Sandy Alderson, General Manager of the New York Mets, mentioned at an event on June 1, 2017 that sometimes when making player personnel decisions it is more important to focus on the recent trends of a player than their track record, as that could be a better sign of what might occur in the future. This was what he described as their mistake with Daniel Murphy, who in 2015 left for the Washington Nationals after the Mets decided not to sign him because they wrote off his incredible playoff run as a fluke. At this point, we know it was not, but Murphy wasn’t that good over the course of the season, and regressed back to normal 2015 Daniel Murphy during the World Series, so the Mets let him go. Alderson then brought up this same point with Curtis Granderson, who despite being off to an incredibly slow start this season, has seen a surge in performance in May and June.
The terrible start though in April led fans to demand that Granderson to be benched or designated for assignment (DFA’d), as he seemingly had no trade value and was taking up a position in the outfield while 2017 National League All-Star Michael Conforto languished on the bench or in Triple-A Las Vegas. But after ending April with an OBP of .174, Granderson has turned his season around, making changes in his approach at the plate and boosting his OBP back up to .333, above the league average of .324 (as of July 8). His stats for the first three months are shown below:
2017 Monthly Statistics
The main question is: What exactly did Granderson do to change from a player that the Mets could have considered designating for assignment into a prominent piece of their everyday line-up as the leadoff hitter and possible trade bait at the MLB trade deadline? As quoted in The New York Post, Granderson doesn’t think he’s changed anything:
“Nothing’s different,” he said. “I’m just going up there continuing to try to be successful.”
Despite what he claims, there have clearly been changes in his approach at the plate and his contact with the ball. Both of these changes have contributed to making Granderson one of the top players in the game in May and June.
The key change in Curtis Granderson’s game that has helped him to succeed during May and June is in his approach at the plate. Granderson appears to simply be more patient at the plate and hence is making more contact with the ball when he does swing. From April to May he started to make better contact, increasing his contact rate by 1.7 percentage points and reducing his swinging strike rate by 1.0 percentage points. But that wasn’t just a one-time improvement. He took a larger leap to really enhance his game in June. During the month, he reduced his swing rate by a whopping 9.6 percentage points, and with that increased selectivity, he was able to increase his contact rate by 4.5 points and cut his swinging strike rate nearly in half.
Approach at the Plate
That increased patience has resulted in a lot more walks and fewer strikeouts, and is one large reason that Granderson has increased his OBP so dramatically. His strikeout rate is down by 22 percent from April to June, and his walk rate has more than tripled. By taking more pitches and frequent walks, Granderson has forced pitchers to throw to him, and is making better contact with the ball.
Walk and Strikeout Rates
Granderson has thrived during his career by pulling the ball. However, just like a lot of heavy-pull lefties, he has not always had success against the shift. This might have caused him to slightly adjust his approach in April. During his career he has pulled the ball over 48 percent of the time, but with the increase in shifts it appears as though he tried to overcompensate and start taking the ball the other way, as he pulled the ball only 37.9 percent of the time in April. However, one thing that has been preached in the league for lefty pull hitters more recently is to try to attack the shift head-on, and launch home runs and line drives over and through the shift instead of trying to make dramatic changes at the plate that weaken your approach. This is exactly what Jay Bruce has done this season for the New York Mets, and what Granderson has been doing since June.
Locations of Balls in Play
By going back to his normal approach at the plate, Granderson has been able to make better contact, according to the Baseball Info Solutions quality of contact stats that are available at FanGraphs. During April, he was making more soft contact than hard contact. It is never a good sign for a hitter if they are making weak contact more than a quarter of the time they hit the ball. By being more patient at the plate and focusing on pulling the baseball again, Granderson has been able to make a lot more hard contact and increase his likelihood of getting on base.
It has been preached to lefty pull hitters to hit the ball hard and try to hit fly balls. Granderson over the course of May and June really was able to be successful with this approach. While he hit the ball harder in May, it was resulting in generally more line drives instead of fly balls. A right-handed pull hitter that hits the ball hard wants to launch the ball in the air to increase their chances of home runs.
The combination of all these changes at the plate is what has really allowed Granderson to succeed over the last month. His focus on pulling the ball and his improved quality of contact increased his home run to fly ball ratio (calculated as home runs per fly ball hit) from less than three percent in April to 25 percent in June, and his increase in fly ball rate took advantage of that greater rate of home runs per fly ball. Not only is he hitting more home runs, his BABIP has doubled, from .154 in April to .308 in June, which was just about league average for the month (.307).
2017 Advanced Statistics
Maybe Curtis Granderson actually didn’t change his approach at the plate as he claims, but whatever has happened in May and June has worked for him. It will be interesting to continue to follow his progress over the rest of the season to see if this was a short term trend, or if he will continue at this level for the rest of the season. If he does sustain this production, he will make it easier for the New York Mets to trade him to a team looking for an outfielder or keep him around to help with their minuscule hopes of making the playoffs. But no matter what, this success should help Granderson secure a job this off-season when he hits free agency.
Seth Rubin is a contributor at Beyond the Box Score and the Baseball Prospectus Local Mets site. You can follow him on Twitter at @sethrubin.