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Yasmani Grandal is having a career year with the Milwaukee Brewers

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The metrics indicate that the Yasmanian Devil has been better than ever before.

MLB: Milwaukee Brewers at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Last season, the Brewers received middling but acceptable production from a catching tandem of Manny Pina and NLDS Legend Erik Kratz. This past January, David Stearns made a move to upgrade the position. He inked Yasmani Grandal, the top catcher available on the free agent market, to a one-year deal. Grandal is making $16 million this season, but the mutual option on his deal has a $2.25 million buyout, so it’s essentially an $18.25 million salary for one season. While Grandal’s strong track record made him deserving of a more luxurious multi-year deal, the one he ended up signing still represented a somewhat significant commitment for small-market Milwaukee’s standards.

Fast forward to today, and Grandal is proving that he’s been worth every penny of the deal and then some. Much of the attention is going to Christian Yelich’s accomplishments and the struggles of former stalwarts Travis Shaw, Jesus Aguilar, and Lorenzo Cain. As a result, it’s been lost in the shuffle just how good Grandal has been. Not only is he putting up strong numbers per usual, but he’s quietly putting up career-best numbers.

Entering Thursday morning, many of Grandal’s offensive statistics are personal bests (assuming his 60-game rookie season doesn’t qualify). That includes his 130 wRC+, which is second-best among all qualified catchers, and his .373 on-base percentage, which is second-highest on the team behind Christian Yelich. He’s popped 11 home runs in 201 plate appearances, and his .244 ISO is the second-best mark of his career. His .885 OPS is significantly higher than his previous best of .816.

While he has continued to struggle with passed balls on occasion, that hasn’t stopped Grandal from contributing on the defensive side of the game. He’s been incredibly durable, particularly in the wake of Manny Pina’s injury. His 408.1 innings behind the plate ranks second to only Yadier Molina. Grandal has long graded out as one of baseball’s best pitch framers, and this season has been no different. Per Baseball Prospectus’ framing metric, he’s been the second-best framer in the game, racking up 6.6 framing runs. His elite framing ability is a big reason why the Brew Crew ranks second among all MLB teams in CSAA (Called Strikes Above Average), getting 12% more called strikes than the average team.

Overall, Grandal has literally been the best catcher in the game this season. He is tied for first among all Major League catchers with 2.0 fWAR. Based on that, FanGraphs estimates that he has already been worth $15.9 million, which is nearly his entire overall salary. If he continues to perform at this level, he would finish the season at roughly 5.7 WAR, which would make it the best season of his career.

What’s helping Grandal perform better than ever before at the plate? First of all, he’s making more solid contact. He’s hitting the baseball harder than ever before, boasting a 45.2% hard contact rate and an average exit velocity of 91.2 miles per hour. He’s hitting more line drives (22.6%), which has no doubt contributed to an 18-point rise in his BABIP over last season (.278 to .296).

Grandal has also implemented a more aggressive approach at the plate.

Grandal’s approach, 2018 vs 2019

Season Swing % Zone Swing % Zone Contact % Chase % Chase Contact % 1st Pitch Swing % Whiff %
Season Swing % Zone Swing % Zone Contact % Chase % Chase Contact % 1st Pitch Swing % Whiff %
2018 38.4 57.5 79.7 19.8 53 17.6 28
2019 45.9 67.6 80.1 25.7 53.3 30.8 27.6
Grandal is swinging more, and it’s working.

Grandal is swinging 10% more frequently overall compared to last season, and he’s attacking the first pitch far more often. What’s most notable is that he’s been able to be more aggressive without sacrificing contact or his ability to get on base. Grandal had previously tested out a similarly aggressive approach in 2017, but his walk rate and on-base percentage fell to career-worst marks of 8.3% and .308. This time around, Grandal has found out how to be more aggressive without diminishing his strengths. His whiff rate and overall contact rate are essentially identical to what they were last season, he’s striking out slightly less, his walk rate is slightly higher, and his on-base percentage is a career best.

The switch-hitting Grandal has also improved on what could have been considered his only real offensive “weakness” over the past two seasons. In that span, he managed a mediocre .312 wOBA and .701 OPS as a right-handed hitter compared to a .347 wOBA and .817 OPS from the left side. In 2019, Grandal has mashed as a righty. Last year, he hit four home runs as a righty in 131 plate appearances. This season, he has already matched that total in just 66 trips to the plate. For the first time since 2015, he is actually performing better as a right-handed hitter than he is as a lefty.

FanGraphs

Grandal is swinging and missing less than ever before from the right side, with his whiff rate dropping to 17.8%. He has stopped trying to pull the ball and is now going to the opposite field 42.2% of the time. In turn, his ground ball rate as a righty is down to 28.9%, his line drive rate has risen to the same mark, and his hard contact rate has jumped to 53.3%. He carries a whopping .432 xwOBA that supports his success. Obviously, the relatively small sample size that we’re looking at is why some of the improvements look so drastic. Grandal’s numbers as a right-handed hitter will slowly come back down to earth, but it looks like he has taken some legitimate steps forward.

Last season, Milwaukee catchers ranked 13th in baseball with 2.0 fWAR in 163 games and 23rd with a 75 wRC+. While that’s acceptable production, the addition of Grandal has vaulted them to fourth with a 1.9 fWAR in 56 games and fifth with a 113 wRC+. Not only has he done everything expected of him, but the veteran backstop has also provided a cherry on top by producing what could wind up being a career season. Snagging Grandal on a one-year, $18 million deal in free agency already looked like a clear bargain at the time, and that has been exactly the case.

(And, if we’re being honest, he’s been worth it for the sweet bat drops alone.)

Statistics courtesy of FanGraphs, Baseball Savant, and Baseball Prospectus, updated as of May 30.