Yasmani Grandal was the most exciting major league free agent signing of the White Sox rebuild. The “OH MY GOD, I can’t believe they are doing it” signing!!. It was the richest free agent contract in White Sox history.
At the time I remember quite a few people noting what a deal they thought this contract was. I usually find that talk sort of interesting, especially when mid to high end free agents tend to sign market price deals. That’s just the lay of the land when it comes to Yasmani Grandal, there’s a large swath of opinions on his performance and value and it’s just you and me, joe blow regular fans.
Those discussions of Grandal have hardly quieted down in his 2 seasons with the White Sox. In 2020, during the COVID-19 shortened season, he was good, posting a 1.6 fWar in 194 PA, with a slash of .230 / .351 / .422. The only problem was that the White Sox also had James McCann who basically matched his overall value in roughly half the plate appearances (although those were carefully curated to match McCann’s strengths). McCann posted a 1.5 fWar in 111 PA, with a slash of .289 / .360 / .536. This had many wondering if Grandal’s signing was the best use of capital at the time.
Grandal also has the misfortune of having lesser capabilities defensively to the “eye-test” crowd in that he isn’t a great blocker or thrower. He does however more than make up for it with hisframing capabilities, which tend to buoy his defensive performance from pedestrian (as the eye test might tell you) to good.
The 2021 Season was Different…
Yaz started off incredibly fucking slow. LIKE SLOOOOOWWWW. I remember doing a Twitter Spaces with Josh Nelson and I flipped the script on the host and asked him if he thought Grandal’s knee injury was causing some of his early season struggles. Josh thought it just might be that he was working back into game shape. Once May hit however, this man hit the daylights outta the ball. He carried that through another injury mid-season, which occurred right before the all-star break and sidelined the star for a little over a month.
All told, even after two injuries in 2021, Grandal posted far and away his best offensive season of his career. Despite just 375 Plate Appearances, he had a 159 wRC+ (100 is league average), with a slash line of .240 / .420 / .520, for a .940 OPS and 23 Home Runs in just those limited plate appearances. This included a 23.2% BB Rate to only a 21.9% K Rate (one of only 3 major leaguers in 2021 to have at least 300 PA and more walks than strikeouts, the others were Juan Soto and Tony Kemp).
Not only was he the most productive of his career, he was a key cog as a lefty power bat as Yoan Moncada‘s power numbers shriveled in 2021, making Yaz basically THE LEFTY POWER BAT in the lineup. So why the consideration to possibly park him at DH more in 2022. Well, the aforementioned injuries are one point, so was a decline in Yasmani’s defensive metrics in 2021. I’m not sure if one caused the other, but him ascending to the top Lefty Power bat and in 2021, he lead the team in slugging, so basically the top power bat in total has some of the fan base being more worried about keeping the recently turned 33 year old Grandal, healthy.
Let’s use some historical comps to see what happens to aged catchers of a certain vintage
Yea, let’s do that, since I can’t really tell you if Grandal’s two injuries in 2021 mean a hill of beans as to how he’ll age, maybe we take a quick peak at his peers of the last 40 years and see how they fared. I went back to 1978 and used Stathead which is a product at Baseball Reference to pluck this data. The criterion was age 33 or younger, at least 50% of your total games to date at Catcher, minimum 3,500 Plate Appearances, minimum OPS+ 110 for a career and minimum .340 On-Base Percentage.
Whatta comp list!! These other 11 (as you can see Yaz is 8th on the list) are his most similar players. Let’s review them in groups and see how they aged at 33 and beyond (Grandal is a White Sox for the 2022 & 2023 seasons).
Gary Carter was a leader on the first baseball team I really ever loved, the 1986 Mets (sorry White Sox, you sucked in 1986, fucking Hawk at GM). He’s a Hall of Famer, and one of the first people I think of when you say the word catcher. His 33 and 34 year old seasons were in New York in 1987 & 1988, they would be his last as a regular and his bat and defense tanked precipitously. After those years he played a few more in part-time roles, but was no longer a super star.
I don’t remember a Darrell Porter at all. And really, he’s probably not a great comp for Yas at this point, as his 33 and 34 age seasons he was already a back up that still hit a bit and still played okay defense. Yas is a full-time player heading into these seasons and if he ends up being like Porter those seasons, it’s gonna be bad for us White Sox fans.
Mickey Tettleton is a classic late 80’s and early 90’s player. Switch hitter, power from both sides of the plate. He’s one of the batting stances that ol’ BeefLoaf used to mimic in the backyard, closed, slow bat raise and then violent at the point of swinging. His 33 & 34 year old seasons, he was still hitting the daylights outta the ball, but he was barely a catcher.
He’d been moved out of the position materially and was playing 1st base and Outfield to continue to feature his bat. That’s not really much of a possibility for Yas with the current White Sox, but good to consider how all these aging curves differ.
Daulton on the other hand was mostly done by his 33 & 34 seasons. His age 33 season was in 1995 and while he was an all-star, that saw his numbers on offense and defense tumble. His following season was killed by injury and he was out of baseball after the 1997 season. His story is a tragic one, his post playing career was marred with DUI’s and other odd behavior, before later in life having brain cancer, which he later succumbed to in 2017 at the age of 55.
