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He Gets On Base

Why in the world would you ever walk Yasmani Grandal? Why not have the opposition simply plant a batting tee at home plate, place a ball atop the contraption, and ask the White Sox catcher, "Mr. Grandal, how's that? A little higher or lower? Would you like us to bring the tee a bit closer to you? Maybe a bit more toward the outside corner?"

Rather than issuing yet another base on balls, at least the fielders would have a chance to get the guy out.

Perhaps I need to back up a bit. Grandal, who went 0-for-4 Sunday with three strikeouts in the Sox 9-3 win in Kansas City, has registered three hits in 47 at bats in his last 18 games, dating back to April 7. Check the calendar. That's more than a month ago and computes to a .064 batting average.

Dylan Cease, one of the club's starting pitchers and a battery mate of Grandal's, never had batted in a major league game until last Tuesday when he collected three hits including a rousing double off the right field wall in Cincinnati. Cease probably will pitch in a National League park before the season ends, but for right now, in one afternoon he equaled Grandal's hit production for an entire month.

However, that is far from the end of the story of the Sox's highest paid player's season-long slump. Historically Grandal has been a discerning hitter. He rarely swings at anything outside of the strike zone, regardless of who's doing the umpiring. Being a catcher, he apparently understands that the zone varies depending on the man calling the pitches. During his 10-year career, Grandal's walk rate is 14.3 percent. For comparison, José Abreu's mark is 6.4, providing a fine description of different styles.

But Grandal, despite an inconceivable .113 batting average, possesses an on-base percentage of .378, far better than Abreu's .317, for instance, and second only to Yermin Mercedes' .407 on the first-place White Sox.

In 91 plate appearances this season, Grandal has reached base 27 times via the walk - just about 30 percent of the time. In his recent 3-for-47 swoon, his OBP is a whopping .388. In addition, he's struck out 19 times, or about 21 percent, a couple of ticks below the major league average.

Starting a week ago Saturday against Cleveland, Grandal walked 13 times in four consecutive games, joining - I hope you're sitting down - Babe Ruth as the only American League players ever to do so. The Bambino accomplished the feat in 1930, but he wasn't hitting .113 at the time. His average actually was .376.

More recently in the National League, Bryce Harper, playing for the Nationals, also was walked 13 times in four games May 7-10, 2016. However, one of those games was a 13-inning contest in which Cub pitchers put him on six times via the walk, and, as we all know, because of the free runner on second base, that game five years ago wouldn't have had much chance of lasting four extra innings.

None of this fazes Grandal, who has been handling himself like the consummate professional.

"My numbers haven't changed," Grandal said after Sunday's game. "I don't know if you guys did homework when I first signed here, but it seems to be right on point."

Grandal claims that his .119 batting average on balls in play is misleading, and his exit velocity of 92.9, the highest of his career since EV became a metric in 2015, supports this explanation. He has only 62 official at-bats so far this season, so it seems reasonable that Yaz will continue to reach base but with a mixture of hits and walks instead of primarily the latter.

Grandal's saga is just one eyebrow-raising item for the South Siders 32 games into the season. Without belaboring last week's topic in this space, manager Tony La Russa really opened up himself to additional criticism last Wednesday in a 1-0 walkoff loss to the Reds, the Sox lone defeat last week.

Bringing in Liam Hendricks in the bottom of the ninth inning with two outs of a scoreless game, the Sox skipper engineered a double switch, replacing Andrew Vaughn in left field with Jake Lamb. Hendriks got the third out, but a problem arose. Vaughn had made the last out in the top of the inning and would have been the designated runner at second base to open the top of the tenth.

Of course, Hendriks now was in that position, and this is where La Russa created big-time trouble for himself because he was unaware of the rule that says a pitcher can be excused from being the runner in that situation. Not only was La Russa in the dark about the rule, but the club has more coaches than an NFL franchise, and not one of them stepped up to educate his boss.

Hendriks ran to third on an infield groundout and stood there while Leury Garcia was thrown out trying to steal second base against Reds' catcher Tucker Barnhart, a three-time Gold Glove winner. According to the rules, Abreu could have been the designated runner. He's not the swiftest man on the team but certainly an improvement over Hendriks. Barnhart arguably might have held on to the ball had Abreu been stationed at third base rather than risk him trying to score. We'll never know.

The optic of a sportswriter reading the rule to La Russa after the game wasn't the recommended way to silence the manager's critics. Shaking a little more salt into the wound was Reds manager David Bell, bursting forth with the proclamation that he knew the rule. Learned about it in spring training. Maybe La Russa was absent that day along with his coaches.

A fine antidote to a misstep like last Wednesday and a catcher hitting .113 is a starting pitching staff that was as close to perfect last week as you can get. Starting with Cease on Tuesday and followed by Dallas Keuchel, Lance Lynn, Carlos Rodón and Lucas Giolito, the quintet covered 29 innings. The Royals' first-inning run on Sunday against Giolito was the only tally charged against the starters all week. The Reds and Royals managed just 13 hits in the five games, striking out 28 times and walking but 13.

Sox starters have a 2.66 ERA, easily the best in baseball. The Mets are next at 2.97. Opponents are hitting just .196 against them, also the best in MLB. You have to wonder about the influence of new pitching coach Ethan Katz. He has a strong group with which to work, but these guys are off the charts.

On the other side of the ball, with the devastating injuries to Eloy Jimenez and Luis Robert, the club lost anywhere from 50 to 60 home runs, depending on if and when this talented duo returns to the lineup. The White Sox rank 28th in the major leagues so far this season with 27 dingers. Since more than 40 percent of runs are scored via the long ball, one might conclude that the Sox have trouble scoring.

Nope. Only three teams have scored more often. Must be all those walks Yasmani Grandal has received.

I'm not a big believer in the run differential metric that is published daily. A club can win a blowout game and then lose 2-1 and 1-0 and still have a positive run differential. I'd rather have a team that consistently wins the close games, especially the low-scoring contests that leave little room for error. Nevertheless, with a run differential of plus-53, the Sox are baseball's tops, and it's not even close with the Red Sox next at plus-36.

La Russa has been playing Vaughn in left field even though the kid is a first baseman. He's clearly the equal of Jimenez out there, and when La Russa used infielder Danny Mendick in right field over the weekend he responded with a couple of fine running catches - and chipped in on Saturday with a two-run first-inning home run.

In a short amount of time we've seen lots of unexpected and unique happenings - some good and a few not so much - with this ballclub. We've had Rodón's no-hitter and Nick Madrigal, still technically a rookie, leading everyone in fewest strikeouts and best batting average with two strikes. Who knows? That batting tee might be next.

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Former Bill Veeck bar buddy Roger Wallenstein is our White Sox correspondent. He welcomes your comments.

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Posted on Oct 11, 2021