White Sox' Yasmani Grandal Is Doing the Most With the Least but How Is He Making It Work?

No player has ever been able to draw walks so frequently while hitting so little. And how is Grandal making it work for him?
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Each triple-slash line has its own particular geometry. Some rise like a staircase, with roughly equal proportions, each figure growing over the previous one; some end up top-heavy, some are bottom-heavy, some come out strangely flat.

But there has never been one like Yasmani Grandal’s: a profoundly lopsided affair, with a meager batting average that gives way to a comparatively imposing, swollen on-base percentage before tapering off with a modest slugging figure.

grandal-graphic-1

None of these numbers is particularly noteworthy on its own. (Though a .131 average from a regular starter is certainly… unusual.) But the way that they all fit together is something of a marvel. Grandal currently has the lowest batting average of any player with at least 100 plate appearances in 2021—but, thanks to his ability to draw a walk, he still qualifies as an above-average hitter, with a 107 OPS+. His low average stems in part from some truly dreadful luck with BABIP; his batting average on balls in play is .127, which should be unsustainable, but it didn’t increase much over the month of May. Yet Grandal is somehow making it work for him.

This is odd not just this year but historically. No player has ever been able to draw walks so frequently while hitting so little. So where do you have to look to find anything even remotely in the same ballpark as this? And how is Grandal making it work?

What It Takes to Find a Comparison Here

Grandal has 144 plate appearances so far this season entering Wednesday. The White Sox catcher’s OBP (.385) is almost three times greater than his average (.131). Over at FanGraphs a few weeks ago, Devan Fink ran the numbers, and he determined that no one had ever put up an early-season stat line quite like Grandal’s before. But we’re now more than a quarter of the way into the year, and the catcher is still doing this, so let’s start looking for full-season stat lines that could potentially be reasonable comps.

Unsurprisingly, a position player has never had an on-base percentage so much greater than his batting average over a full season before. (A handful of pitchers have done it—but that’s different, of course, over accordingly smaller sample sizes and with lower numbers.) So let’s broaden the frame a bit here: We’ll take any position player whose OBP was 2.5 times greater than his batting average in a season where he met the low bar of 100 PAs. You’ll get just one result—Washington Senators second baseman Larry Schlafly from 1907. He stepped in as the team’s manager for a few games that year, served as a scout while he was playing, and was involved in one notable incident where he left to change his pants after a wardrobe malfunction while sliding into a base but failed to return quickly enough to field his position for the bottom of the inning. His final line was .135/.354/.176.

There’s a lot to unpack there! But perhaps you’re interested in trying to find someone who played within the last century, who did not also serve as a manager and scout, and who did not have a year marked primarily by ripping his pants. So let’s search Baseball-Reference for someone who simply had an on-base percentage twice as great as his batting average:

grandal-2

Now you have a little bit more to work with! But this is still not terribly common: No one has done it while walking as frequently as Grandal and no one has done it over a full season of regular play. (John Jaha’s 190 plate appearances are the most over which a player has maintained such a ratio.) So let’s change it up one more time—in search of a player a) who qualified for the batting title, b) sometime in the last century, and c) holds the highest ratio of OBP-to-AVG.

You get outfielder Jimmy Wynn, the “Toy Cannon,” with the Braves in 1976. Coming off back-to-back All-Star seasons, he took a step back in ‘76, but still put together a decent season at the plate: .207/.377/.367. He led baseball in walks and finished with a 108 OPS+.

But this only makes what Grandal is doing look even wilder. Wynn is the only player in the last century to put up a triple-slash like this over a full season—and Grandal’s OBP is 20 points higher while his average is 70 points lower. Wynn’s OBP was 1.8 times greater than his average; Grandal’s is 2.9 times greater. This is not just unusual but totally unprecedented.

How is Grandal Making This Work?

Some of this will be out of a player’s hands—he can’t control how he’s pitched to. But Grandal has completely changed his approach at the plate this year.

While he’s always been solidly above average, walks have never been a fundamental part of what he does at the plate, with a previous career-high walk percentage of 17.2%. This year? That figure has shot up to 29.2%. As you’d expect, that comes with a low chase rate; Grandal swings at pitches outside the strike zone less often than any other player in the American League. But where he really stands out is swinging at pitches inside the zone—no one swings anywhere near as infrequently here as he does. Here’s Grandal compared to the league average and to some of his fellow hitters near the top of the leaderboard:

Z-Swing%

Yasmani Grandal

40.4%

David Fletcher (2nd lowest Z-Swing%)

51.4%

Nick Lopez (5th lowest Z-Swing%)

59.4%

Austin Slater (10th lowest Z-Swing%)

60.4%

MLB Average

68.0%

Almost no one else is swinging at fewer than 60% of the pitches that he sees in the zone. No one swings at fewer than 50% of them. And there’s Grandal, far ahead of everyone else, swinging at just 40%.

It’s hard to imagine that Grandal will continue putting up such oddly lopsided numbers for too much longer—hitting so little while still putting together an above-average performance at the plate. But, then again, who knows? Because it should’ve been hard to imagine that anyone could be capable of doing this at all.

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