In general, when you think of catchers leading a pitching staff for a playoff team, it's not the youngsters who come to mind. Names like current managers Brad Ausmus and Mike Matheny come to mind. Backstops like Yadier Molina or Russell Martin are the go-to active examples. Cubs manager Joe Maddon came to the North Side in the offseason, and along with his arrival, the team added two veteran catchers—Miguel Montero and David Ross—in an attempt to jump-start its ability to compete. It's worked thus far, and Maddon knows that developing a young catcher is a process, one that can be difficult for a team with playoff aspirations.
"When guys come to the big leagues as a catcher, they're so ill-prepared regarding calling a game, understanding a game, understanding a lot of stuff, because they don't do that in the minors," Maddon recently said. "You do it on a much smaller level; it's primarily a situation where you're trying to take care of physical fundamentals, as opposed to mental fundamentals. If you have a special catcher and a really good catching instructor or program in the minor leagues, that's essential. Because to me that's one of the hardest things, it's like a quarterback in the NFL, reading a defense. They talk about how it takes five years to really understand that stuff; it takes a couple years for a catcher to understand exactly what's going on. It may sound overblown, but it's true. I really think that coming into this moment, if you have somebody to really prepare you to understand what's going on here; 60 feet, six inches I know, 90 feet to the bases I know, the gun readings, everyone has seen that. But the game could not be any more different [up in the big leagues]."
Maddon added that every once in a while, a youngster emerges who not only provides at a high level with the bat (something that wasn't the case with Ausmus or Matheny), but has the ability to quickly gain the trust of his pitching staff and do what is needed behind the plate. Joe Mauer was that guy, so was Buster Posey, and Sal Perez may be as well, but there's another who has emerged this season: Yasmani Grandal.
Grandal, who missed some time in late May with a concussion, has been impressive at the plate. He has 12 home runs in 61 games, already approaching his career-high 15 that he set last season in nearly double the plate appearances. His .304 TAv is notable for any bat, but especially so for a backstop, as that ranks behind only Stephen Vogt and Buster Posey among catchers. Grandal brings an impressive combination of power and patience at the plate: His .228 ISO and 15 percent walk rate are tops among catchers with at least 200 plate appearances.
There's no denying the offense, but what makes Grandal really special is that he's equally talented behind the plate. After struggling to throw out baserunners the last two seasons (caught stealing percentages of 8 and 13 percent), Grandal is proving that he may not have been primarily at fault for those issues while in San Diego, as he's gotten back above league average this season, catching 28 percent of attempted basestealers. When it comes to framing, Grandal has consistently been among the best at the craft, and this season he's taken it to another level, as he's tops in baseball in framing runs added.
Sure, that's all well and good, but does he get along with his pitchers? While in San Diego, Andrew Cashner, Ian Kennedy, and Tyson Ross all preferred to throw to other catchers. The 26-year-old Grandal jokingly took issue when I asked if he was surprised that a team with such high aspirations wanted to take a chance on a young catcher who had yet to develop a strong rapport with previous staffs—more with calling him young than anything else. But he quickly pointed out that Dodgers' new Senior VP of Baseball Operations, Josh Byrnes, was very familiar with Grandal when both were with the Padres.
"I knew that Josh had seen all the hard work I had put into [being a catcher], you know, scouting reports and how to go about a guy," Grandal stated. "I felt like he knew that I had a really good feel for the game and I feel like that was one of the reasons I was able to become a Dodger."
After being acquired by Los Angeles, Grandal admitted that his 2014 season was a bit of an "eye-opener" in terms of learning how to interact with his pitching staff. Both the catcher who Grandal was taking over for, A.J. Ellis, and the Dodgers' pitching staff were immediately impressed with the youngster's work ethic in the spring, leading Zack Greinke, who is in the midst of his best season since his 2009 Cy Young campaign, to say
He's been unbelievable back there. His catching is better than advertised, and working with me individually, he's been as good as you could expect. I don't think, from what I've seen so far, you could ever have expected anything more. He's done everything. His hands are great. He's blocked everything I've thrown. People stole on him last year, but he's had some really good throws in games I've thrown in spring training. And then his game calling's been good. I couldn't draw up a better catcher at the moment.
(Via Dylan Hernandez and the LA Times, emphasis my own.)
That's certainly a rave review from a pitcher who has been known to be particular about numerous aspects of his game.
"A lot of times, the fact is a pitcher just needs to see you doing your scouting reports," Grandal told me. "They need to know you're doing your homework, you're watching guys, you know exactly what it is that you want to do with a guy. And at the same time, it's that conversation, going back and forth with the pitcher, kind of picking his brain and making sure he's picking your brain so that you're both thinking the same thing."
