Grandal aiming to be veteran leader he wished he had

February 15th, 2024

BRADENTON, Fla. -- As a young catcher learning the game, wished he had someone who would take him under his wing as he navigated his first years in the league. He eventually found someone in Steve Yeager with the Dodgers, but he was a coach, not a player.

That’s not to imply that lack of early mentorship has held him back. Grandal is set to enter the 13th season of a distinguished Major League career in which he’s earned two All-Star nods. But it’s something that is on his mind now that he has transitioned to being a veteran himself.

“What I am today is pretty much built through trials and experiments, I guess,” Grandal said. “I wish I had somebody that could have taken me under their wing and show me the ropes. I don’t want other guys to go through the same thing, so if I can do that for them, that’s a good thing.”

Grandal had a bit of a chance to do that with the White Sox towards the end of last season with Korey Lee. With the Pirates, he has a couple other young catchers that he can take under his wing in Henry Davis and Endy Rodríguez.

The latter of that duo will not play this season after undergoing right UCL surgery this winter, which facilitated the Pirates looking at the catcher market. At the same time, though, the team wanted to focus on players who would be more of a one-year solution because they feel good about the futures of Davis and Rodríguez.

That opening, plus Grandal’s willingness to teach, helped make a signing this week a natural fit.

“I’ve had my career, and those guys are just getting started,” Grandal said. “If I can help them in any way, that’s No. 1. Everything else is about trying to win and helping them do a good job behind the plate whenever I’m not there. The catching group is one of the most important groups on a team, so anything I can do for them to help them develop and become their own, I’ll gladly do it.”

Having a veteran catcher with a good defensive reputation can only be a positive for a young pitching staff, too.

“That’s exciting, seeing the amount of arms this team has and how young they are,” Grandal said. “If I can put my two cents in, that’s only a plus.”

That’s not to imply that Grandal is just here to be a mentor. The Pirates are banking that he still has gas in the tank.

“[He] just adds to our depth,” said manager Derek Shelton. “It's a position that we liked to get a veteran guy in there, so we know Yas is gonna catch, and then we're gonna have competition for that other spot.”

Defensively, pitch framing and blocking are two main areas the team leans on when evaluating catchers, and Grandal still grades out well there, being worth four framing runs and two blocking runs in 2023, according to Baseball Savant’s data.

It’s been a different story with the bat the past few years, though. He’s two years removed from his last great offensive season in 2021, and his .647 OPS last year was well below his career norms. He’s coming into spring healthy after slipping a disk and aggravating his hamstring early last year, and that could make a difference. His usual strengths as a hitter -- not chasing out of the zone often, swinging at good pitches -- also lend themselves to some of the team’s hitting ideologies.

On top of that, Grandal brings a competitive edge that this team desires.

“The reputation he has is he's an incredibly hard worker, takes game preparation really seriously and has a really high standard for competition,” said general manager Ben Cherington. “A bit of edge around expecting to win, and that's an element that we want to bring into our team.”

It’s safe to say Grandal has a spot on the Opening Day roster, though the amount of playing time is seemingly up for grabs. He seems to welcome that challenge.

“I love competition,” Grandal said. “That’s just me. The competitor in me says you can go out and play 162. The body, by the end of the year, not so much. I’m a competitor and I love the daily routine of how to figure out how to win. That’s what keeps me going.”