“Draft last year’s disappointment.” Maybe you’ve heard this advice before. Some players just have off years. Others have their draft price slip because they were hurt. These are the players that are the best values on draft day the following year. As I mentioned in last week’s article, 2014 busts Joey Votto and Carlos Gonzalez provided big value for those of you who took the plunge in 2015. Fantasy owners can be quick to give up on players who let us down, and this often proves to be a mistake.
Last year, lots of catchers disappointed for numerous reasons. But we should be careful not to discard them too quickly. Especially not Yasmani Grandal.
In 2015, expectations for Yasmani Grandal were rising. Savvy fantasy players called him a breakout candidate. They noted his keen batting eye and emerging power. He moved to a better home park (by a little) and better lineup (by a lot) when he was sent to Los Angeles in the Matt Kemp trade. It seemed likely that he would blow away the previous year’s fantasy numbers: 47/15/49/.225.
It didn’t happen. Instead he put up a near replica of the previous season: 43/16/47/.234. This is not the type of performance that will satisfy an enthusiastic owner looking for a breakout. But I have some news: Grandal actually did breakout in 2015. The breakout isn’t reflected in the full season’s numbers, but it happened. It just came to a halt before the season was over.
It is easy to forget that Grandal was an all-star last year. We can scoff at all-star selections, but this one was based on merit. In the first half he posted 14 home runs with a .281/.401/.526 slash line. A walk percentage of 13.1% was already a plus, but pushing that number up to 16.3 suggested real improvement. Meanwhile the troubling 26% k% was pushed under 20%. There wasn’t much here to suggest this was a fluke.
He continued to hit well after the break and was finding himself in the middle of the order, which would add more heft to his counting stats. Grandal’s owners were feeling great about themselves, and deservedly so.
In early August Grandal was hit in the shoulder with a foul ball. The injury didn’t get any better. Witness this quote from Grandal in the LA Times.
“It started out in the [trapezius], then went up to the neck, then went up to the middle back. Then right rib, then left rib. The past couple days, it’s gotten better to where we could start strengthening that shoulder without having to worry about the rib, the back or the neck.”
Meanwhile he kept talking his way into the lineup. And his season hit the skids.
After the injury his slugging percentage was .091. His slugging percentage! He could not hit at all, and it got worse with each passing day. He did maintain his batting eye, but the strikeouts were as bad as they had ever been. When he did make contact he was pulling the ball weakly, likely the result of compensating for the serious pain he was in. His power was simply gone.
This was clearly more than the aches and pains most catcher deal with. We hear about the difference between playing hurt and playing injured. Grandal was injured. More than Daniel Murphy’s heroics or the zaniness between the Blue Jays and the Rangers, my most vivid memory of the 2015 postseason was the hopelessness we saw from Grandal when he stepped to the plate.
We don’t put stock into splits the way we used to and it is to our credit. Someone who tears it up at the end of one season is not necessarily a breakout star the next. Likewise, someone who slows down in the second half is not necessarily going to be bad next year. You would think we wouldn’t downgrade Grandal too much; while his performance in the last two months of the season was brutal, his injury is a pretty good excuse for it.
So why is he the 13th catcher going off the board in NFBC drafts, going behind unproven commodities like Blake Swihart and J.T. Realmuto? Other players being taken ahead of him like Yan Gomes do not possess Grandal’s skills while presenting at least as much risk. Grandal offers some upside as he’s only 27.
We should be better than this. Drafters are possibly under-estimating the effect the shoulder injury had on his overall numbers, which mask 4 months of stellar play. Maybe they just can’t put aside what they saw in the postseason, or what Grandal did to their fantasy teams once things took a downward turn.
Grandal underwent surgery for his shoulder and is expected to be healthy. Studies have shown that while injuries like Grandal’s can torch a season, there is little carryover effect into the next year. Even if he doesn’t maintain all the gains of early 2015, his batting eye keeps his floor higher than his low batting average suggests, and 20 home runs is not out of the question. A hot start can put him right back in the middle of the lineup.
Devin Mesoraco, Jonathan Lucroy, and Matt Wieters are other catchers who might be good for a bounceback, and I’ll never quit Matt Wieters. But I am not seeing much of a discount on those players come draft day (Lucroy is still being drafted second overall). Grandal offers a low-risk price, and he has already shown what he can do so you know the potential rewards.
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