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How good have Yasmani Grandal and Luis Robert been?

by Nik Gaur

Yasmani Grandal and Luis Robert and grabbed plenty of headlines this past weekend — Grandal for tying the single-game franchise RBI record in his first game back from knee surgery, and Robert for hitting home runs, making difficult outfield catches look easy, and turning every plate appearance into must-watch television.

Both Grandal and Robert began the season (mostly) healthy, but missed large chunks of the year due to injuries. Now that they are both back, conversations concerning their respective impacts are naturally occurring. We all know how talented the two players are, but just how good have Grandal and Robert been for the White Sox in 2021? I thought it could be interesting to put their seasons in perspective.

Luis Robert

Through 41 games this season, Luis Robert is hitting .344/.386/.552 with 6 home runs, 21 runs batted in, 5 stolen bases, and 27 runs scored. He has a .939 OPS, 157 wRC+, .397 wOBA, and 2.2 fWAR.

Robert’s rate stats can (and frankly should) be dismissed due to the small sample. While he is the exact kind of player who should carry high BABIPs, not even Tim Anderson would be able to sustain a BABIP of .427. Rather, my inclusion of Robert in this article is largely observational.

Luis Robert has only played in 97 MLB games. He is not far removed from his mystical rise through the minor leagues, and that mysticism was only fueled by quotes such as the above tweet from 2017. Robert’s combination of defense, speed, and power already made him a very good player in his rookie year, but after an electrifying start at the plate, his offense tailed off in September. Just one year later, however, Robert has vastly improved his plate discipline, no longer struggles against right-handed pitching, and is making more contact as well.

Robert’s 2021 figures would suggest an 8 fWAR/162 game pace — this season, only Shohei Ohtani is likely to eclipse that mark. Again, it is not likely that Robert’s offensive output is sustainable enough to put him in the “best player in baseball” conversation this soon. No White Sox position player has had an 8-win season since Dick Allen in 1972. However, it is likely that the adjustments Robert has made offensively, combined with his already elite defense and speed, make him the most valuable all-around player on the White Sox, and one who could certainly find himself in such discussions during his career.

To me, plays like this are what make Robert so valuable. His home runs understandably grabbed all of the attention on Sunday, but how many other center fielders can make this catch given where Robert began at contact? Kiermaier, Buxton, maybe Engel? The amount of ground he so effortlessly covers will help him put up 4-win seasons in his sleep if he can stay healthy. Now, it’s up to him to remain consistent with the bat and avoid extended slumps in order to truly reach his ceiling.

Yasmani Grandal

It feels wrong of me to claim that Robert is the best all-around position player on the White Sox when Yasmani Grandal, Yoan Moncada, Tim Anderson, and Jose Abreu exist. If anything, this is not a slight at others, but speaks to the immense talent of Robert. Regardless, I have written plenty about Moncada, Anderson, and Abreu over the years. Grandal, on the other hand, still is not getting his due.

I have seen a lot of article headlines, tweets, and other remarks this year about how Yasmani Grandal is having “the best bad season” or “a weird but good year.” I understand the sentiment — it is very rare for a player to provide as much value as Grandal has while hitting for such low batting average. At the same time, I still am not a fan of the framing of those comments. It is not a “good ‘bad’ year.” In fact, it is not just a “good” year, either. Yasmani Grandal is performing better at the plate than he ever has in his career, and he has been one of the best hitters in all of baseball in 2021.

Much like Robert, Grandal is dealing with a small sample size, but it is slightly larger than Robert’s, and the underlying metrics suggest that Grandal, if anything, has been unlucky. Through 66 games, Yasmani Grandal is hitting .207/.398/.492 with 17 home runs, 48 runs batted in, and 40 runs scored. He has an .890 OPS, .385 wOBA, 148 wRC+, and 2.3 fWAR. He is doing all of this, by the way, from the notoriously poor-hitting catcher position. Grandal is 3rd in baseball (minimum 60 plate appearances versus RHP) with a 213 wRC+ against right-handed pitching, which is driven by an absurd .286/.508(!!!)/.643 line with 5 home runs, 21 walks, and just 14 strikeouts in 66 plate appearances.

One of my favorite statistics to weed out small sample (or even large sample) performances is xwOBA. It is a Statcast metric on a similar scale as OBP, which makes a .320 xwOBA about average, .350 very good, .380 or better elite, and so on. Grandal’s .385 wOBA is plenty impressive, but his .406 xwOBA is truly elite. Only 7 players (minimum 250 plate appearances) have an xwOBA higher than Grandal’s in 2021. Some of Grandal’s bad luck might be attributed to defensive shifts, but Grandal’s wOBA outperforms his xwOBA by 8 points for his career, so the 20 point discrepancy in the opposite direction this year is certainly notable.

Since May 1st, Grandal has indeed been baseball’s most productive hitter.

MLB leaders (sorted by wRC+) since 5/1/21, minimum 190 plate appearances.

It is certainly fair to point out that Grandal has been so productive in spite of a .207 batting average. It does not make his output any worse, but it does make it more peculiar. Below is a list of the top hitters (by wRC+) in MLB history (minimum 250 plate appearances) with a batting average of .210 or lower.

All-time single-season MLB wRC+ leaders (1901-2021) with 250+ plate appearances and a ≤.210 batting average.

Throughout MLB history, 838 players have hit .210 or worse over a season with 250+ plate appearances. Only 26 of those 838 were league-average or better offensively (wRC+ of 100 or more). Grandal’s production is obtained in an objectively rare fashion. Nevertheless, that should not preclude oneself from appreciating just how productive Grandal has been.

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Featured Photo: White Sox / Twitter

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