In 2004, the most feared hitter in baseball was Barry Bonds. This mammoth at the plate hit .362 that season and reached base at an incredible .609 clip. That’s a difference of .247, one of the largest ever recorded. In 2021, Yasmani Grandal is hitting .121 with an on-base percentage of .372 — a .251 difference.
Of those two hitters, which one would you rather throw a strike to? The guy who hit home runs in 12.1 percent of his at-bats while striking out in 11 percent, or the guy who, in his best season, was hitting home runs at a 6.9 percent rate while striking out in 29.7 percent of his at-bats? Oh, you’d rather throw to the second guy, Grandal? Interesting, because Major League pitchers seem to disagree with you. In 2004, per fangraphs, 41.3 percent of pitches thrown to Barry Bonds were in the strike zone. This season, that number is only 37.8 percent for Yasmani Grandal.
Through 23 games, Yasmani Grandal has recorded 27 walks to lead all of MLB. Prior to last night’s game, Grandal was tied for the 16th most walks in MLB history through 22 contests. He is only the 5th ever to do so with a batting average under .150. He’s currently walking at a 28.4 percent clip. The next closest in Major League Baseball is the Dodgers’ Max Muncy at 23.3 percent. Between May 1-8, Grandal racked up 13 base on balls in just four games; the only other player to accomplish that feat in baseball history — Babe Ruth.
All this data begs one question — “Why?” Why are pitchers more scared to throw to Yasmani Grandal (37.8 percent Zone Rate) than Mike Trout (42.8)? Since Grandal is only chasing 17.5 percent of pitches outside the zone — the lowest of all hitters with under a 40 percent Zone Rate and at least 50 plate appearances — why don’t pitchers throw more strikes to him?
Grandal has claimed he’s taken a new approach to hitting this season. He no longer forces himself to swing. Opting to wait for pitches he can smash instead. After Sunday’s game against Kansas City, Grandal said, “I’m done swinging at pitches that they want me to swing at...If you make a mistake, I want to crush you. If you don’t, then I’m going to walk.”
That’s all fine and well, but it still doesn’t answer why pitchers don’t adjust to Grandal’s new tendencies. Why not just start throwing more pitches to him inside the zone? Grandal is a powerful hitter, but he’s not someone who’ll make you pay if you challenge him.
Grandal only makes contact on 85.9 percent of his swings on pitches inside the strike zone. That ranks 129th in MLB among hitters with at least 50 plate appearances. While Grandal hits the ball hard when he makes contact — ranking 39th in MLB since 2016 in hard contact rate — Grandal has not been using that hard contact to hit fly balls this season. Currently, Grandal has hit 24 ground balls as opposed to 17 fly balls. That’s a 1.41 GB/FB ratio, Grandal’s highest since 2013. While that ratio could — and most likely will — change, it shows that while Grandal is taking a lot more pitches, he’s struggling to make the most of the pitches he does choose to swing at.
Even if Grandal starts hitting more fly balls, and starts finding more holes in the defense, there’s no doubt that throwing more strikes to the White Sox catcher would decrease his on-base percentage, while only marginally lifting his average and slugging. White Sox manager, Tony La Russa, even decided to move Grandal up in the order ahead of DH Yermin Mercedes, hoping that the move would have his catcher see more strikes and “get [Grandal’s] bat into play.” It makes zero sense for pitchers to keep avoiding Grandal. If he smacks a dinger off you, who cares? I’m willing to bet that the opposite will happen more often.