(Photo by Rob Curtis/Icon Sportswire)
During spring training this year, Yasmani Grandal talked about how he retooled his swing in the offseason trying to increase his launch angle. The report wasn’t talked about too much, partially because seemingly every hitter is trying to increase their launch angle, and partially because the fantasy community was falling all over themselves to call his teammate Austin Barnes the breakout catcher of the year (I readily admit that I was a huge Barnes believer). He’s certainly being talked about now; Grandal has been the most productive catcher so far this year, and he looks like he’s on the verge of a career year. Well, almost. Unfortunately, the picture isn’t quite as pretty once you start looking closer at how it’s been put together.
Despite his efforts this offseason to put more balls in the air, Grandal’s launch angle has actually declined since last season. In 2017, he posted a 12.2 degree launch angle, putting him in the 53rd percentile of hitters. Not elite, but certainly solid. This year, his launch angle is only 10.3 degrees, which doesn’t sound like a huge decline, but it puts him in the 34th percentile. Even though he spoke about making a conscious effort of putting more balls in the air, he simply hasn’t done that, as his FB% is the lowest it’s been in four seasons (32.2%) and his GB% is the highest it’s been in that same time span (47.5%). He’s just simply not putting the ball in the air more.
So then why has he been so successful this season? If he’s not putting the ball in the air more, why is his slugging percentage the highest it’s ever been? Unfortunately, it’s partially because he’s been getting lucky. For his career, Grandal has been a .284 BABIP hitter, but this year he’s hit .364 on balls in play. While there are things that hitters can do to marginally improve their BABIP over time, these kinds of gains are not sustainable, and we’ll see his numbers fall back down to around his career average. Grandal has typically had a batting average about 40 points below his BABIP, so as his BABIP regresses, we can expect to see his batting average crawl back down to the .240-.260 range.
Taking it one step further on his batted ball data, Grandal has outperformed his xStats so far this season, something he has not typically done throughout his career. xStats uses batted ball data to estimate how each batted ball should end up, regardless of what the outcome was. This helps us determine if what Grandal has been doing is sustainable or not moving forward, and it doesn’t paint him in a pretty light here either. So far Grandal has outperformed his xBABIP by 30 points and his xSLG by 60 points. If he continues to hit the ball the way he has been through his first 80 plate appearances, we will see his numbers start to decline.
It’s not all bad for Grandal though. Using those same xStats, we can see that all of his averages are better than the past few seasons. He’s currently posting career highs in xAVG, xOBP, xSLG, and xBABIP, so he’s doing something right. Part of that is he is hitting the ball much harder than he has in the past. His hard contact rate is sitting at a career-high 42.2%, and his average exit velocity is up to 88.9 MPH. He’s also got a career-high 10.2% value hit percentage, a stat that measures how many batted balls are almost automatic extra-base hits. Hitting the ball harder is a great way to increase your BABIP, and that’s what Grandal has been able to do so far this season.
He’s also showing improved plate discipline over last season, which was admittedly one of his worst as far as that goes. His walk percentage of 10.6% is still below his career average but it’s up two percent over last season, and his strikeout percentage has dropped below 20% for the first time since 2013. One reason that can account for both of these changes is his reduced O-Swing %, as this season he’s only swung at 22.2% of pitches outside of the strike zone. His swinging strike rate has also dropped to a three-year low. Grandal has become a more patient player, waiting for the pitches he wants to swing at and putting more balls in play because of it.
So while there are a lot of signs pointing to Grandal’s start being a bit of a mirage, there are also a number of reasons to believe he can be a much-improved hitter over last season. If Grandal can maintain the hard contact gains and his improved plate discipline alone, he could post similar power numbers to last year but with a .280 batting average instead of the .240 we expect from him. If he can also work on his launch angle in addition to maintaining these improvements, then the sky is the limit for him.