By Jon Weisman
A player who won our hearts leaves. A player who put a knife in our hearts arrives.
Dodger fans naturally are having emotional reactions to the departure of Matt Kemp to San Diego or the arrival of Jimmy Rollins from Philadelphia, the capper to the past week’s massive talent migration in and out of Chavez Ravine.
But don’t count out the scoreboard.
Baseball has shown, time and again, that nothing eases the whiplash of losing a beloved player or acquiring a formal rival the way wins do. That includes both winning on the field, and winning the trades themselves.
You loved watching Kemp play (though some abandoned ship when the going got tough). I loved watching Kemp play. And I was so invested — deeply invested. Players come and go — that’s been baseball reality for me since the first favorite I lost, Bill Buckner to Chicago for Rick Monday. Then the older you get, the more you have to shake and wake yourself. “Wasn’t this guy just 21 years old? Didn’t he just get called up?”
Matt Kemp became “The Bison” thanks to Dodger Thoughts (click above to enlarge), and although his embrace of the nickname was ambivalent, you don’t sever those ties without a thought.
But if the Dodgers are a better team than they were a week ago, the trade will be worth it. And there’s great reason to think that they are, that the Dodgers took a comeback season from a player and turned it into something even more. The talent received in exchange for Kemp is anything but a dismissal of his value.
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First of all, if you look at Yasmani Grandal and all you see is a .225-hitting catcher, well, let me show you what others see.
1) A 26-year-old with an above-average bat.
Taking into account that he was playing his home games at Petco Park, the switch-hitting Grandal had an adjusted OPS in 2014 of 112. Just for comparison, when he was 25, the year before his big run at the National League Most Valuable Player Award, Kemp had a 106 adjusted OPS. That doesn’t mean Grandal becomes the next Kemp, but it’s not insignificant. And for all the well-earned talk about how Kemp closed the 2014 season, note that Grandal OPSed .800 — again, that’s with home games in San Diego — from July 1 on.
2) A bat that plays behind the plate.
No disrespect to A.J. Ellis, who we know was hampered by injuries in 2014, but given the Dodgers’ relative depth at outfield vs. catcher, a good backstop bat can make a big difference in the Dodgers’ fortunes.
3) Pitch framing.
You might or might not know how significant this is, so I e-mailed Dave Cameron of Fangraphs to discuss it specifically for us.
“Baseball has long known that some catchers are better than others at influencing balls and strikes,” Cameron said, “and a long list of great pitchers have had ‘personal catchers’ throughout the years — defensive specialists whose entire job was to get them a few extra inches around the edges of the strike zone. Ball-tracking technology has allowed this skill to be more accurately measured over the last few years, with receivers starting to get real credit for the amount of extra strikes they get called for their teams.
“According to the metrics provided by StatCorner.com, Yasmani Grandal is among the league’s best catchers at helping out his pitching staff. Among catchers who were behind the plate for at least 5,000 pitches last year:
- In-zone pitches called balls: 10.4 percent, tied for No. 5 in MLB
- Out-of-zone pitches called strikes: 9.0%, No. 7 in MLB
“Grandal was very good at both making sure that umpires correctly gave credit to his pitchers for hitting the zone and getting his pitchers a larger than average zone to work with. The result was that his pitchers received 1.43 extra called strikes per game, relative to the league average, and over the course of a full season, an extra strike and a half every game can really add up. By taking the difference in expected runs based on the change in counts — hitters perform much better when it’s 2-1 than 1-2, for instance — StatCorner estimates that Grandal helped save the Padres 12.8 runs last year, even though he started just 67 games behind the plate.
“Even as a part-time catcher, that total made him the eighth-most valuable framer in baseball last year. When evaluating his defensive performance, don’t forget to account for the larger zone he gets for his pitchers, because those extra strikes can produce real value for the Dodgers in 2015.”
Could we boil that down how this might affect the ERA of Dodger starting pitchers? Said Cameron: “Grandal was +13 runs in 5,224 pitches, which is .25 runs per 100 pitches. So, basically, a quarter of a run per start.”
Another thing to keep in mind is that Grandal, born 20 days after the Dodgers won the 1988 World Series, isn’t the only Major Leaguer the Dodgers are getting via Kemp. Though they are technically two separate transactions, one of the players the Dodgers have acquired from the Padres, pitcher Zach Elfin, is half the package going to Philadelphia for Rollins. And Rollins is no minor get.
