Dodgers betting Grandal’s struggles in San Diego will pay off in L.A.
The Padres’ top three starting pitchers preferred throwing to other catchers, so what happens if the Dodgers’ Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Co. also sour on Yasmani Grandal?
The question is not unreasonable, considering Grandal’s fall from grace with the Padres and the strong relationships that the Dodgers’ A.J. Ellis maintains with Kershaw and the team’s other pitchers.
The Dodgers, however, believe that they have a unique talent in Grandal, a 26-year-old switch-hitter whom they made the centerpiece of their return for Matt Kemp. And if Grandal fails, it will not be for lack of effort.
His problems with the Padres stemmed from his strong personality; Grandal walks the line between self-confidence and stubbornness, according to major-league sources. Over time, he lost his rapport with Padres right-handers Tyson Ross, Ian Kennedy and especially Andrew Cashner.
Grandal’s suspension for performance-enhancing drugs in November 2012 — and a subsequent apology that some with the Padres perceived as scripted — eroded his standing in the clubhouse, sources say. Grandal said he thought he did a “pretty good job” with his apology, and that no one with the team challenged him on it. But when he tried to assert leadership and initially did not play well, some viewed him even more skeptically, sources say.
The 2013 season was a mess for Grandal, who sat out the first 50 games with his suspension, then underwent reconstructive knee surgery in August. Rene Rivera emerged as a superior catcher in ’14 while Grandal, coming off surgery, experienced problems throwing and receiving. He tied for the NL lead with 12 passed balls despite starting only 67 games behind the plate, and only in the second half did he regain his offensive rhythm.
Now Grandal will be handling an even more established rotation and incorporating data-driven scouting reports from the Dodgers’ new front office. He has a strong backer in vice-president of baseball operations Josh Byrnes, who as the Padres’ GM acquired Grandal in the Mat Latos trade. Grandal and Ellis also will work closely with new advance scout Danny Lehmann, a former catcher at Rice whose professional career peaked at Triple A.
For Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers’ new president of baseball operations, Grandal amounts to a new toy. Friedman rarely employed a catcher who could hit during his nine seasons with the Rays; the team’s catchers averaged 12th in the AL in OPS during that time. Grandal last season had a .795 OPS after the All-Star Game and is under club control through 2018.
“It’s been awesome so far — the more I catch the (Dodgers’ pitchers), the better I get,” Grandal said. “The relationships will start building the more I catch, the more they see what I’m thinking back there, the more I see what they want to do.”
Kershaw, asked about the issues that Grandal had with the Padres, said, “I haven’t seen any of that. The only thing you want in a catcher is that he works. He does that. He’s a hard worker. Not only with catching, the physical part of it, but the mental side. He knew what I did before I even talked to him.
“There are obviously some growing pains, getting to know a catcher. But he’s been great. He’s done everything you can ask for. Everyone always comes in with a reputation regardless. I just try to tune it out and judge for myself.”
Kershaw’s affection for Ellis is well known, but manager Don Mattingly ended talk of any Dodgers pitcher using a personal catcher in mid-January. If Mattingly uses a strict platoon, Grandal likely will get about twice as much playing time as Ellis, who bats right-handed, turns 34 on April 9 and is coming off a trying, injury-marred season. Against a tough right-hander in Game 1 of a division series, Grandal seemingly would be the logical choice to catch Kershaw.
Assuming, of course, all goes smoothly.
Cashner declined comment when asked about Grandal, but the facts speak volumes: Grandal did not catch Cashner after July 5, 2013, a span of about 1-1/2 seasons. Grandal also did not start at catcher with Ross after last June 27 and with Kennedy after last July 18. The bulk of his work came with other Padres starters: lefty Eric Stults (now with the Braves) and righties Jesse Hahn (now with the Athletics) and Odrisamer Despaigne.
Rivera, since traded to the Rays, finished last season with a 3.10 catcher’s ERA in 734 innings. Grandal, however, did nearly as well working with lesser starters, producing a 3.35 catcher’s ERA in 607-2/3 innings. The Padres allowed the fewest runs over a 162-game season in their 46-year history, and fourth-fewest in the National League.
True, Grandal threw out only seven of 56 base stealers and played mostly at first base in the final five weeks to reduce the stress on his surgically repaired knee. His pitch-framing numbers, however, were elite. He was the best in the majors at getting called strikes when he should, and eighth among catchers who got called strikes on pitches that the Pitch F/X tracking system deemed outside the strike zone, according to ESPN.com. (Ellis’ framing numbers were not as good.)
“I got all those new guys who came up, gave them a taste of what the big leagues was like. They trusted me. They loved throwing to me,” Grandal said.
“It was a learning time for me. I never had anybody say, ‘We want to throw to this (other) guy.’ It had always been me. How do you deal with that? It was, ‘All right, concentrate on the guys you’re going to catch, be ready to catch the other guys just in case.’ And from there on, just play.”
Grandal, after finishing with only 377 at-bats, played in the Dominican Winter League to bring the number over 500 and build up his endurance behind the plate. He said that he is working closely with Ellis every morning, going over pitchers, going over hitters, talking about the Dodgers’ philosophy. And he has definite ideas about how the pitcher-catcher relationship should work.
“The way I think about, I’m open to suggestions,” Grandal said. “At the same time, there has to be that line where you’ve got to be open to suggestions, too.
“If you go through a scouting report, I’m studying the hitters, I’m doing my homework, I’m seeing exactly what they’re doing. If I pick something up and see something, just trust me with what I’m calling; I think right now this is the way it should go.
“Even though you’re the guy with the bullet, the guy who wants to throw whatever it is, I’m just giving you a suggestion. Sometimes I go up to you and say, ‘Hey, this is what we should go with,’ and you completely disagree with me. I’ll let you go, throw whatever you want. You’ve got to be confident in what you’re throwing.”
Sounds logical enough, but Grandal, as he moves into a new environment, would be wise to work on his, um, presentation. Some with the Dodgers believe the team actually will benefit from the problems that he experienced with the Padres, reasoning that he will be more diplomatic, more open to constructive exchange.
It needs to happen. For Grandal’s sake. And for the team’s.