Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal’s game is multi-dimensional, but the main components are that he gets on base, hits for power, and frames pitches with extreme proficiency. Among qualified catchers, he leads the pack this year with 2.0 fWAR and is second to only Buster Posey with a 131 wRC+. Earlier this week over at FanGraphs, Travis Sawchik detailed how Grandal has continued his framing excellence this season as well. According to Baseball Prospectus’ metrics, he currently leads all backstops in both Framing Runs (6.8) and Fielding Runs Above Average (7.2). Grandal is providing elite offense for a catcher and continuing his already sterling reputation as a receiver.
But these are things we’ve always known Grandal was capable of doing well. On top of those skills, it appears he’s added another skill to his repertoire in the early going — throwing. Grandal is second in baseball among catchers in BP’s Throwing Runs (1.0) and first in caught stealing percentage, having nabbed 56 percent of opposing runners. This is a new facet of his game, as Grandal has never been a poor thrower, but he’s never been elite either. Here’s how his caught stealing percentage has compared to league average during his time in the majors.
Early on in his career, Grandal was below-average; in his two years with the Dodgers, he’s been right around league average. This year, however — hot damn, that’s some top-notch throwing!
There’s a question that’s inherent with a significant change like this: Has Grandal legitimately improved his skills, or is it just a bit of randomness? So much of controlling the running game depends on factors outside the catcher’s control, such as a pitcher’s time to the plate, a runner’s jump, or an infielder’s tagging ability. Statcast measurements like a catcher’s throw speed and average pop time exist, but they are still to this point proprietary and unavailable for our use here.
So while acknowledging the potential fruitlessness of trying to determine for certain whether Grandal has developed his throwing into a new asset, let’s take a look at a breakdown of each of the 14 times he’s caught a runner stealing in 2017.
Grandal Caught Stealing Breakdown
|4/5||Padres||Rich Hill||Wil Myers||77%||Pick off, caught stealing|
|4/7||Rockies||Hyun Jin Ryu||Charlie Blackmon||73%|
|4/12||Cubs||Brandon McCarthy||Kris Bryant||68%||Safe initally, overturned on replay|
|4/16||Diamondbacks||Luis Avilan||Jake Lamb||68%||Safe initally, overturned on replay|
|4/17||Diamondbacks||Brandon McCarthy||AJ Pollock||83%|
|4/17||Diamondbacks||Brandon McCarthy||David Peralta||72%||Beat throw, didn't stay on bag|
|4/24||Giants||Sergio Romo||Eduardo Nunez||80%|
|5/5||Paders||Pedro Baez||Jabari Blash||50% (only 2 career attempts)||Out upheld on replay|
|5/9||Pirates||Julio Urias||Chris Bostick||0% (only 1 career attempt)|
|5/9||Pirates||Luis Avilan||Max Moroff||0% (only 1 career attempt)||Pick off, caught stealing|
|5/14||Rockies||Julio Urias||DJ LeMahieu||67%||Busted double steal|
|5/20||Marlins||Luis Avilan||J.T. Riddle||0% (only 1 career attempt)||Botched squeeze|
|5/23||Cardinals||Clayton Kershaw||Yadier Molina||61%|
|5/26||Cubs||Alex Wood||Kris Bryant||68%||Pick off, caught stealing|
Parsing individual plays like this isn’t entirely fair; I’m guessing we could do this for every catcher and find plays for each that don’t pass muster. That said, there’s a lot of ammunition in there to diminish the notion that Grandal has improved greatly as a thrower.
Of his 14 caught stealings, there are four instances of a “pick off, caught stealing,” where the pitcher catches the baserunner in a rundown. Grandal gets credit in these situations, but he doesn’t actually ever touch the baseball on the play. If we remove those plays, his caught stealing percentage drops to 48 percent — 10 runners caught, 11 stolen bases allowed. That’s still an improvement on his past numbers and still well above league average.
There are two other plays where Grandal isn’t throwing to a base in the typical way you would to register a caught stealing. First a busted double steal in Colorado, where it appears Charlie Blackmon just missed a sign.
Next, a botched squeeze by the Marlins, where J.T. Riddle was hung out to dry when his pitcher couldn’t put bat on ball.
Now, these are both legitimate caught stealings in the box score, but they tell us nothing about whether Grandal has improved his throwing. If we take out these two plays his caught stealing percentage drops to 42 percent, as he’s left with eight times throwing out a runner in the traditional sense and 11 successful swipes.
While we’re in the business of being hypercritical, there is one time where a runner beat Grandal’s throw but popped off the bag while the tag was held in place. Of course this counts as a caught stealing just like it would for any catcher, but again, do we give Grandal credit here? Shouldn’t we blame David Peralta for a poor slide?
To be jerks, let’s remove that caught stealing from his overall percentage. The new clip — based on only straight up instances of a catcher throwing to nab a runner — sits at 39 percent, with 7 runners caught against 11 stolen bases allowed. That number still represents a 10 percentage point improvement over his last two seasons, which is very good, but not spectacular like his raw, unpicked apart caught stealing percentage.
So has Yasmani Grandal added a new, elite skill to his already-impressive repertoire? Maybe.
Trying to find a signal through the noise of his caught stealing percentage seems misguided since — as demonstrated — their are so many other factors at work. But even accounting for those plays that don’t demonstrate his throwing skill directly, Grandal has shown improvement overall. We can say with certainty that he’s been more successful controlling the opponent’s running game than ever before; we just can’t say for sure that it’s a permanent change.
We’re dealing with a small sample here — a snapshot of 25 individual baserunning events. This is truly the type of thing that is best looked at over the course of a season and not just a couple of months. While the early success in this department means that going forward it’ll be worth keeping an eye on, time will give us a better understanding. But there’s certainly an indication that Yasmani Grandal’s already impressive skill set might have a received an upgrade.
Chris Anders is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can find him on Twitter @MrChrisAnders.