Grandal admitted that early on he enjoyed catching pitchers who had just arrived from the minors and would let him run the game-calling aspect. Veteran pitchers would shake him off until he gave them the sign they desired, which may not have been the best choice for that situation.
"I couldn't really go up to them and say, 'Hey, you need to throw this,'" Grandal said. "A lot of times I'll get back to the dugout and I'll go watch the video or look at the numbers and just make sure I was on the right pitch. Obviously, with the pitch that they were throwing, the guy was hitting .400 and the pitch that I was calling, the guy was hitting .250. So I'm pretty sure we would have had a better shot with whatever pitch I was calling. But at the same time, they've been doing it a long time, they know what they want to do, they know what their strengths and weaknesses are. I feel like a lot of times they just didn't want to make me think. Just throw their game, throw to their strengths, and go from there."
But to get to this point, Grandal did have to learn when to speak up and when to let the pitcher have his way. It's a delicate balance, one that takes maturity and patience, and it appears that Grandal's learning curve has accelerated during his time in Los Angeles.
"It's a matter of learning how to approach it," Grandal pointed out. "Every guy is different. That just comes with time. It's a two-way street, so you can't just be head-strong and hard-headed—which I'm both. But at the same time you have to take a step back and say 'I'd much rather him be really confident throwing this pitch.' It may not be the best pitch, but he's 100 percent sure he wants to throw it. And maybe the pitch I want to call, maybe he's just 70 percent sure in that pitch. A lot of times I'll go up to them and say, 'If you're going to throw this, just throw it here, because this is the pitch you want to throw. But if you don't throw it here, just know that this is going to happen.' A lot of times guys will compliment me after the game saying, 'Hey, I thought you were right.' But at the same time, I'll have a conversation with him and I'll walk back and think about it and realize, you know what, that's the right pitch."
Of course, along with the intangibles and the bat, Grandal brings framing skills to the table.
"I don't really work on it, I just catch. I try to get my guys strikes … well, I don't want to say I try to get them strikes," Grandal said, correcting himself. "I try to get them to throw the ball on the edges and hopefully the umpire will give us calls. I don't really work on it; I'm not really trying to make a fool out of the umpire. I'm just trying to make sure my guys are hitting the corners and if we are hitting the corners, we're having a great day and that just means that we're making good pitches."
The way Grandal describes it, framing isn't something he focused on while developing his catching skills. With framing becoming a greater part of baseball's consciousness, catchers have started to avoid talking about it as something they specifically do. As Grandal implied, they don't want to make an umpire think they're trying to pull one over on them. And while it may be true that a catcher and his instructor don't have specific drills focused on framing, having sound fundamentals and proper mechanics behind the plate will result in getting extra strikes for your pitcher. It's not as though framing is out-and-out taught, but all the little things learned along the way, if properly implemented, lead to what we now call framing.
Grandal credits having a keen eye while some of the best work their craft and learning from them. "It comes from a lot of hours of watching people," he said. "It wasn't the fact that I was watching a specific person saying, 'I want to steal strikes like that guy.' I watched David Ross when he was in Boston in the playoffs when they won it all. Different times he was set up different ways and I saw that he was getting a lot of calls that way. I also saw [Jose] Molina when he was in Tampa Bay, and it was almost the same thing, he was set up in different ways or he'd catch the ball in a different way."
Grandal admitted to being a student of the game when it comes to improving his defense and learning from those he watched while coming up in the minors—Henry Blanco, Miguel Montero—those who have come up along with him—Buster Posey and Travis D'Arnaud—and those he watched as a fan while growing up—Ivan Rodriguez and Jason Varitek.
"I've seen a lot of guys and it's just a matter of seeing what it is they do and what it is that I can apply to my game. I was a big Jorge Posada fan when young, but later found out he wasn't so good at it," Grandal said with a chuckle. "But I just like him."
The Dodgers took a chance by acquiring a young catcher who had a couple red flags on his resume, including a PED suspension and struggles to develop strong relationships with his pitchers. But thus far, the gamble appears to be paying off in a big way. Grandal's offense is among the best in his peer group, as is his framing. He's improved his ability to control the running game and earned the respect and confidence of the veteran pitchers he's tasked with catching. What can the young star do next to take his game to the next level?
"I think you're always improving," Grandal said. "There are people who will play this game for 15 years and they'll still be improving on things by the time they're done. There's not a limit as to how good you can be; somebody has always done better than you. It's just getting better at everything, not just catching pitches, or having your pitching staff have confidence in you, just overall I need to get better. I feel like if I can get better at something each day, whether it's catching, hitting, mentally, physically, whatever it is, if you get good at something each day, at the end of your career I think you'll be a pretty good player."
After some early bumps in the road, Grandal appears to be well on his way to doing just that.
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