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My friend Alan, a transplanted Chicagoan who lives in the Bay Area in California, wasn't impressed last week when news arrived that Yasmani Grandal had signed the most lucrative contract in White Sox history.
Under a subject line of "Grandal? Really? A .241 lifetime hitter?" he wrote, "We already have a good catcher. We need an outfielder who can hit, and PITCHERS. Let's hope the purse strings stay open awhile."
Please understand. If there were a Mount Rushmore of White Sox fans in Northern California, my pal would be chiseled in stone. He watches every Sox telecast. On second thought, I'm not convinced that he so much as misses a pitch.
Alluding to his final point, apparently there's still more cash in the Sox coffers, if the signing of Jose Abreu for a three-year extension at $50 million is any indication.
I replied to Alan, "We got a catcher [James McCann] who hit .226 the second half but still had his best year. And he'll play some next season.
"Compared to a guy [Grandal] coming off his best year. Switch hitter. 27 HRs. Walked 109 times. (Yolmer led Sox with 44.) Rated first or second in pitch framing. Grandal had .380 OBP last season & .348 for his career. (Moncada led Sox last season at .367.) Played in 153 games in the NATIONAL League. So he can DH.
"This is a very good move."
Because of the art of pitch framing, a fashionable statistic in recent years, the addition of Grandal should delight young pitchers Lucas Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Dylan Cease and Michael Kopech.
According to FanGraphs, "Framing stats measure how many runs catchers save based on how many extra strikes they are able to get for their pitcher."
Because of the zany ways umpires call balls and strikes today, you'd think Betty White could pull a pitch or two into the strike zone to fool the guy peering over her shoulder.
Grandal apparently has perfected this bit of trickery. Baseball Prospectus put his framing runs number last season at 19.4, second only to the Padres' Austin Hedges's 26.
Meanwhile, McCann finished 104th with a minus-8 rating, and Welington Castillo was 112th with minus-10.5. For a pitching staff that ranked 23rd in walks issued last season, having Grandal work his magic figures to help in the free pass department. In addition, Yasmani just might share some of his technique and secrets with McCann. At the very least, the combination of Grandal and McCann is a major improvement over the McCann-Castillo duo that we recently witnessed.
Turning to the other side of the equation, as mentioned, Grandal has power and the ability to get on base. He also uses the entire field regardless of which side of the plate he swings from. His spray chart looks like a severe case of chicken pox.
The fact that observers like my friend Alan dwell on Grandal's .241 lifetime batting average is just another indication of how much the game has changed over the decades. Years ago, a catcher hitting at that clip who struck out 139 times, as Grandal did last season, might be on the bubble between the major leagues and Triple-A.
I admitted to Alan that .241 sounds "Joe Ginsberg-like," referring to a second string catcher from our youth who managed to hang on in the big leagues for 13 years, rarely as a regular catcher. Unbeknownst to me until I checked Ginsberg's record, .241 was exactly his lifetime average!
Ginsberg was among a group of back-up catchers in the 1950s who put together at least 10 years in the major leagues, occasionally catching a game but spending most of their time warming up relief pitchers on the bullpen. The good ballclubs had regular catchers readily identified with their teams. The greatest were Yogi Berra of the Yankees and Roy Campanella with the Dodgers. Others of less stature included Jim Hegan (Cleveland), Del Crandall (Milwaukee), Sammy White (Boston), Gus Triandos (Baltimore), Bill Freehan (Detroit), and Wes Westrum (New York Giants). These guys all were solid defensive catchers, and anything they contributed offensively was simply gravy. They weren't expected to put up big numbers.
However, they were expected to play almost every day although doubleheaders were scheduled most Sundays, requiring a back-up catcher, the Joe Ginsbergs of the world. Ginsberg played for seven different teams including the White Sox in parts of the 1960 and 1961 seasons. Aside from his .241 lifetime average, in 1,985 plate appearances, he struck out only 135 times (less than seven percent) while drawing 226 walks. He hit 20 home runs in his career and threw out almost 40 percent of would-be base stealers.
Arguably the most famous of the back-up catchers was Berra's understudy, Charlie Silvera. He played 10 seasons, all but one in The Bronx. In his entire career, Silvera only came to the plate 541 times. Nevertheless, his lifetime batting average was a respectable .282 with an on-base mark of .356.
Like Ginsberg, Silvera rarely fanned; just 32 times while walking 53. He hit his lone career home run on July 4th, 1951 when Silvera was the Yankee catcher for both ends of a doubleheader. We can only surmise that Berra, who caught 141 games that season, was too hung over to participate.
Silvera's top salary was $19,000, but, being a Yankee in the '50s, Charlie, who died in September at age 94, still cashed seven World Series checks. He played in only one Series game in 1949, going hitless in two at bats. In the other six Series', Charlie had a lovely perch in the bullpen.
Throughout the 1950s. seven-time All Star Sherman Lollar handled the catching duties for the White Sox.
He had a number of back-ups such as Les Moss, Carl Sawatski, Red Wilson and the youngster Earl Battey, who went on to a stellar career as the regular catcher for Washington/Minnesota.
In the pennant-winning year of 1959, Lollar led the team with pedestrian numbers by today's standards: 22 homers and 84 RBIs. Defensively, he was solid. In 1954 he led the league by throwing out 68 percent of would-be base stealers. Over 18 seasons (12 with the White Sox) Sherm slashed .264/.357/.759. If he were a free agent today, his contract just might look similar to Grandal's.
Of course, batting average is far from the statistic du jour in today's game. Wins Above Replacement (WAR) is a frequent measure of a ballplayer's ability, and Grandal posted a 5.2 last season, second among all catchers. For comparison, Lollar's WAR in 1959 was 3.7 while last season McCann closed at 2.3.
Weighted On-Base Average (wOBA) is advertised as a truer measure of effectiveness than batting average, and Grandal was tops among catchers in 2019 with .361, while McCann had a respectable .333.
Yet it remains a challenge for those of us who still revere .300 hitters, thinking guys who hit .250 are mediocre. And .241? Let's just say that Yasmani Grandal is no Yogi Berra. But he sure isn't Joe Ginsberg either.
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