that being said, I would be surprised if the Red Sox spent their (limited) money on the offseason on a catcher when addressing their relief corps and backend of their starting rotation seems more pertinent for the time being. Putting the catcher market aside entirely, I would be surprised if the Red Sox made ant splashy free agent moves whatsoever as the club remains to flirt with the luxury tax.

Mets:
As delusional as the Mets front office is, I think even they realize that despite having a huge hole behind the plate, spending big on a player to only slightly improve their ballclub would be a fool’s errand as it would handicap their financial flexibility and restrict their ability to address the more glaring holes on their roster. With all that said, trying to predict Fred Wilpon’s next move is a futile exercise that will likely leave you bewildered.

With only 92 million on the books for the upcoming season (that is before we tack on increased arbitration figures), the Mets have an opportunity to make a splash in free agency. If they opt to do so, it should come in the form of signing multiple relief arms plus scooping up one of the many free agent first basemen who will once again be looking for work in a market still saturated with power-first, slow trodding, defensively inept corner infielders.

The current crops of Mets catchers include career backup Jose Lobaton, the oft-injured (and generally unproductive) Travis D’Arnaud, along with Kevin Plawecki and Tomas Nido. This assortment of Quad-A catchers collectively posted a 0.4 WAR as a group.

There is a need for catcher help in New York, but the front office should be seeking a more affordable stopgap at the position rather than putting all their eggs in one basket with Grandal.

Nationals:
I strongly considered writing about how the Nationals would be the landing spot for Grandal, but early in the offseason, it appeared that a Wilson Ramos reunion tour with the Nats would be much more likely. The Nationals have shown a clear interest in acquiring Ramos ever since he departed in free agency two seasons ago, despite struggling with an array of different injuries which limited him to just 111 games in 2018. The injury risk that Ramos carries will likely make him a much cheaper option than Grandal.

With the history between both sides, an increase in Washington’s financial flexibility due to the (potential) departure of Harper as well as the contract relief that trading Gio Gonzalez and Daniel Murphy provided, the Nats should have a decent chunk of change to play with this Winter. With absolutely abysmal play from their catchers last season, GM Mike Rizzo will surely be looking for ways to improve behind the plate. While J.T. Realmuto has been attached to the Nationals since early in the regular season, those talks stalled when the Marlins demanded either Robles or Soto in a return package. With the possibility of that trade way in the rearview, Ramos seems like the best option for a Nationals club that is trying their best to retool and stay competitive despite their rapidly closing title window.

Dodgers:
In many ways, Grandal is the ideal player for manager Dave Roberts. Not only can he switch hit, which neutralizes opposing managers when trying to implement platoon advantages, but he also possesses the ability to play first base if needed. For all that Yaz brings to the club, it wouldn’t make a ton of sense for the Dodgers to dump a heavy financial investment into an aging catcher, especially considering the wave of catching prospects they have waiting in the wings. The development of Austin Barnes all-around game has blossomed in the last year and a half as he shapes to be the everyday catcher one Grandal departs. On the heels of a breakout offensive season in 2017 when Barnes posted a league-high 142 wRC+ among catchers, his production dropped off significantly this season. Despite this unforeseen regression, Barnes has established himself as one of the premier defensive catchers in the league as well. Other than Grandal, Barnes is the only catcher in the MLB in the top five in +calls, RAA, and O-Strike% over the course of the last two seasons.

Barnes defensive ability makes him a more than adequate replacement for Grandal, but when we delve into the Dodgers farm system, there are a plethora of other options that could develop into Grandal’s eventual replacement. The Dodgers minor league pipeline is flooded with high-ceiling catching prospects, most notably, Keibert Ruiz. The prized backstop of the Dodgers farm ranks #34 on MLB.com’s Top 100 prospect list and will likely be suiting up in Dodger Blue as soon as 2020.

At just twenty years old, Ruiz has flown up prospect lists each of the past three seasons by showing off his plus-hit tool from both sides of the plate.

I would be remiss to not discuss the Dodgers second-ranked catching prospect, Will Smith. Although Smith does not possess nearly the same upside as Ruiz, he has an impressive all-around game and is currently closer to the big leagues just in the case the Dodgers need reinforcements.

Ultimately, it would behoove the Dodgers if they focused their spending on resigning/negotiating with Kershaw and aggressively pursuing any relief arms that they believe could fortify a bullpen that has been the club’ Achilles heel this season.

