September 10, 2007
Similarities Great and Small
With a steal of second base in the first inning of Sunday's game, Curtis Granderson became just the third player in MLB history to tally 20 doubles, triples, home runs, and stolen bases in a single season. It was the highlight of what would become a 14-7 loss to the Mariners, pushing the Tigers a bit further from the AL Wild Card and a second straight trip to the postseason.
Granderson's achievement, while reflective of his speed and power, also has a tinge of fluke to it. The two players to rack up "four 20s" prior to him were Willie Mays, who was one of the five greatest players ever, and Frank Schulte, a decent outfielder for the Cubs' in the '10s for whom 1911, when he was named the NL MVP, was far and away the best year of his career. I don't know that being in this particular club tells you all that much about a player, which is often the case when you're dealing with these multi-category statistical milestones. A club that includes Schulte, Mays, and Granderson would have some interesting meetings.
Keep in mind that extra-base-hit distributions are influenced by a player's skills and handedness, but also his home ballpark and some randomness. While Granderson has actually hit more triples on the road than at home this season, Comerica Park does elevate triples for all players, giving him some boost. He also benefits from having good-but-not-great power. If he had great power, he'd be turning some of those doubles and triples into homers. That he doesn't is also an artifice of the ballpark, which keeps many of his fly balls in play.
While noting that this particular achievement is a bit contrived, it is good to see Granderson getting some attention. The Tigers' center fielder may have been best known for his stumble on a wet outfield in St. Louis last October, a fall that led to a David Eckstein double that may have been the turning point in the 2006 World Series. He's a better player than that, a plus defensive center fielder who puts a ton of runs on the board despite some gaping holes in his game.
Miscast as a leadoff hitter by virtue of being the only Tiger who "looks" like one, Granderson is posting a .359 OBP this season thanks to a .304 average that is almost certainly the top of his range. I'd written earlier this season about players' batting averages when not striking out. Granderson, who struck out 174 times last year and has whiffed 132 times this year, is hitting .399 when not striking out, which is one of the best marks in baseball. He hit .367 on contact last year, and the difference in those two numbers is basically the difference between him being a viable leadoff hitter and not. That .399 figure is hard to sustain, however, and likely to come back down in 2008.
Granderson's strikeout rate keeps him from being an optimal leadoff hitter, but its impact on his overall value is minimal. Strikeouts aren't much worse than other outs, and they tend to come as part of a package that includes power and some walks. There's room to be concerned about Granderson's walk rate and K/BB figures, however, both of which have gone backwards this season. His power and speed are real, but he can't lose much OBP before slipping into Joe Carter territory.
This is starting to read like a player profile from the Marc Normandin collection, and I'm not good enough to pull that off, so let me take this in another direction. I mentioned this on The Rundown, and I want to expound on it here-I can't shake the idea that Curtis Granderson is a 2000s version of Andy Van Slyke. Here are their lines by age, starting with Granderson's brief stint with the Tigers in 2005:
Age-24 Season PA AVG OBP SLG SB CS BB SO EqA WARP FRAR Granderson 174 .272 .314 .494 1 1 10 43 .283 2.9 15 Van Slyke 475 .259 .335 .439 34 6 47 54 .290 6.7 28* *right field, mostly
Age-25 Season PA AVG OBP SLG SB CS BB SO EqA WARP FRAR Granderson 680 .260 .335 .438 8 5 66 174 .272 8.4 45 Van Slyke 479 .270 .343 .452 21 8 47 85 .287 5.6 20* *right field, mostly
Age-26 Season PA AVG OBP SLG SB CS BB SO EqA WARP FRAR Granderson 609 .304 .359 .562 20 1 47 132 .315 12.2 43 Van Slyke 630 .293 .359 .507 34 8 56 122 .299 8.7 31* *center field, mostly
Van Slyke was in the majors to stay at 22, in part because Whitey Herzog was trying to make him a third baseman, but in part because he was actually good enough to be there. Granderson didn't play a full season until 24. As major leaguers, the two have tracked well enough, with Granderson having extra value as a full-time center fielder since he came into the league. Van Slyke was always good enough to play center, but the Cardinals had Willie McGee out there, who they thought was a better player and better center fielder; outside of 1985, that wasn't the case. Once traded to the Pirates (with Mike Dunne and Mike LaValliere for Tony Pena; see, the Pirates used to do smart things), he was more or less left alone in center field, and he seemed to grow into a different style at the plate, hitting for more power with an increased strikeout rate. More or less, Van Slyke would become what Granderson is. From 1987 through 1992, Van Slyke had double-digit totals in the Granderson categories three times, combining lefty power with good speed to be one of the best center fielders in the game.
What held Van Slyke back for much of his career also ails Granderson. AVS was notoriously bad against left-handed pitching, and had to be platooned throughout his peak. For his career, he hit .237/.307/.362 against southpaws, while roping righties to the tune of .290/.367/.479. The splits during his peak were laughable. From 1985 through 1988, Van Slyke posted OPS figures against lefties of 306, 643, 650, and 558, while playing like an MVP against righties. Granderson's career line against lefties, in 321 PA, is .201/.260/.368, with strikeouts in a third of his at-bats. He's just a no-show in the lineup against them this year: .157/.211/.270. Like Van Slyke, Granderson may actually need a platoon partner. Unlike Van Slyke, Granderson plays in a time where roster constructions makes platooning a rarity, so he plays every day.
The comps extend off of the field. In his heyday, Van Slyke was a quotable player popular with the media. Granderson has some of that too, maintaining a well-received blog at ESPN.com. It's not hard to see the 2007 version of Van Slyke doing the same. The two have different personalities-Van Slyke seemed more gregarious, Granderson seems more thoughtful-but both owe some of their popularity to a willingness to work with the media.
Two center fielders, two left-handed hitters, two high-strikeout guys, two guys who couldn't hit lefties, two guys with power and speed, two guys somewhat miscast (Granderson leadoff, Van Slyke at third base), two "good guys" by reputation...the parallels are striking. The visual obviously doesn't work-Van Slyke was a tall, lanky white guy, while Granderson is shorter and black. (Baseball-reference, which has been essential to this column, lists Granderson at 6'1", which surprises me. He seems smaller than that, closer to Juan Pierre, but officially, he's just an inch shorter than Van Slyke. Hrm.) I think that's one reason why the comparison works for me; two players with so many primary and secondary baseball traits in common, yet who look nothing alike.
If you were Curtis Granderson, would you take Van Slyke's career? From his age-27 season forward, Van Slyke had two top-ten MVP voting finishes and was the center fielder for three division champs. He eventually signed a four-year deal for $13 million-which was a lot of money then-but was out of the league by 35, his skills fading very quickly due to injuries. Granderson will certainly make more money, and he's already been to a World Series, but you have to think he'd want to play longer. In his favor is a one of the biggest changes in the game between the two careers: Van Slyke would play more games on artificial turf in a month than Granderson will play all year. The artificial surfaces Granderson does play on will be much more forgiving than the carpeted concrete Van Slyke endured. For that reason, Granderson should be able to last longer than Van Slyke, whose late-career problems can, at least in part, be traced back to more than 100 games a year on artificial turf.
There's one last parallel between the two: Andy Van Slyke had some of his best years under Jim Leyland, who 20 years ago was just starting his managerial career with the Pittsburgh Pirates. And today? Leyland now manages Granderson.