For the record, Yasmani Grandal doesn’t suck.
He’s not even below average — or even average, for that matter. His skewed production through 37 contests so far in 2021 has been littered with the opposite of luck and doesn’t tell the true story — even though it’s caused plenty of people to tell stories.
The 32-year-old catcher received the largest free-agent contract in the history of the White Sox’s franchise in 2019, signing for $73 million on a four-year pact. He’s been mostly as advertised since putting ink to paper.
GM Rick Hahn and the rest of the club’s front office targeted the former first-rounder out of Miami for his power, patience at the plate, pitch framing and game-calling abilities. Grandal is a switch-hitter, and possesses power from both sides of the plate.
In 2019 with the Milwaukee Brewers, playing on a prove-it, one year contract, the backstop posted a 122 wRC+ with even more stellar production against left-handed pitching. He played in 153 games and accumulated 5.3 fWAR after clubbing 28 homers. He posted a .380 OBP and slugged .468. And the 17.2% walk rate he boasted was also a career mark.
With the White Sox in 2020, Yaz played in 46 games and posted a slash line of .230/.351/.422 with a wRC+ of 116. Falling in line with recent trends, Grandal murdered southpaws to the tune of a 146 wRC+ while producing a 109 mark against righties. He was worth 1.7 fWAR. (For more career context, Grandal posted a 125 wRC+ in 2018 as well.)
Grandal has been the 12th-most valuable catcher in the sport in 2021, according FanGraphs. Grandal’s 120 wRC+ is good for 10th among catchers. For the month of May, Grandal’s 167 wRc+ was the third-best mark on the division-leading White Sox.
Why are my Twitter mentions filled with angst and fallacies from humans who apparently believe that he’s bad, then? The answer probably indicates that those angered just don’t quite grasp what wRC+ actually encompasses. And that’s probably OK.
Weighted runs created plus is the term that makes up the acronym wRC+. It takes the runs created statistic and adjusts that number to account for additional external factors, such as ballpark or era. It’s adjusted, so a wRC+ of 100 is league average, while 150 would signify a player being 50% above league average.
For example, a player who plays his home games in a hitter-friendly environment such as Coors Field in Colorado will in fact have a lower wRC+ than a player with identical statistics playing his home games at The Coliseum in Oakland. More specifically, the exact formula looks like this: (((wRAA per PA + league runs per PA) + (league runs per PA-ballpark factor x league runs per PA/league wRC per plate appearance, not including pitchers) x 100.
Weighted runs created plus is a useful statistic, in the same ways that weighted on base average or OPS plus is. It quantifies run creation and normalizes it so we can compare players who play in different ballparks, and even across different eras. While Grandal has underachieved in 2021, getting on base is important, and the use of wRC+ as a measure proves it.
Through 37 games and 144 plate appearances, Grandal has been 20% better than league average offensively, using the wRC+. Against southpaws, Grandal’s wRC+ grows even more, to a lofty 177. When a lefty is the mound, the White Sox’s catcher is 77 points better than the average hitter, despite what the left of his triple slash line arbitrarily states.
Grandal posted a 138 wRC+ vs lefties in 2019, and that number increased to 146 during the abbreviated 2020 campaign. The switch-hitter mashes versus lefties and he should rarely sit when one is on the mound.
Batting average is entrenched in the fabric of the sport, and it’s the prevailing counteract for the majority of Grandal’s detractors. Through the first 37 games, Grandal is hitting .131/.385/.333 with six homers. The batting average is really low, and sticks out like a sore thumb. The slugging isn’t in line with career averages, either, and advanced data suggests some movement to the mean is coming.
The White Sox don’t care about Grandal’s batting average, and the common fan shouldn’t either. Baseball fans and media have had the batting average ingrained in the mind since their first Little League coach made it a priority, and it’s well past the time to be re-evaluating that thought process. Paul Folkemer of Baltimore Baseball touched on this very topic in 2019.
Batting average doesn’t measure the most important skill for a hitter — the ability to avoid making outs. By leaving walks out of the equation, it excludes important information. Batting average also treats every hit equally, even though certain hits are more valuable than others.
Folkemer interviewed Baltimore’s assistant general manager Sig Mejdal back in 2019 about why his club has generally disregarded the use of the statistic in evaluating players for some time. The basis of the argument from those in the front office is that using batting average is nearly meaningless in modern baseball because it gives a limited amount of information comparatively to more useful measuring tools.
“No baseball fan thinks a home run is as valuable as a single, but the batting average does. No fan thinks that a walk is of no value, but the batting average does that as well,” Mejdal said.
In 10 plate appearances, if Player A contributes two hits and two walks, the player would have a batting average of .200 to show for it. Player B could come to the dish 10 times as well and secure hits in three of those 10 trips without walking at all, resulting in a batting average of .300. That doesn’t mean that Player B is better than Player A, however.
Grandal’s style of play offends the baseball sensibilities for many. He takes a lot of pitches instead of swinging at balls, commits an absurd amount of catcher’s interference errors and generally makes some bone-headed plays while in the field. He has power, though, and gets on base at an obnoxious clip. He’s sporting a .202 ISO% despite only slugging .333 currently. His xwOBA of .370 indicates that his actual wOBA (.338) should be in for a jump as well.
Yasmani Grandal’s final stats in May:— Jeremy Frank (@MLBRandomStats) June 1, 2021
4 home runs
162 wRC+, .128 BABIP
His .467 OBP is the highest by a player in a month with a sub-.150 BA by over 80 points.
Grandal has been unlucky in 2021, and his Baseball Savant page paints an interesting picture. The catcher is in the 92nd percentile in average exit velocity. He’s in the 79th percentile in barrel rate, while being in the 89th percentile range in hard-hit rate. His xwOBA places him better than 81% of his peers.
Grandal is hitting the ball hard. He’s just not getting enough pitches to hit, and nobody should be rooting for him to increase his 20th percentile strikeout rate or top-of-the-line chase rate, which sits in the 98th percentile.
Once the slugging percentage increases as data suggests it should, it’ll be interesting to see what happens with Grandal’s BABIP as well. Grandal posted batting averages on balls in play of .279 and .299 in 2019 and 2020. In 2021, he’s sporting a career-low .127 BABIP, which is wildly unsustainable no matter how slow he is on the basepaths — positive regression towards the mean is expected.
BABIP measures a player’s batting average exclusively on balls hit into play, removing outcomes not affected by the opposing defense (mostly home runs and strikeouts). In turn, a player who goes 2-for-5 with a homer and a strikeout would have a .333 BABIP for that game due to going 1-for-3 on balls put into play. The league average BABIP — the actual equation is (H-HR)/(AB-K-HR+SF) — is typically around .300, and it provides context over a full season.
Skill can play a role on batting average of balls in play as well. Some guys have career BABIPs that are 30-40 points lower than .300 on the pitching side and better than .300 on the offensive side, but most regress to the mean. A BABIP of .127 is absolutely insane and wholly unsustainable. That’s a good thing for Grandal and fans of the White Sox.
Grandal makes a lot of money, and criticism comes with the territory. Criticism should be warranted, though, and with Grandal’s style of play, it often isn’t and likely won’t be. Context matters, and process is important.
The power will very likely come, and for Grandal to have a season resembling the back of his baseball card, it’ll need to. The White Sox have gotten production in line with what they paid for, and getting on base at a .385 clip always will remain a positive for a baseball team.