While the previous several paragraphs have laid out the case for why the teams that may appear to be suitors on the surface are the same teams stuck looking elsewhere this offseason when it comes time to fortify their respecting catching units.

Due to the fact that elite free agent catchers are so rare, the teams that miss out on either Grandal or Ramos are likely to be left scouring the catching market for career backup types such as Drew Butera, Nick Hundley, and Devin Mesorazo. Now having considered all the obstacles these teams will have in signing Yasmani Grandal, let’s look at the team that I feel is the best fit for Yasmani Grandal: the Atlanta Braves.

Why the Braves are the Perfect Fit for Grandal:

Over the past two seasons, the Braves catching tandem of Tyler Flowers and Kurt Suzuki has quietly been one of the best catching duos in recent memory. Since the start of the 2017 season, only the Dodgers rank ahead of the Flowers / Suzuki duo in terms of WAR, wRC+, and OPS, while still maintaining elite framing metrics.

Unfortunately, Suzuki is planning on testing the waters of free agency this season and considering his production over the past two seasons in Atlanta, I have no doubt that he will receive plenty of opportunities to become the primary catcher for some catcher-needy team.

With Suzuki gone, Tyler Flowers will be forced into a more regular role, which is not ideal considering his extreme platoon splits. Throughout his career, Flowers has posted just an 89 wrC+ v/ RHP compared to 109 v/ RHP. This split doesn’t seem as extreme when taking into account his whole career, but the numbers illustrate that over time Flowers splits have become even more lopsided in recent years. This past season, Flowers had a 204 wRC+ v/ LHP, but just a 49 wRC+ v/ RHP.

Now it is a completely valid argument to blame his extreme platoon splits on his lack of exposure to RHPs since he has been thrust into a platoon role, but whatever the case, it is clear that the Braves will need to find a platoon partner to couple with Flowers next season. With a clear organizational belief in the statistical advantage gained by pitch framing, it would make sense for the Braves to bring in a guy like Grandal, who consistently is ranked alongside Flowers as the best pitch framer in the league (for context, Suzuki ranked 4th to last in Pitch Framing RAA and cost the Braves -17.3 runs over the course of the year. By bringing in Grandal, Braves pitchers would find comfort in the fact that they whichever catcher they are working with that day, they will get a few extra borderline strike calls.

                                                 Financial Considerations:

With an extremely talented young core and plenty of payroll flexibility, we can expect Braves to be scouring the free agent market in search of players that can hopefully fill weak spots in their lineup. As it currently stands, the Braves have just 59.2 million committed to players for the upcoming season. Of course, this figure does not include the arbitration raises that many Braves players will receive as the season approaches.

Estimated Arbitration Raises:        

Arb Eligible Players 2017 Salaries: 2018 Estimated Salaries: Cost to the Payroll:
Mike Foltynewicz 2.7 million 5.5 million +2.8 million
Arodys Vizcaino 3.7 million 4.8 million +1.1 million
Adam Duvall** 645,000 3.1 million +2.455 million
Dan Winkler 800,000 1.6 million +800,000
Charlie Culberson 575,000 1.4 million +825,000
Jonny Venters 545,000 1.5 million +995,000
Sam Freeman 1.075 million 1.5 million +425,000
Jose A. Ramirez 550,000 700,000 150,000
Totals: 9.59 million 20.1 million 10.51 million

Assuming that these estimates are mostly accurate, the Braves will put on another 10.51 million dollars to their current payroll of 59.2 million. Heading into the 2019 season, the Braves will be operating with a slim payroll of just 69.7 million dollars. If we add Grandal’s contract to that total (speculating that he will make somewhere in the range of 10-12 million dollars across three or four years), the Braves payroll would increase to somewhere in the low 80 million.

This still leaves the club with roughly 50 million dollars less than the 130 million dollar Opening Day payroll they opened with last season. Fortunately, the Braves do not have many holes to fill by overpaying for free agents either. The only regular starter that is set to become an unrestricted free agent is All-Star Nick Markakis.

Barring a drastic overhaul from one of the NL East teams this offseason, the Braves youth and financial flexibility make them the prohibitive favorites to once again take home the NL East Crown.

 

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About Traven Tapson

I am a recent graduate from Claremont McKenna College pursuing a career in baseball operations for an MLB team. I am fascinated by the analytical side of baseball and use this blog as a platform to share my insights and knowledge with those who share my curiosities.
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