The best free agent no one is talking about
Grandal's two-way ability stands out among modern backstops
Being a catcher in today’s game is probably harder than it’s ever been. Today’s backstops work with more pitchers. Their framing is scrutinized pitch by pitch. And the pitches they receive have more velocity and movement than even 10 or 20 years ago.
That’s why Yasmani Grandal -- a two-way catcher who hasn’t sacrificed offense for defense, or vice versa -- really sticks out. The eight-year veteran gambled on himself last offseason by turning down the security of the Mets’ four-year, $60 million offer, and choosing instead to maintain the ceiling of his annual average value by signing a one-year, $18.25 million contract with the Brewers.
It worked. Grandal might not be one of the first names you’d put on your National League MVP Award ballot, but don’t be shocked when you see him receive down-ballot votes next month. He finished with 5.2 FanGraphs WAR, 19th among all position players (second among catchers behind J.T. Realmuto), and right in line with the 5 WAR he averaged over his prior four years with the Dodgers. Now Grandal, who turns 31 in November, re-enters the free-agent market free of qualifying-offer constraints and primed for a multi-year contract.
Brewers general manager David Stearns stated the obvious after the club’s NL Wild Card Game loss to the Nationals: He’d love to bring both Grandal and Mike Moustakas back next year, but Milwaukee’s small-market budget will make that difficult. Grandal owns a $16 million mutual option with the Crew for 2020, but he’ll likely turn that down to test the free-agent market. Here’s why he could create a bidding war.
His bat is rare for his position -- and getting rarer by the year
Catcher offense has taken a nosedive over the last five seasons, nearly in sync with when backstops began handling more pitchers on average. But that hasn’t applied to Grandal. Yankees star Gary Sanchez is the only catcher who tops Grandal’s combined 117 wRC+ over the last five seasons, and Sanchez logged nearly 1,000 less plate appearances in that span. Grandal was even better this year, finishing with a 121 wRC+ (in other words, a batting line that was 21% better than Major League average).
Grandal was extremely disciplined, tying Alex Bregman for the second-highest walk rate among qualified hitters behind Mike Trout at 17.8%. In fact, that was the highest rate by any qualified catcher since 1994. He also posted his lowest whiff-per-swing rate since ’15. He’s steadily lowered his ground-ball rate and finished among MLB’s top 50 hitters in barrel-per-batted ball rate in each of the last two seasons. Grandal is the only catcher to homer at least 20 times in each of the last four years. He hits for power and gets on base, and he’s one of the only catchers you could say that about in 2019.
His framing remains elite
Grandal has always excelled at getting strikes for his pitchers, and that held true this season. He saved 13 extra runs from borderline called strikes, according to Statcast, tying him for second in the Majors behind San Diego’s Austin Hedges. In fact, Grandal hasn’t finished lower than fourth in that category in each of Statcast’s first five seasons of tracking.
Grandal’s Runs from Extra Strikes rankings, since 2015
2015: +24 (1st)
2016: +28 (2nd)
2017: +8 (4th)
2018: +10 (T-2nd)
2019: +13 (T-2nd)
If you’ve read this far, you’re likely asking about the passed balls that plagued Grandal during last year’s postseason. But that wasn’t a major issue in 2019; Grandal tallied eight of them, the same amount as Realmuto and fewer than nine backstops who all caught fewer games. That total was one fewer than the nine passed balls Grandal allowed last year, when he again finished right behind Realmuto in catcher value.
A four-week sample from October 2018 isn’t enough to label Grandal as a poor defender. The pitch-by-pitch value he accrues from his framing far outweighs the stray passed ball (one for every 17 games he caught this year) by season’s end. The Brewers’ MLB-best ERA in September -- while featuring just one starter in Jordan Lyles who regularly pitched past the fifth inning -- likely had some partial footing in Grandal’s receiving behind the plate.
Grandal’s comps over the last 50 years (catchers with a 110-plus wRC+ and 2,500-plus plate appearances in their age-26 through 30 seasons) include Johnny Bench, Gary Carter, Mike Piazza and Ivan Rodriguez. All four Hall of Fame catchers were great in their age-31 seasons: Bench was an All-Star with a 125 wRC+, Carter received NL MVP votes after his first year with the Mets, Piazza led the Mets to the 2000 World Series with 38 homers and a 1.012 OPS and Rodriguez helped the Marlins win it all in 2003 with a 4.5-WAR campaign. That’s not to say Grandal will meet those lofty standards in 2020, but those examples should be kept in mind before teams scoff at his age. Some of the other comps on that list include Victor Martinez, Jorge Posada and Ted Simmons -- three players who contributed borderline All-Star value into their early 30s.
Milwaukee’s one-year contract for Grandal ranked among last offseason’s best acquisitions, and it’s one of the better gambles that any free agent has made on himself in recent years. Expect teams to start sharing Grandal’s self-belief in the coming months.