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We’re more than 50 submissions into the Offseason Plan Project, and there’s no surprise that the shopping lists focus primarily on the outfield, second base, and support for the rotation.
Beyond the obvious gaps, I’m a little bit surprised to see a number of plans seeking to relieve Yasmani Grandal of 40 games or so behind the plate, if not trading him entirely. His below-average blocking had been a mild concern, but the concerns are exacerbated by a drop-off in his throwing, and so some of our GMs want to see him get more time at first base, DH, or with another organization.
These plans are not wrong in pointing out this shortcoming. After allowing 50 steals in 80 games during the 2021 season, it’s fair to say that Grandal’s arm falls short of a strength. That said, he’s coming off a year where opponents were just 7-for-13 against him over 32 games. The midseason knee surgery is one variable, which perhaps sapped his ability to make quick throws at full power. But the Sox had other catchers without nagging injuries, and they were even worse at cutting down runners.
Collins and Zavala aren’t going to get weapons-based nicknames like James McCann or Martín Maldonado, but when three catchers with ordinary arms all have a miserable time in this facet of the game, it makes me think that focusing on replacing Grandal is treating a symptom, and not the root issue. The final series against Detroit, in which the Tigers went 9-for-9, suggested a whole-system shortfall. Here are those nine steals:
Given the recency of this teamwide failure, I was surprised seeing a fair amount of plans attempt to replace Grandal as the first-string catcher, or at least put him into an equal time-sharing agreement. To me, it doesn’t seem to rise to the level of an emergency, especially since Grandal just hit 240/.420/.520 at the plate. That’s 4 WAR production over 60 percent of a season, so fine-tuning that playing time to incorporate better throwing seems like an awfully small needle to thread. My instinct is to say Grandal’s weaknesses are no match on the scales for everything he does well. I get and support the desire for catching depth, especially complementary depth. I don’t get the urge to see less of Grandal behind the plate just because he’s not perfect.
I’ll admit I have a natural aversion to such discussions. I’ve adhered to the Bill James quote about bad front offices having the tendency to obsess over the secondary skills of their best players, so trying to solve Grandal’s throwing is like wanting Alexei Ramirez to absorb contact at second base or Frank Thomas to swing at pitches outside the zone. It’d be great if they could, but I’d rather use the energy to focus on the positions where nothing’s going right.
That attitude does run the risk of being too closed-off to improvement or blind to the early stages of a decline, and seeing enough plans demand a heavy Grandal supplement motivated me to look under the hood at his throws in 2021. I think we can all agree there’s a problem. The devil is determining how to draw up the fault.
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Armed with MLB.com’s Film Room site and an Excel version of a scratch pad, I watched all 50 stolen bases on Grandal. In fact, I watched them twice because apparently I saved my first accounting of it to a temp folder. The good news is that it’s probably worth reviewing multiple times, because there’s gray area between the categories, and you might be inclined to grade one based on a steal that came before, and I watched them in a slightly different order the second time around.
At least that’s how I’m trying to spin having to redo work this morning that I thought I’d accomplished the day before. Either way, I came to the conclusion that Grandal had no chance on about half of the steals. Here’s my count per category:
- Huge jump/no chance — 21 steals
- No throw — 10 steals
- Good throw, not in time — 9 steals
- Bad throw, little chance — 8 steals
- Bad throw, legit chance — 2 steals
If you want a sample of the coin-toss steals — or even the 30/70 bases — I’ve compiled some clips below.
Good throws, not in time
This isn’t exactly a lowlight reel, because it includes league leader Starling Marte, and a couple other 30-steal guys in Myles Straw and Tommy Edman. Those players generate a lot of their supplemental value by having the ability to outrun even valiant attempts to cut them down.
These are the uglier attempts. A number of them had little hope, but they’re indicative of times where Grandal’s execution left a lot to be desired. A better catcher might’ve converted on these opportunities. Failing that, they could’ve at least looked prettier.
Here’s where we note that Grandal also had 12 caught runners on his tab. Of course, every catcher would look better if you filtered out the cases where he had no chance, but his success rate on attempts that he had a chance is not indicative of a catcher who a liability in and of himself, a la Kevan Smith a few years back.
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The chunk of stolen bases that’s most concerning to me is the one where Grandal didn’t throw, because there’s a common thread uniting the majority. As for the outliers, there’s one where Grandal committed to getting a called third strike on a borderline pitch because the situation lacked leverage to make the steal matter, which is fine. There’s another one where Victor Reyes caught Leury García napping and took third in a delayed fashion with nobody covering. That isn’t fine, but we can’t say that’s Grandal’s fault, either.
But then there are eight steals where the White Sox, like a team in Little League or the original R.B.I. Baseball, simply didn’t have an answer for runners on the corners, and the runner on first moved ahead with no contest. This is also not a Grandal-specific issue, because MLB’s video archive shows 18 such steals against the White Sox during the 2021 season overall. The average team yielded just 10. The White Sox just stole six bases in those situations themselves. (You might’ve remembered the one time they were caught, which is the time Tony La Russa had Liam Hendriks run for himself in extra innings because La Russa didn’t know the rules.)
Dallas Keuchel, who was the only White Sox starter who demonstrated the ability to suppress the running game, was also the one pitcher who demonstrated an ability to check a team’s aggression with runners on the corners. If only César Hernández didn’t screw it up.
To the extent that this is a Grandal thing, it’s also a thing for so many other people. The pitchers. The other catchers. La Russa. Ethan Katz. Joe McEwing. Miguel Cairo. Jerry Narron. Whoever else is on the coaching staff next year, because we’re still awaiting Rick Hahn’s end-of-season media session. The Tigers stole 25 bases in 27 attempts against the White Sox over 19 games, as opposed to 63 steals in 86 attempts over the other 143. The Sox allowed three or more steals in 10 games. The Angels were the only other team with more than eight.
It’s a good idea to get a catcher who’s a bigger threat to runners than Grandal. It’ll complicate scouting reports, and it’d protect the Sox against a Grandal decline or absence, because you can’t point to anything Collins or Zavala do well, and that’s a problem. I’m just not inclined to think the position needs much more thought or resources than that, especially when resources are finite. There’s the idea that Grandal’s midseason knee surgery and an offseason of rest might halt the downturn. There’s also the larger idea that any improvement would be nearly impossible to detect if the White Sox don’t address the severe deficiencies everywhere else.
(Photo by Thomas Shea/USA TODAY Sports)