The Dodgers, perhaps spooked by some especially bad glovework from Yasmani Grandal in the NLCS opener, took a step the Yankees refused to take with their own All-Star catcher by sitting him in a Game 2 victory at Miller Park.
If that breather was indeed meant to clear Grandal’s head — something Dodgers manager Dave Roberts declined to overtly say — his sabbatical ended with Monday’s return to the lineup for Game 3.
Roberts’ explanation for sitting the switch-hitting Grandal in Game 2 focused more on the importance of getting Austin Barnes a shot against Brewers lefty Wade Miley, though Barnes went 0-for-3 with an RBI on a bases-loaded walk.
That’s the duality of relying on a weak-fielding catcher who can hit. It’s supposed to be a bonus, deploying a potent bat in a place where offense is a rarity. But the defense can’t be overlooked at that position — especially if you’re trying to preserve a pitching staff’s sanity — and the complication may nudge a manager in the way Grandal’s Game 1 struggles coerced Roberts.
Grandal had a bad night in Game 3 both behind the plate and in the batter's box. He had his third passed ball of the series and also did not block a ball in the dirt that was scored a wild pitch. At the plate, he went 1-for-4 but struck out three times, including with one out and the bases loaded in the ninth inning of the Brewers' 4-0 victory.
After the game, Roberts announced that he was benching Grandal for Game 4 Tuesday night.
Grandal, 29, is a free agent at the end of this season and figures to be on the radar in Flushing, where the Mets’ catching carousel hasn’t produced anywhere near expectations. Devin Mesoraco’s contract is up, Travis d’Arnaud can’t stay healthy and Kevin Plawecki occupies an undefined limbo that isn’t quite starter or backup.
Through that lens, Grandal’s unimpressive October is easy to shrug off for potential suitors, but the Dodgers would like a few more positive memories before Nov. 1 rolls around. During the regular season, Grandal batted .241 with 24 home runs and an .815 OPS in 140 games, but consistently ranked at the top of the National League in passed balls — this year he was second with nine.
That liability surfaced again with his butchery in Game 1, which featured two errors, two passed balls and catcher’s interference in the Dodgers’ 6-5 loss. Most of that ugliness occurred in the third inning, when one of those errors involved failing to corral a throw from centerfielder Cody Bellinger.
“I think it was a matter of minimizing damage and we weren’t able to do that,” Grandal told the Los Angeles Times that night. “Obviously, I was a part of it, so I take that upon myself.”
If that accountability sounds familiar, it’s very similar to the refrain often heard this year in the Bronx, where Gary Sanchez took ownership of what was a difficult season in every aspect, from hitting .186 to an MLB-worst 18 passed balls. In 2017, Sanchez and Grandal actually split that title, as both finished with 16. For offensive catchers, that can be the trade-off.
Unlike Grandal, Sanchez is only 25 and won’t be eligible for arbitration until 2020, so it’s easy to still view him as a project in some ways. The Yankees certainly don’t anticipate his offensive malaise to stretch into next season, chalking up his plate woes to the two months missed because of repeated groin strains. Sanchez at least got one hero’s turn with his two-homer performance in the Yankees’ lone Division Series win — joining Yogi Berra as the only Yankees catchers with multiple home runs in a postseason game — so there were glimpses of the same player that slugged 53 homers in the first 175 games of his career.
“I think Gary is absolutely going to realize his potential,” Aaron Boone said during last Friday’s exit news conference. “And as tough as this year was at times for him, there’s no doubt in my mind he will benefit from all that he went through this year. I believe we were seeing the strides. I think there were a lot of lessons to be learned.”
For Grandal and the Dodgers, the need is more immediate. In explaining his catcher’s return for Game 3, Roberts didn’t suggest any problems were solved. Just that he liked him back behind the plate for Walker Buehler, L.A.’s rookie sensation, and his lefthanded bat against Brewers starter Jhoulys Chacin. In these playoffs, Grandal is 3-for-21 with 10 Ks, but during the regular season he batted .252 against righties, with 20 homers and an .844 OPS.
Maybe next time Grandal can skip the feet-first slide into first base he made in Game 2, another example of his puzzling behavior.
“I didn’t see a reason,” said Roberts, who blamed it on frustration. “I think if it were happening again, I don’t think he would do that.”
Redemption for Grandal can’t start soon enough.