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June 2, 2011

Prospectus Hit and Run

Ain't it Grand(erson)?

by Jay Jaffe

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On Tuesday night in Oakland, Curtis Granderson did something he hadn't done since August 15, 2008: collect three hits in a game off a single left-handed pitcher. Not just any lefty, either; his three hits came against the A's Brett Anderson, one of the league's top southpaws. Perhaps it wasn't Anderson's night, as the Bronx Bombers rocked him for 10 runs in 5 1/3 innings, but the lefty-swinging center fielder was at the center of the action. He started the fireworks show in the first inning, following Derek Jeter's leadoff single with a 393-foot blast to right field for his 17th home run of the season and a 2-0 lead. After striking out in the third, he laced a two-out, two-run single in the fourth to expand the Yankees' lead to 5-1, and singled in his final turn against Anderson in the sixth, coming around to score the Yankees' ninth run when Alex Rodriguez greeted reliever Brad Ziegler with a bases-loaded single. Granderson ended the night hitting .323/.373/.823 with nine homers in 69 plate appearances against lefties, a remarkable turnaround for a player who less than a year ago looked like platoon material. Small sample sizes be damned, his home runs and slugging percentage against lefties are the best for any American Leaguer from either side of the plate this year.

Granderson has emerged as the most potent hitter in the game's most potent lineup; through Tuesday, the Yankees led the majors with 5.26 runs per game, with the next-highest teams at 4.91. His .335 True Average—a park- and league-adjusted measure of total offensive value per out, expressed on the scale of batting average—ranked fourth in the league behind Jose Bautista, Matt Joyce, and Miguel Cabrera. His .627 slugging percentage ranked third behind only Bautista and Joyce, and his 17 homers second behind only Bautista. Like the Toronto slugger, whose September 2009 home run spike foreshadowed his 54-homer 2010 campaign, Granderson is the product of a dramatic late-season turnaround that has paid even bigger dividends the following year.

Rewind to last August, when he rode the bench for two days in Texas. Having been acquired over the winter in a three-way deal involving the Diamondbacks and Tigers, one which had cost the Yankees Ian Kennedy, Austin Jackson, and Phil Coke—all of whom had enjoyed strong seasons in their new locales, while their pinstriped counterparts flailed—the slumping 29-year-old lefty was hitting just .240/.307/.417 with 10 homers. After some focused attention from hitting coach Kevin Long, who had most notably helped Nick Swisher remake his swing in late 2009, a new Curtis Granderson emerged.

Long eliminated some of the moving parts from Granderson's swing, opened his stance, moved his hands back, and had him keep both hands on the bat throughout his motion. The hitting coach credits Granderson's intelligence with helping the changes stick. "He's a very bright young man, he was able to take the information that was given to him and simplify it into layman's terms," he said recently. "Simpler and more compact, a more explosive swing. I thought it was four or five big things, and he said it really wasn't that big of a deal.”

Back in the lineup on August 12 after his intensive cage work, Granderson went 2-for-3 with a double against Royals southpaw Bruce Chen, and from there he was off to the races, hitting .261/.356/.564 with 14 homers in his final 48 games; only Bautista and Troy Tulowitzki bopped more. From that point through Tuesday, Granderson's post-reconstruction line was .274/.356/.599 with 31 homers in 101 games, with only Bautista outdistancing him in homers, at 39.

The most striking facet of Granderson's turnaround is his performance against southpaws. During his four full seasons with the Tigers (2006-2009), he hit just .206/.265/.331 in such matchups. By rights he should have been riding pine whenever a lefty was on the hill, but manager Jim Leyland started him in 179 out of 193 such games. Though Granderson began playing every day with the Yankees, manager Joe Girardi had fewer reservations about benching him against lefties upon first-hand exposure to his woes. Granderson sat for eight out of 29 games, and hit just .206/.243/.275 with one homer and an ugly 28/5 strikeout-to-walk ratio in 110 plate appearances against lefties when he did play—worse than his Detroit days. Since re-emerging, he has not only survived against southpaws, he has thrived; among lefties with at least 75 PA against their same-sided counterparts in that span, only the Reds' Jay Bruce has done better:

Player

PA

HR

AVG

OBP

SLG

OPS

Jay Bruce

84

14

.405

.470

1.041

1.511

Curtis Granderson

133

12

.305

.374

.669

1.043

Joey Votto

130

4

.357

.446

.580

1.026

Chase Utley

79

4

.299

.405

.537

.942

Stephen Drew

132

5

.287

.341

.533

.874

Logan Morrison

125

0

.330

.440

.427

.867

Colby Rasmus

104

2

.279

.394

.465

.859

Jason Heyward

109

4

.275

.394

.462

.856

Adrian Gonzalez

164

5

.329

.384

.470

.854

Daric Barton

120

2

.283

.400

.444

.844

Granderson's potent bat has helped the Yankees offset agonizingly slow starts from Swisher, Derek Jeter, and Jorge Posada, and overcome the peaks and valleys amid the generally strong work by Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira, Robinson Cano, and Russell Martin. He hasn't gone more than four straight starts without an extra-base hit, or more than seven straight starts without a homer, both the shortest spans among Yankee regulars. During that homerless drought—which ended with his shot off Anderson—all Granderson did was hit .357/.471/.607 with six extra-base hits and three steals, a reminder that there's more to his game than just the long ball.

In a year in which Bautista is putting up numbers reminiscent of late-period Barry Bonds, Granderson isn’t tremendously likely to earn AL MVP honors, particularly with a story arc shadowing that of the Toronto slugger. Nonetheless, he’s the leading light on the team with the best record in the game’s toughest division, a player who has worked hard to shore up the holes in his game. That’ll have to do.

                                        A version of this story originally appeared on ESPN Insider Insider.

Jay Jaffe is an author of Baseball Prospectus. 
Click here to see Jay's other articles. You can contact Jay by clicking here

Related Content:  Curtis Granderson,  Southpaws

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