I put these two together because they are basically nothing alike. I remember when Victor Martinez (VMart) was coming up and he was only nominally a catcher. He was there to hit. By the time he reached his age 33 & 34 seasons (he actually lost his age 33 season to injury), he was a DH, sure he’d put on the catchers glove a couple tree times a season for show and occasionally be asked to wear a first baseman’s glove, but he was a DH. Still hit well in his age 34 and 35 seasons before having only one more above average hitting season through age 39 when he retired.
Ivan Rodriguez, Pudge, former MVP, and Hall of Famer had an interesting aging curve that I wouldn’t expect from Yas, but still seems relevant to throw into the mix. His age 33 and 34 seasons in Detroit, he saw a precipitous tumble in his hitting prowess. He went from a well above average hitter back down to average / below average. Not sure what that reason might be, but his defense still stayed very strong for all intents and purposes.
That defense pretty much held up through his retirement and really was the cornerstone of his image as a player as being the best catcher you’ve ever laid your eyes on. It is curious though that the weaker part of his game diminished as he aged.
Joe Mauer might not be the best comp either. He was a full-time 1b / DH by age 31 and had been trending that way for awhile. Concussions are at least partially to blame. Mauer, who was a terrific hitter in his prime, wasn’t really that good by the time he reached his 33 and 34 seasons. The elite batting average had waned, the power was gone. It was rough.
Buster Posey’s career looked like it was heading in a similar direction as Mauer. More time at DH, bat aging faster than you might think. Then his age 33 season, he sat out completely due to COVID-19 concerns. In his age 34 season, which was this past year, Posey had a monster resurgence, playing nearly all his games behind the plate and coming back with both the elite bat and defense you are accustomed to from him. An outlier so far in this group of comps in that he was a bonafide stud in his age 34 season.
Posey then summarily retired after the season. I can’t blame him, he’s won an MVP, he’s made a fortune and he’s got bling. I don’t think we’ll see Yas follow that path, but the aforementioned age 34 season does give us some hope that 2021 Yas isn’t the only elite season we see from him.
I’m still pretty shocked Mike Piazza never won an MVP. The numbers he put up in LA are still so ridiculous. I don’t care if it was during the “Steroid Era”. Piazza was never really known for his prowess behind the plate, although in hindsight the statistical databases seem to indicate that we overrated how bad he was as a defender. He seems like a totally okay defensive catcher for most of his career.
Piazza’s age 33 and 34 seasons are when he starts to show age all over his game, well, kinda. His offense was down, but he was still a very good hitter (his career OPS is .922, so at some point you ain’t gonna hit that good). The defense behind the plate had definitely declined, and although when he was healthy he still continued to catch most of the time (except for his age 35 season when he split his time at 1st base). He still made the all-star teams in his age 35 & 36 seasons even though they were quite pedestrian seasons by his standards.
Jorge Posada was a rare breed. His bat basically never slowed down. Even his age 38 season was basically a typical Posada year at the plate 119 wRC+ (career 123 wRC+). His defense didn’t slow down either until his late 30’s (based on looking at Fangraphs, it looks like his age 36 season). If we are hoping for Yas to follow anyone’s aging curve, it’d be Posada’s who maintained a substantial workload and hit the crap outta the ball for the entire time.
Javy Lopez is basically the opposite of Posada, his age 33 season saw him starting to transition into a DH and by his age 35 season (his last) he was basically just a DH. Lopez was a good hitter and backstop throughout his career, even having an ridonkulous age 32 season (just like Yas) where he carried a 170 wRC+. However, his career was done just 3 years later.
So what did we learn?
Well, I am not sure we learned anything definitive, but my feeble brain leads me in a few directions. Some of these great catchers were moved out of their positions or had their catcher work loads cut as they aged. Not sure if those decisions were specific to preserving their health or their bat or what, but the outliers are the ones that continued to have great success with a full catching load into these seasons (Posada at everything, Pudge Rodriguez behind the dish).
Mostly all of the catchers above, even the ones that held up showed regression on defense into these key 33 and 34 year old seasons that Yas is heading into, so if I were a betting man and I am! I would assume that the near daily disagreements we have between the statheads and the eye-test folks will only continue. I highly doubt that Yas will have a defensive resurgence in these seasons that will satisfy the eye-test folks, since that is where he is always lacking.
Lastly, it seems pretty clear that the White Sox having some sort of legitimate back-up plan here would be a smart play. Currently they don’t have such a back-up plan as they have two well below replacement level options as A & B behind Yas in Zack Collins and Seby Zavala. There isn’t another catcher on the 40 man roster and we saw the early part of the off-season (before the lockout) snap up a good chunk of the brand name, first division back-ups. It’s possible Rick Hahn has some magic up his sleeve, but if you told me that I’ll wake up on Opening Day and these 3 are the catchers in the mix, along with a no-name or overaged Spring Training invitee, it wouldn’t shock me.
Inevitably, I think the best approach would be something like the Giants treated Buster Posey last season, with a twist. The Giants started Posey in 102 of this 113 games behind the plate (he came into 4 other games) and used Curt Casali materially as his back up. They sought out a veteran catcher with specific strengths to their staff to use both he and Posey optimally.
With Yas, I’d probably catch him a little more, maybe 110 starts and then sprinkle another 35 or so at DH and I think you’d have an optimal mix. Stretching this competitive window and getting the max out of your key components is going to take a little more work than just winding up the toys and rolling them out there. I’d like to see the White Sox do some of that.
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