In the spring, the Los Angeles Times reporter Bill Shaikin asked Yasmani Grandal what he made of Baseball Prospectus' projection system, PECOTA, forecasting the Dodgers' catcher to be just about as good as any MVP contender in the National League.
"That's just absurd," Grandal said. Shaikin wrote that Grandal "scoffed" at the projection, and that he was "bemused." "You can't really look at those numbers," Grandal concluded.
I was quoted in the piece, because at the time I was the editor-in-chief of Baseball Prospectus. When PECOTA projections came out each spring, there were always plenty of requests from reporters who couldn't believe -- or whose team sources or readers couldn't believe -- how "we" could be so down on a team. This spring, I was called upon to explain the relatively sour projections for the Diamondbacks and Royals, each of whose GMs had mocked or criticized the projections.
This, though, was the first time a player had called us out for being too nice to him. It's an odd feeling, and it'll make a guy reconsider some things. I'm still reconsidering, but five months later, I still lean toward that uncomfortable position that Grandal's wrong about himself.
We have to start at the beginning: When baseball was born, it didn't have to be. There's nothing innate to the human experiment that says a stick-and-ball challenge with elements of tag, overhand throws, gloved catches, boundaried dimensions and a dangerously painful spheroid must be played, and we can easily imagine universes where planets exist exactly like ours but without baseball. In such a universe, many of today's professional baseball players would surely have become stars in other sports -- football or basketball or Earth B's baseball replacement. But many, probably most, would be doing some dumb ol' job for some jerk boss and saving a few bucks from each paycheck to open a watch-repair shop someday. What we as a culture choose to appreciate is often arbitrary. You, yes you, are undoubtedly the best in the world at something that we never decided had value, at some sport or game or art or technology that we never invented.
Within the sport itself, too, there is an arbitrariness to what we value. In the original "Bill James Historical Abstract," James writes about Maurice Archdeacon, the fastest ballplayer in the world in 1921. "Archdeacon was born ten years too late. He hit .333 in 127 major league games, but he had no power, and his speed, which would have been a valuable weapon in the previous decade, didn't match up against Babe Ruth's home runs." Who knows how many players could say something like this: failed starters from the 1950s who might have been Andrew Miller if bullpen specialization had taken hold earlier; players who couldn't hit lefties but born too late for the Golden Age of platooning; high-OBP hitters in AVG-obsessed decades; brilliant types born too early to make use of baseball's data revolution.
Or, arguably, catchers who frame, which is how Grandal got brought into this MVP conversation in the first place.
Grandal is a fine hitter, though that fact is obscured by his home ballpark and a low batting average. Only two catchers -- Jonathan Lucroy and Wilson Ramos -- were better hitters in 2016, by wOBA, and only Lucroy, Buster Posey and Russell Martin top him since 2014. But he doesn't hit the way MVPs hit. His arm and blocking aren't notable, and he has twice led the league in passed balls. But he's almost certainly an extraordinary pitch-framer, finishing second in the majors in Baseball Prospectus' framing runs (with 27 saved) this season after leading the majors (with 26) in 2015. That made him the seventh-most valuable player in the NL this year, according to BP's wins above replacement player -- just as PECOTA had projected.
The existence of pitch-framing is not controversial; teams have taught it for decades, and Grandal traces his own education in the skill back to a college coach. He takes pride in his ability to steal strikes, and his teammates and bosses praise him for it. There is, then, nobody disputing that collecting strikes is real, and very little dispute that Grandal is good at it.
But there's also no disputing that making strong relay throws is a real skill for a middle infielder, or that a good pickoff throw is a real skill for a pitcher. Were I to argue that Elvis Andrus' relay throws are worth 30 runs and make him an MVP candidate, I would find disputers. So Grandal's potential MVP candidacy would come down to one question: Is the number -- the 27 runs -- credible?
Through two games of the NLCS, Grandal appeared to have contributed very little to the Dodgers' working a split in Chicago. He was hitless in three at-bats, with a couple of walks and a sacrifice bunt. He hadn't scored or driven in a run. With the score tied in the eighth inning of Game 1, he grounded out to strand runners at second and third. His offensive contribution, by win probability added, was negative.
