July 24, 2015
Ducks on the Pond
The Grandy Man Can (Throw)
It’s no secret that the Mets have struggled to get much value from their position players this year.
David Wright and Travis d’Arnaud have missed most of the season with injuries. Juan Lagares went back to being a below-average hitter and has developed a balky elbow that has limited his defensive value. Michael Cuddyer’s bat hasn’t been nearly enough to make up for his defensive play in left field. And after a hot start to the season, Lucas Duda has sunk into a two-month hibernation period.
It seems these days that the only Mets position player exhibiting the qualities of an above-average major leaguer is Curtis Granderson. The 34-year-old outfielder is sporting a .292 True Average this season, nine points higher than his career mark and his best since slugging 41 home runs and racking up 5.0 WARP for the Yankees in 2011.
Through 96 games, Granderson has been about a 2.5-win player. While he’s taken some steps forward offensively this season, the greater driving force behind his improved sophomore season with the Mets have been his defensive contributions. Advanced defensive metrics pegged Granderson as a slightly below-average defender in right field in 2014, but this season he leads all right fielders with 11 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), just ahead of Jason Heyward, Bryce Harper and Giancarlo Stanton. He trails only Heyward, Stanton, and J.D. Martinez in Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).
To take a trip down memory lane, Granderson was considered one of the better defensive center fielders in the game during his mid-to-late-20s, the majority of which he spent patrolling the deepest parts of Comerica Park for the Tigers. From 2005-2009, he ranked fourth among center fielders in DRS and seventh in UZR, clearly behind Andruw Jones, but firmly in a second tier among the likes of Carlos Beltran and Willy Taveras, according to the defensive metrics. But as Granderson entered his 30s and turned in the Old English D for pinstripes, he appeared to lose a step. He graded out as slightly below average during his four years with the Yankees, and poor defensive numbers hurt his candidacy when it came to debating his 2011 AL MVP merits.
This is backed up by data collected by Baseball Info Solutions. BIS breaks down how well outfielders are at converting batted balls into outs based on the depth of the play, designating balls as being hit to areas considered either “shallow,” “medium,” or “deep.” Granderson excelled at running down deep balls in 2014, making approximately seven plays above average on such balls. This season, he’s on pace to do substantially better. (Data through Tuesday’s games.)
Plays Above Average by batted ball depth, 2014-15
On the one hand, we know that defensive metrics fluctuate in small samples and that we shouldn’t take a little over a half season’s worth of data to be representative of a defender’s new true talent level. Granderson might be getting better reads off the bat this year or improving the routes he’s taking on balls hit over his head; this is something we would have a better understanding of with more defensive data tracked by Statcast.
But we also know that he’s not getting any more nimble at the age of 34 and it might just be the case that he’s gotten to a few extra balls that landed just beyond his reach at the warning track last year. Those count, and the fact that Granderson has been particularly adept at tracking down balls that are more likely to fall for extra-base hits is something that the Mets tremendous young pitching staff should be thankful for. But as for how we should treat Granderson’s improvements at tracking down balls this season, it’s probably best to regress.
The greater driver in the boost Granderson has gotten defensively has actually not been his range but rather how his throwing arm has graded out in the eyes of the metrics this season. Granderson was never known for having a particularly strong arm but it was good enough to pass in center field, grading out as basically average over his first nine years in the league.
Lowest single-season rARM, RF, since 2003
But this season, Granderson’s throwing hasn’t been the negative that it used to be, according to these same metrics. In fact, his arm has been approximately average compared to other right fielders, with his rARM checking in at 0 runs saved. According to BIS, in 2014 Granderson had two kills (when an outfielder throws out an opposing baserunner without the help of a cutoff man) and allowed 57% of baserunners to take an extra base in right field. Through Tuesday’s games, he already has four kills this season and has only allowed 44% of baserunners to take an extra base. The league average since the start of 2014 is 48%.
Granderson comes up charging all of these balls, guns for home from pretty shallow in the outfield, and still requires multiple bounces to reach home. I spent a good amount of time searching through Granderson’s throws on MLB.com and I can tell you that not all of his throws last year looked like this. Some only required one hop, fewer made it on the fly, and a lot of throws needed to be cut off by an infielder. But even the throws that reached on a hop or on the fly required a large arc behind them and lacked much carry to them. Here are two examples:
FanGraphs has a feature available called the Fan Scouting Report that is conducted by Tom Tango. Fans are asked at the end of the season to rate players on a number of defensive skills on a scale of 0-100 (higher being better). It’s subjective and not the most exact science in the world but it gives a pretty good gauge on what the consensus is on a given player from fans who watch their favorite team every day. Here’s what the FSR has said about Granderson’s throwing arm since 2009.
There’s certainly a trend in the wrong direction here. So after what appears to be a fairly steady decline in Granderson's throwing abilities, is it really possible that his arm has looked better this season? As we did earlier, let’s take a look at some of his throws, this time from 2015.
Okay, so he’s still no Yoenis Cespedes. It doesn’t even really look like an average right field arm. But there does appear to be noticeably more carry behind his throws. After looking through several other throws, I can say that there haven’t really been any of the same type of miserable two- or three-hop throws home that we saw in 2014. Factor in a couple of these
and the picture becomes a little clearer as to why runners aren’t vying for the extra base on him nearly as frequently this season.
The camera angles are different and there’s the unfortunate part about the graphic being over the front of the screen during the only shot of the outfield in the 2015 game. It appears that Granderson is playing a few steps closer to the gap in the 2015 game compared to the 2014 game, but the depth at which he’s playing remains mostly unchanged.
I couldn’t find any articles or quotes that indicated that arm strength was something that Granderson had specifically worked on this offseason. However, over time he has developed the reputation of being a hard worker and good teammate; it’s certainly plausible that he recognized that his arm strength was a major hole in his game and worked at improving it after the 2014 season.
It does appear that the woeful arm that sunk Granderson’s defensive value last season has gotten better. Even if you don’t buy that it’s an average arm compared to rest of the right fielders in baseball, it’s certainly closer to fringe-average than what it was last season. There’s tremendous value in going from being really bad to merely adequate at something, even if that’s not as sexy as a breakout.
This article has been edited for accuracy. Special thanks to Scott Spratt of Baseball Info Solutions for research assistance.