The Value Steal of the Off-Season- Evan Mullings
It’s hard to believe that we’re just under a week away from hitting our eighth consecutive month without Major League Baseball. As the days get longer and the weather gets warmer, I can’t stop myself from thinking about how the 2020 season will play out. Several teams across the league made eyepopping signings or deals to improve their clubs. The New York Yankees signed free agent right-hander Gerrit Cole to a 9-Year/$324M contract. Cole’s deal breaks the average annual value record and he becomes the first pitcher in MLB history to receive over $300 million. The Los Angeles Angels made a splash by signing free agent 3B Anthony Rendon to a 7-Year/$245M contact. Rendon is an appealing name, especially coming off of a World Series victory and a postseason that saw him hit .328 with an OPS over 1. The Gerrit Cole deal will almost certainly be the most impactful, especially if the Yankees can win a World Series. However, sometimes it’s easy to look over a smaller deal that might be considered the most valuable.
Back in late November the Chicago White Sox agreed to a 4-Year/$73M deal with catcher Yasmani Grandal. Grandal is coming off the best season of his career with the Brewers in 2019. He hit .246 with 28 HR and 77 RBI and if you exclude 226 plate appearances during his rookie season in San Diego, he set new career highs in runs, hits, homeruns, runs batted in, walks, OBP, and OPS. It was easy for Grandal to slide under the radar in the Milwaukee lineup that featured Christian Yelich, Mike Moustakas, Ryan Braun, Lorenzo Cain, and standout infielder Keston Hiura.
It’s incredibly difficult to find a true definition for the word value. In 2009, Colin Wyers wrote in the Hardball Times that a player’s value is “his contributions to his team based upon his on-field performance (hitting, running, fielding and pitching) in a neutral context.” Looking at what Grandal contributed to the Brewers a year ago, he fits this definition. His value inflates even higher because of the position he plays. It’s no secret that the catcher position can be considered the scarcest across baseball. The visual above not only shows the relationship between homeruns and slugging percentage amongst projected starting catchers in 2020, but also the distinction between the average and elite MLB catcher. Only 8 different catchers hit 20 or more homeruns last year which converts to roughly 27% of projected starters in 2020. To put that into perspective 23 different first basemen, 22 third basemen, 11 shortstops, and 10 second basemen hit 20 or more homeruns in 2019. Gary Sanchez, Mitch Garver, Yasmani Grandal, and J.T. Realmuto were the only catchers to hit 25 or more home runs. Meanwhile, 50% of projected 2020 starters hit less than 15 homeruns.
Matt Snyder of CBS Sports argues that on-base percentage is the best offensive metric because it “measures the amount of times a player doesn’t make an out.” Grandal recorded a stunning .380 on-base percentage last season which set a new career high. He had a .394 OBP in his rookie season with the Padres but only registered 192 at bats. Last year he set new career highs in plate appearances (632) and at-bats (512). In 2019, he had the 18th highest on-base percentage in baseball which ranked ahead of Nolan Arenado, Bryce Harper, Ronald Acuna Jr., Jose Altuve, and Pete Alonso. He finished only .011% behind former AL MVP Mookie Betts and .003% behind Red Sox star J.D Martinez. His ability to reach base has a lot to do with developing plate discipline and exercising patience at the dish. He placed 4th in the league in walks a short year ago only behind Alex Bregman, Rhys Hoskins, and AL MVP Mike Trout. What is perhaps more impressive is that over the last three seasons his walk total has increased dramatically from 40 in 2017 to 72 in 2018 and now 109 in 2019. It’s a safe bet to expect him to record 90-100 base on balls in 2020.
Another important metric for league executives and scouts is wins above replacement because it sums up a players total contribution to his team. MLB.com defines it as “a player's value in all facets of the game by deciphering how many more wins he's worth than a replacement-level player at his same position (e.g., a Minor League replacement or a readily available fill-in free agent). If you look strictly at what Grandal did on the offensive side of the game, his oWAR (3.8) ranks second amongst catchers behind only Twins star Mitch Garver (4). His defense is below average which drops his overall WAR to 2.4 which ranks ninth amongst 2020 projected starting catchers. However, he makes up for his lack of mobility behind the dish with the ability to frame pitches exceptionally.
CBS Sports baseball writer Dayn Perry and Trent Rosecrans of the Athletic agree that OPS+ is the best offensive statistic to analyze when it comes to assessing a player’s abilities. Rosecrans likes OPS+ because it “incorporates many different things – getting on base and slugging, while also putting those performances into the context of a time (the season) and place (ballparks). Perry says OPS+ is a “clear upgrade over traditional measures and unlike oWAR, it’s not quite as off-putting to the uninitiated.” Grandal had an OPS+ of 119 last season which ranked fifth among catchers who played full seasons. Grandal’s OPS+ equaled to that of New York Yankees catcher Gary Sanchez and was 11 points higher than J.T. Realmuto who most consider to be the best catcher in the game. The graphic to the left combines both OPS and OPS+ into a scatter chart which illustrates the correlation between the two metrics. Grandal ranks just behind Mitch Garver, Willson Contreras, and Tom Murphy amongst 2020 projected starting catchers.
In 2018, MLB.com did a story on how Grandal’s biggest edge among free agent catchers is his pitch framing. In the article author David Adler referenced Statcast tracking which showed that from 2015-2018 “those who averaged 1,000 borderline pitches, Grandal’s called-strike rate is second-best.” In addition, Fangraphs ranked Grandal the best framer in 2018 based off of three different metrics. There’s no doubt that he’ll contribute positively to the ongoing development of young White Sox pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Michael Kopech, and Carlos Rodon.
It's safe to say that the White Sox made a fantastic decision investing in Yasmani Grandal for the next four years. It will be interesting to see how 2020 plays out for the 31-year-old catcher. However, I do know, he has much less pressure on him in comparison to Gerrit Cole, Anthony Rendon, and Madison Bumgarner among others. Grandal should be considered the steal of the offseason and the best value signing of the winter.
- Evan Mullings, UNH '23