The Jimmy …
It probably says a lot about Rollins — who shared this year’s Roberto Clemente Award (with Paul Konerko) for the way he represented baseball on and off the field — that there hasn’t been much hostility greeting the news of his arrival, even though he has the most devastating hit against the Dodgers since 1985, the hit that hurt even more than anything by Matt Stairs, the walkoff double that turned a series-tying Dodger victory to a loss in Game 4 of the 2009 National League Championship Series. Let’s just say when Jack Clark became the team’s hitting coach in the last decade, it was a little harder to digest.
Rollins, who has spent his entire big-league career dating back to 2000 with the Phillies and is their all-time leader in hits with 2,306, fills the Dodgers’ hole at shortstop — or bridges the gap between Hanley Ramirez and Corey Seager. Rollins is signed through the end of the 2015 season, and despite turning 36 in November, he has remained productive. (You can learn more about him in his own words, including how yoga has helped him stay young and fit, in this interview with Fangraphs’ Eno Sarris.)
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Rollins ranked fourth among MLB shortstops in Wins Above Replacement in 2014, three spots ahead of Ramirez. With a .323 on-base percentage, .394 slugging percentage, Rollins provided a 101 OPS+ at the plate (league average is 100) along with above-average defense and 28 steals in 34 attempts.
His ability to stay on the field is also not to be dismissed. The 1,170 2/3 innings Rollins played in the field this year, his lowest total since 2010, were still nearly 200 more than Ramirez’s innings in 2014. Those are innings that wouldn’t have to be absorbed by a backup.
With Grandal a new alternative behind the plate, Joc Pederson a true defensive option in center field and an expert double-play combination of Rollins and Howie Kendrick, the Dodger defense has been upgraded in a meaningful way. It won’t always light up the scoreboard, but in a small throwback to “The Dodger Way to Play Baseball,” it’s gravy on the cake.
It wouldn’t make sense to talk about the Dodgers improvements without a nod to the reliever and two reserves acquired from Miami for Dee Gordon, as well as the other pitcher coming from the Padres.
- Chris Hatcher, who turns 30 in January, is a converted catcher (sound familiar, Kenley Jansen fans?) who had a 3.38 ERA in 56 innings out of the bullpen, with 60 strikeouts and a 1.20 WHIP.
- Enrique Hernandez, a 23-year-old from San Juan (who played every position except pitcher and catcher this year), had a .372 OBP and .484 slugging percentage at three minor-league levels in 2014, including a .345 OBP at Triple-A. He spent the bulk of the year at Double-A, where he OBPed .380 and slugged .507.
- Austin Barnes, who will be 26 on December 28, showed a very impressive bat in Double-A this year, hitting .296/.406/.507 with 20 doubles, 12 homers and eight steals in eight attempts — all while splitting time between second base, third base and catcher.
- Joe Wieland, a right-handed pitcher who will be 25 in January, is a risk-reward play after Tommy John surgery.
On December 9, the Dodgers traded Drew Butera to the Angels. It wasn’t a deal of enormous consequence, but I remember thinking at the time, it sure would be a big deal if it happened to me. Yeah, it’s just a backup catcher going to Anaheim, but if I woke up and was told I’d be working 30 miles down I-5, it’d be a major change.
But then, by any standard, it got real big, real fast.
The 24 hours last week, from the afternoon into the next morning, in which the Dodgers reached unofficial agreement on the Rollins, Kendrick and Grandal trades and the Brandon McCarthy signing, are simply unsurpassed in Dodger history in terms of transformation. There have been big trades and big signings, but at no point, in Brooklyn or Los Angeles, has there been 24 hours in which so many players of magnitude were exchanged.
I evoked “Seinfeld” a few paragraphs back, and the choice there wasn’t made lightly. The way that all the Dodgers moves were orchestrated over the past 10 days was so reminiscent “Seinfeld,” which like no television comedy before it, would have four or five storylines per episode, each seemingly having nothing to do with the other, that often all came together 20 minutes in.
Sure, it’s jarring. Overall, more than half of the players that were on the 40-man roster a year ago have been turned over. On a given day in 2015, the Dodgers will start at least five players who weren’t on October’s postseason roster.
This is guaranteed: On some days, the Dodger trades will look great, and on other days they’ll look terrible. But you win trades not in a snapshot, but in the long run.
The team is bigger than individual players, no matter how big those players are. That’s why someone like Clayton Kershaw, for his unfathomable greatness, isn’t satisfied until he wins a World Series. And that’s why someone like Matt Kemp can be traded. It’s all for the more complex but even bigger picture. That’s the takeaway, and the reason to believe.