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Examining Yasmani Grandal’s Weird Season

A batting average hovering around .150 is going to look bad for anyone, but does it even matter in the greater context of the White Sox catcher?

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Chicago White Sox Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

The offensive output of the catching position isn’t necessarily expected to be anything resembling high volume. Most teams prefer to throw someone back there who is extremely competent defensively—in matters of framing in particular—while hoping for the occasional contribution with the stick at the same time. The list of players that contribute highly to both elements of the game is fairly limited, but Yasmani Grandal has always been one of those guys.

Prior to this season, there have been 18 catchers since 2016 to finish with a positive value in relation to FanGraphs’ Off metric (there’s 15 so far this year, albeit in a much smaller sample overall). J.T. Realmuto’s 2018 season easily leads the way with a 22.1. Of those 18 names, his name appears five times. The rest of the field includes a pair of appearances from Buster Posey and Willson Contreras, but Grandal’s three appearances trail only Realmuto (including his first season with the Chicago White Sox in 2020).

Grandal’s defense is beyond reproach. In that same span of time, he’s finished no worse than fourth in Baseball Prospectus’ Catcher Defensive Adjustment (CDA) metric, including a league-best 4.3 mark in 2020. So it really isn’t necessary to really hash out any details there. He’s as good as anybody behind the dish, while providing that rare combination as a strong offensive performer that I talked about. Which is what makes this season just so outlandishly weird.

In all honesty, it’s very difficult to describe just what the hell is going on with Yasmani Grandal in 2021. Because he hasn’t been bad. This is Grandal’s line to this point in the season: .158/.395/.412/.807. His wRC+ is at 136 and his wOBA sits at .364 (with a xwOBA of .401). His wRC+, wOBA, on-base percentage, and Off rating all rank fifth among catchers thus far in 2021. So he’s been elite at the position. With a .158 batting average.

And yes, there is the completely obvious and apparent discussion to be had about the futility of batting average. We all know about it. But even with that in mind, the disparity between average and on-base is wild. Looking at qualifying hitters—at any position—since 2016, it’s difficult to find anything like it. Carlos Santana went .199 and .349 in 2020. Joey Gallo this year is at .210 and .369 (but that also isn’t terribly unusual). Even then, though, that disparity is just so much more significant for Grandal. And any historical measurement isn’t even close.

Contributing to the weirdness is that Grandal ranks 11th among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances in his hard hit rate, at 43.2 (a figure which ranks in the 99th percentile). His Barrel% (14.9) ranks in the 90th. In fact, nobody in baseball has a lower soft contact rate than Grandal, whose 5.4 percent is easily the lowest rate of his career.

And then there’s the matter of his extraordinary patience. Sitting in the 100th percentile, nobody has walked at a higher clip than Grandal’s 28.2 percent. His previous career-high was 17.2. His Chase% (14.7) ranks in the 98th percentile as well, and while it’s not totally a matter of seeing more pitches, it’s worth noting that he’s swinging at the lowest rate of his career (26.6 percent). Grandal’s career pitches per plate appearance is 4.22 against 4.64 P/PA this year. Definitely a jump, but one that indicates almost doubling the BB%? Probably not considering that Grandal usually falls on the lower end of Swing% and higher end of P/PA anyway. More than anything, his awareness of the strike zone has just been in a tier virtually all to himself.

In short, what we have here is a guy who has demonstrated astonishing patience at the plate, while absolutely mashing the baseball when he does choose to swing. Yeah, sure, there’s some swing-and-miss in his game, but even his SwStr% (while ranking in just the 30th percentile) is at the lowest of his career (7.3) and his CSW% (32.4) is lower than it was last season. So it’s a genuinely enigmatic thing occurring on the South Side. The whiffs don’t help, but neither do the batted ball trends outside of quality of contact.

Unsurprisingly, Grandal’s BABIP sits at .141. Perhaps more so, though, is that his xBA is only at .209. A jump for sure, but that eighth percentile ranking doesn’t exactly leap off the page as something that should indicate an eventual turnaround in matters of batting average. The simplest explanation? Grandal is putting the ball on the ground far too frequently.

In general, Grandal’s GB% sits at 46.6, his highest rate since 2013. More troublesome is the fact that he’s pulling the ball far more this year, with a 51.4 percent rate than blows away anything he’d previously done (save 2018, when it was 48.3). When he makes contact to the pull side, regardless of handedness, that GB% is at 58.1. He has yet to put a ball on the ground when making oppo contact, but that becomes less impressive when his Oppo% is at just 16.2. Incorporating the middle of the field, though, runs it up to an even 21 percent.

When it comes down to it, though, does it even matter? Grandal is obviously whiffing and striking out more than you’d like, but he’s never been a tremendously high contact guy. Supplementing that with an intense dose of walks more than compensates. And while the groundballs aren’t ideal, when the ball is in the air, he’s managed to be extremely effective. His ISO sits at .254—steadily climbing after a .145 April—which is another among the trend of “career-high.” His wRC+ and wOBA figures alone more than indicate that he’s contributing to the offensive side at an elite pace among his backstopping peers, despite the fairly gaping shortcomings currently present in his game.

And that’s probably the sentiment the White Sox are holding to as well. Would you like the batting average to sit higher in his statline? Of course. Are they lamenting the fact that their offensively elite catcher isn’t hitting his weight, while at the same time maintaining a near-constant on-base presence—slow as he may be—and providing plenty of power at the plate (alliteration)? Nah, not in the slightest.

It’s 2021. We should know at this point how to look at and evaluate batting average in the context of the rest of it. And it’s likely going to rise some. Maybe not as high as it could simply due to the high volume of groundballs. But at the end of it all, he’s working the count, reaching base, and providing power. As a catcher, do you really want to ask for much more? And for a team like the White Sox, do you even need more than that?

Randy Holt is a contributing writer for Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter @RandyHolt42.