Nearly two years ago, Yasmani Grandal arrived in Los Angeles with a reputation as being an elite pitch framer. You might say he's lived up to that and then some -- and it's making a big difference this postseason as the Dodgers head into Game 3 of the National League Championship Series tonight tied at one game apiece with the Cubs.
In 2015, per Baseball Prospectus, Grandal was the best pitch-framing catcher in baseball. In '16, he was baseball's second best, behind Buster Posey. By those calculations, Grandal has saved the Dodgers nearly 52 runs in framing alone, and while the exact numbers are more an estimation than a fact, there's no argument that Grandal is one of baseball's truly elite backstops at turning balls into strikes, or keeping strikes strikes. It's a big part of why the Dodgers traded Matt Kemp to get him, and it's possible to go so far as to say losing Grandal is a factor in why Zack Greinke wasn't the same away from Los Angeles.
So while Grandal hasn't done terribly much with the bat this October (.105/.292/.105, which is two singles and five walks) in parts of seven games, it'd be a huge mistake to look at that line and assume that he hasn't been helping the Dodgers succeed. Grandal's framing skill has manifested itself several times this postseason -- perhaps most notably in the crucial ninth inning of Game 2.
For example, check out what he did to help Kenley Jansen on a borderline first pitch to Kris Bryant with one out in a one-run game in the ninth inning. This is a perfect example of framing -- or "presenting," as some prefer -- in that you can see Grandal keeps his body still and ever so slightly moves his glove to make the pitch look like a strike:
How much does that matter? The difference between starting off a plate appearance 1-0 or 0-1 is, not to overstate it, everything. Let's look at career numbers for both Bryant and Jansen to see what happens after those two different first pitch outcomes:
Bryant, after 1-0: .279/.415/.520 .935 OPS Bryant, after 0-1: .256/.337/.447 .784 OPS
------------------------------------------------------- Jansen, after 1-0: .216/.346/.351 .697 OPS Jansen, after 0-1: .134/.168/.212 .380 OPS
That's a huge difference, particularly on the pitching side. When Jansen falls behind, 1-0, he's still hard to hit, but his strikeout-to-walk ratio is just 1.91 (174-to-91). When he gets ahead, 0-1, that strikeout-to-walk ratio jumps to a massive 16.4 (458-to-28). On the hitting side, Bryant goes from a superstar to something closer to slightly above average (the Major League overall OPS this year was .750), and that's not unique to him. A single pitch going one way or the other can matter so much. Bryant would swing at strike two, then watch the third strike go by, though that was clearly in the zone.
It's not just limited to one pitch, of course. We saw Grandal help Jansen with a similar pitch earlier in the same inning, turning a borderline 1-0 pitch to Dexter Fowler into strike one, rather than ball two. As you can imagine, the outcomes of plate appearances that start 1-1 are far more advantageous to the pitcher than ones that start off 2-0; Fowler would strike out swinging.
If Grandal is making that much of an impact in a single inning, perhaps you can see where Baseball Prospectus is coming up with the numbers that over the course of two full seasons, he's saved those 52 runs. So let's not just limit ourselves to just two hitters in Game 2 of the NLCS; instead, what about if we look at what Grandal has done over the full postseason? For comparison, let's show his borderline or outside-zone called strikes side by side with Russell Martin. (Please note the point here is not to say that Martin is bad at this, because he's actually above average; it's to show how elite Grandal is).
This is from the catcher's perspective, and the difference should be clear. Though Grandal has caught somewhat more pitches overall than Martin has, and that matters, it's still a pretty noticable difference, isn't it? What you can see here is that Martin is pretty good at receiving on his glove side, while Grandal is good at that and he excels at the bottom of the zone and at his throwing hand side. For all the talk about what the Dodgers lost when they traded away the highly regarded A.J. Ellis, it's worth noting that Ellis routinely ranked near the bottom of framing numbers, as does his replacement, Carlos Ruiz.
Let's note that these are not all "missed calls" from the umpire's point of view, because many of these are right on the edge and could go either way. We know where this conversation goes, and that the umpire, who potentially missed a call that had a big impact on the game, made a mistake. That's unfair, though; for the most part, the umpires do well at the very difficult task they're asked to do -- we always talk about how much the added velocity in today's game affects hitters, and maybe we should about umpires as well -- and for a catcher, it's not always about "stealing strikes," it's often about "not being awful and turning strikes into balls." And, of course, we're showing a static strike zone across many different hitters, which isn't totally accurate in reality.
Highest percentage of "close call" pitches turned into called strikes
11 percent -- Grandal (61 pitches)
11 percent -- Perez (38)
10.8 percent -- Contreras (29)
10.1 percent -- Jose Lobaton (28)
9.6 percent -- Martin (40)
8.7 percent -- Sandy Leon (23)
8.4 percent -- Posey (37)
8.2 percent -- Jonathan Lucroy (19)
7.1 percent -- David Ross (17)
4.6 percent -- Pedro Severino (10)
Nearly two years after the controversial five-player deal that brought Grandal to Los Angeles for Kemp, there are still those who believe the Dodgers got ripped off because Grandal strikes out a lot and his batting average is poor. We've always known that batting average doesn't matter much; if you look at on-base skills and power among regular catchers, only Wilson Ramos and Lucroy topped Grandal with the bat. We haven't seen that power in October, yet. We've seen that framing value, however. It's quietly been huge.
Mike Petriello is an analyst for MLB.com and the host of the Statcast podcast. He has previously written for ESPN Insider and FanGraphs. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.