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Some metrics put Dodgers' Yasmani Grandal in MVP talk; he calls that absurd

Some metrics put Dodgers' Yasmani Grandal in MVP talk; he calls that absurd
Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal is congratulated by teammate Joc Pederson after hitting a solo home run against the Padres in the sixth inning of a game April 29. (Luis Sinco / Los Angeles Times)

Baseball Prospectus, one of the leading analytical outlets in sports, projected Dodgers catcher Yasmani Grandal to bat .243 this season, with 17 home runs.

Grandal also was projected as a strong candidate for National League most valuable player.

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There might be no clearer illustration of the rise of alternative ways to measure player production, even if Grandal himself scoffed at the notion that he could find himself in the thick of an MVP race.

"That's just absurd," he said.

Catchers have won the MVP 16 times since 1931, when the Baseball Writers Assn. of America first voted on the award. The most recent winners, Joe Mauer of the Minnesota Twins and Buster Posey of the San Francisco Giants, batted .365 and .336, respectively, in their MVP seasons.

In 1972, Hall of Famer Johnny Bench batted .270, the lowest for any catcher in an MVP season. He also hit 40 home runs that season and drove in 125 runs.

To analysts — and to many of the front offices that employ them — batting average and RBI sare no longer in vogue. Of the 10 National League catchers with at least 400 plate appearances last year, Grandal ranked ninth in batting average and seventh in RBIs — but second in home runs and third in on-base percentage.

That production makes him "a sneaky good hitter" at a position where offense is hard to come by, said Baseball Prospectus editor-in-chief Sam Miller.

The most significant factor in Grandal's projection is his ability to frame pitches — that is, the subtle movement of a mitt that persuades an umpire to call a strike on what otherwise might be a ball — a skill that could come into play whenever a batter does not swing.

Baseball Prospectus projected Grandal, 27, would save his team more runs on defense than any player at any position — about a run per week, Miller said, worth two to three victories to the Dodgers over the course of the season. That value, Miller said, comes almost exclusively from Grandal's framing ability.

"It's by far the most important thing," Miller said. "He's not a great thrower. He's not a great blocker."

Andrew Friedman, the Dodgers' president of baseball operations, traded outfielder Matt Kemp to get Grandal in a 2014 deal with the San Diego Padres. Kemp has hit 20 home runs six times, Grandal never.

With the Padres, the majority of the starting rotation — Tyson Ross, Andrew Cashner and Ian Kennedy — declined to pitch to him. With the Dodgers last year, Zack Greinke posted the lowest earned-run average in 30 years and swore by Grandal.

Friedman said he believes there is much more to Grandal's game than pitch framing.

"We think he's a good receiver, blocks well, controls the running game well enough," Friedman said. "The combination of all those factors behind the plate, coupled with in the batter's box — ability to look over a ball, the power production you get out of that position — make him a player we value a great deal.

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"There's a real scarcity of quality catching in the major leagues, which places an even greater premium on his skill set."

Baseball Prospectus uses WARP (wins above replacement value) to determine player value. The 2016 NL projections had Grandal third in WARP, Posey first and Arizona Diamondbacks first baseman Paul Goldschmidt second.

"I like Yasmani," said Miami Marlins Manager Don Mattingly, who managed Grandal last season with the Dodgers. "He's a beast back there. He's really physical. The catching metrics are good with him, the framing and all that. This guy can really hit, and you don't find switch-hitting catchers who can hit.

"To me, he's a good player, and he has a chance to be really good. But you're talking about Goldschmidt and Posey, you're getting way up there."

Goldschmidt had 567 at-bats last season, Posey 557. Grandal had 355 last season and the Dodgers are platooning him with A.J. Ellis this season.

The player projected fourth in NL WARP, immediately below Grandal: Marlins outfielder Giancarlo Stanton. If Mattingly had to pick Grandal or Stanton as more valuable, which one would he choose?

"Come on, are you serious?" Mattingly said. "I don't want to bad-mouth Yasmani at all. But you have to prove that over time. I think, at this point, you can't put him in that category."

The data needed to measure pitch framing did not exist a decade ago, Miller said. As a result, he said, Grandal has greater value to teams in today's sabermetric era than he would have had then, even without batting .300 or hitting 30 home runs.

"It sounds dorky to say," Miller said, "but he's a guy you could call a saber superstar."

Grandal was bemused to hear that he was included among the top six NL players in projected WARP, with Goldschmidt, Posey, Stanton, Joey Votto of the Cincinnati Reds and Bryce Harper of the Washington Nationals.

"For somebody to say that I would be the sixth candidate of an MVP race?" Grandal said. "There are so many other players in this league that are so much better than me at a lot of things: hitting, defense, they're so versatile, they can run.

"You can't really look at those numbers."

Follow Bill Shaikin on Twitter: @BillShaikin

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