But consider Kris Bryant's at-bat in the first inning of Game 2. The first pitch, from Clayton Kershaw, was on the inner edge of the plate and near the top of the zone, a pitch that is called a strike only 62 percent of the time, according to Baseball Prospectus. The next pitch was on the outer edge of the plate and below the strike zone, a pitch called a strike only 4 percent of the time. Those two pitches didn't end the at-bat, but they changed it tremendously: Bryant hit .299/.547/.582 after getting ahead 2-0 this year, but just .209/.266/.326 after falling behind 0-2. (After 1-1 counts, he hit .262/.366/.507.) By protecting one borderline strike for his pitcher and creating another, Grandal turned the actual MVP frontrunner into an extremely handsome version of Cliff Pennington.
Two pitches later, Bryant was called out looking. That pitch is a strike only 62 percent of the time, according to Baseball Prospectus. That's what the Dodgers' catcher does.
For Grandal and his unwilling bid for superstardom, it's not clear whether that strikeout came a decade early or right on time. Until 2011, framing was more of a good-relay-throw kind of attribute -- talked about but not quantified -- and was generally considered an on-the-margins skill. Nobody in his right or wrong mind would have made a case for Grandal to be near the top of an MVP ballot. Since then, research into quantifying framing has become ever more precise, as Baseball Prospectus now controls for the pitcher, the umpire, the count and the pitch type before assigning value to the catcher. Because framing is a skill that stabilizes quickly and that benefits from huge samples over the course of a season, these numbers might turn out to be more reliable than defensive metrics at any other position. Even seven or eight years ago, Grandal might have been lumped in with Chris Snyder and Chris Iannetta, patient and powerful catchers with low batting averages and limited defensive appeal. But in the year 2016, here I am writing about Grandal as an MVP candidate.
On the other hand, in the year 2016 Grandal isn't actually an MVP candidate. When ballots are revealed next month, Grandal probably won't be near the top of any of them. Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs, whose models of WAR are the most commonly cited, do not include framing; at those sites, Grandal appears to be only an average major league catcher. The free agent market hasn't yet seen teams paying big premiums for framing-first catchers, even as certain teams -- the Pirates, Rays and Astros most notably -- have shown a clear affinity for them. (Perhaps because they aren't valued on the market, and are thus bargains.)
A decade from now, one of two things is likely to be true. Teams will pay top dollar for good framing, which will be incorporated into every model of WAR, which will be cited by MVP voters, who will put players like Grandal near the top of their MVP ballots. Baseball culture will continue to adjust what it values in a player, and the notion of a superstar will move ever onward. Or else framing metrics will get much more conservative and catcher WARs will lose their bonuses. Baseball stats will continue to adjust what can be quantified as valuable in a player. Nobody will talk about framing catchers being worth an MVP vote.
Either way, Grandal will be saved a scoff.
On Monday, before the Dodgers' off-day workout, Grandal was at his locker in Los Angeles. I asked if he remembered Shaikin's piece about "that site that said he would be as good as any MVP contender." Grandal thought for a half-second, then rolled his eyes broadly and chuckled.
I tell him, that was me, and it's a little awkward.
Somewhere between May and now, I decided Grandal was maybe just being humble, deflecting attention; no sensible young player with 40 career home runs ever says "MVP? Yup, that's me." But Grandal denies my theory.
"I wasn't dodging the question at all," he says. "What I said is what I believed in. There's so much talent in this league. I get what you guys are trying to explain, but at the same time you've got so many other guys out here in this league that are really good and have been doing it for so long.
"I wasn't mad. I was shocked, to tell you the truth," he says. "It was mind-blowing when I heard it."
He agrees that his receiving is a valuable skill -- he wouldn't work so hard on it otherwise -- and he says he thinks that the influence good catchers have on a pitching staff is often overlooked. And when he hits free agency, he expects his agent will be able to sell his value in ways that might have been impossible a decade ago.
"The way the game has evolved, catchers are kind of looked at differently," he says. "Before, coming through the minor leagues you had a lot of guys who were really good catch-and-throw guys who couldn't hit, and now you're seeing those guys making it because they're really good behind the plate. You've got this new stat that's out there that can make a backup super valuable to what a team is trying to accomplish."
And yet, when I ask what he'd look at if he were voting on the MVP award, he cites offensive stats and clutch performance and names Daniel Murphy. He describes the type of player who hits big home runs in close games, like Grandal himself would end up doing in Game 3 of the NLCS on Tuesday.
Do you ever look at your framing stats?
"Nah," he says. "I just wait for somebody to come up to me and say something about 'em."
I consider saying one more thing about 'em. I consider telling him that he and Murphy tied with 6.8 wins above replacement this season, according to BP's model of the stat. I decide it's not worth it. History's going to decide anyway.