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Know Your 40: Curtis Granderson

2011's breakout star had a pretty poor follow-up in 2012 despite 43 homers. What's in store for Granderson in 2013?

HR or K?
HR or K?

Name: Curtis Granderson
Position: Centerfield
Bats: Left Throws: Right
Age as of Opening Day 2013: 32 (born 3/16/1981)
Height: 6’1" Weight: 195 lbs.
Remaining Contract: One year, $15 million (Free agent after 2013)
2012 statistics: 160 games, .232/.319/.492, 18 2B, 43 HR, 10 SB, .346 wOBA, 116 wRC+

It is difficult to imagine that a player coming off a career-high in home runs that has only been eclipsed by seven other New York Yankees in the 110-year history of the franchise can be considered on the decline. Hell, the only other player across baseball to hit more homers than Curtis Granderson did last year was a Triple Crown winner who is arguably the scariest offensive threat in the game. Yet due to his free-swinging ways and calamitous defense*, no one is sure what kind of free agent deal Granderson will get when his contract expires.

*Ranked by UZR/150 as worst in the game… not just among centerfielders—of all 108 players who spent at least 1,000 innings in the field. Yeesh. UZR can be fickle over the course of a single season, but that’s quite damning. Not many other defensive statistics rate him positively anyway.

A very well-spoken graduate of the University of Illinois at Chicago, Granderson was chosen in the third round of the 2002 draft by the Detroit Tigers, and he wasted no time in making a name for himself. He crushed New York-Penn League pitching in Low-A to a .344/.417/.495 triple slash in 52 games following the draft, and he never slugged lower than .458 in any of his four minor league seasons.

After slugging .515 and earning late-season call-ups to Detroit in both the ’04 and ’05 seasons at Double-A Erie and Triple-A Toledo, respectively, Granderson beat Nook Logan in Spring Training for the job in center with the Tigers in ’06. He quickly gained a reputation for his strikeout tendencies when he led the American League in whiffs at an incredible 174. However, he also gained a more important distinction as a solid defender in centerfield and even flashed some power at cavernous Comerica Park. Granderson hit .260/.335/.438 with 19 homers and a 99 wRC+ in his first full big-league season, and then followed it up by batting .313/.378/.719 against the Yankees and Oakland Athletics with three more homers in eight games as the Tigers rolled to their first AL pennant in 22 years.

Granderson was superb in 2011 with the Yankees, but one could make the case that his ’07 was actually better overall. He took advantage of Comerica’s deep dimensions and hit 23 triples, a figure not topped since the days of another Detroit player some might have heard of—Ty Cobb. Grandy combined that total with a .302/.361/.552 batting line, notching 38 doubles, 23 homers, 26 stolen bases, a 136 wRC+, 7.2 rWAR, and 7.8 fWAR to finish 10th in the AL MVP voting. Sheesh. Even though Detroit missed the playoffs, Granderson was clearly making a name for himself, enough of a name for the Tigers to lock him up through 2012 on a five-year, $30.25 million extension with an option for 2013 in February 2008, buying out at least two seasons of free agency. It looked like Detroit would be keeping their community-friendly, burgeoning young star leadoff hitter for a while.

Although Granderson never hit for average, doubles, or triples again to the degree that he did in ’07, the center fielder became a more dangerous home run threat. He hit 30 for the first time in ’09, albeit with a gruesome platoon split: .275/.358/.539 with 28 homers against righties and .183/.245/.239 with two homers against southpaws. Not quite 2011 Adam Dunn, but certainly not welcome. Fortunately, he was named an All-Star for the first time and the Tigers only fell a game short of the postseason, losing to the Minnesota Twins in a one-game playoff for the AL Central just a year after finishing in the division cellar. Unbeknownst to Granderson, that memorable Game 163 would be his final game in a Tiger uniform. In December, he was the centerpiece of a three-team Winter Meeting blockbuster as the Yankees surrendered three fine, young players in Austin Jackson, Ian Kennedy, and Phil Coke to obtain Granderson.

The pressure was on Granderson, even as he stepped into an already-potent Yankee lineup. He was replacing a fan favorite in Melky Cabrera and pushing Brett Gardner, a superior defender, to left field in order to accommodate him. He shook it off in his debut, as he slammed a monstrous 455 foot homer to center field at Fenway Park against Josh Beckett in his first at-bat as a Yankee, then went on a nice little tear of seven multi-hit games in a nine-game stretch. After that though, he went ice cold at 4-for-37 before suffering a Grade 2 strain of his left groin on May 1st. When Granderson returned on May 28th, he failed to impress—on August 11th, he was hitting just .239/.306/.415 overall when hitting coach Kevin Long sat him down. They tweaked his swing, and suddenly, Grandy could hit left-handed pitching. He was one of the Yankees’ hottest hitters down the stretch, belting 14 homers in 48 games, then batting .357/.514/.607 in nine playoff games against the Twins and Texas Rangers.

It was not enough to help the Yankees win the pennant as Detroit had in ’06, but Long’s work with Granderson really paid off the next season. The center fielder broke out with a team-high 41 homers and hit .262/.364/.552 with a .393 wOBA and 146 wRC+, finishing fourth in the AL MVP voting (that earned him an extra $2 million for 2013). Impressively, Granderson led all of baseball with 16 homers against lefties, fully conquering the platoon split had plagued him for so long. Adding in the 25 stolen bases, the Yankees had a very potent weapon as they won the AL East division title with Granderson’s help. The Yankees lost to Granderson's old team in the ALDS, but they looked forward to another full season of this new edition of Granderson in 2012. They would not get it.

In the first half of last year, Granderson mostly maintained his form, and was named an All-Star Game starter for the second year in a row thanks to 23 homers and a .248/.352/.502 triple slash. The early parts of the season were highlighted by a three-homer barrage against the Minnesosta Twins. Unfortunately, the second half was a near-disaster, only somewhat salvaged by 20 more homers. While the long balls were certainly helpful, his overall value was diminished by his .212 batting average and .278 on-base percentage. Granderson only had 37 hits and 25 walks in 282 plate appearances outside of the dingers, and he struck out almost as many times as he did in the first half in 80 fewer plate appearances.

More on the strikeouts—Granderson obliterated the franchise’s single-season strikeout record that he set the previous season by whiffing almost 200 times (26 more than 2011). Only five players in the history of baseball have ever struck out more in a season than Granderson did last year, and it was no fluke. Chris Cwik at FanGraphs noted that his contact rate on pitches out of the strike zone sank from 88.1 percent in 2011 to 81.0 percent in 2012, and he was confounded by off-speed pitches. According to the pitch weights at FanGraphs and PITCH/fx, he was a startling five runs below average on curveballs, half a run below average on changeups, and almost exactly average against sliders.

While Granderson was better against sinkers than in 2011, he was not nearly as good against fastballs (falling from +21.1 to +9.4), and he was 1.4 runs below average against splitters. Not even an increase in line-drive percentage from 18.2 percent to 23 percent could help him—he was just swinging and missing far too often. His hard work against lefties in 2011 appeared to have gone for naught as well—he fell from .272/.347/.597 to .218/.304/.458 when facing southpaws. The second half struggles continued into the postseason, where he was absolutely abysmal. He had just one good game—ALDS Game 5, when he hit a homer and helped the Yankees move on to the ALCS. In the other eight games combined, he had one hit and 16 strikeouts in 30 plate appearances. Woof. On that flat, blaring, discordant note, Granderson ended 2012 in the collective doghouse of Yankee fans.

As previously mentioned, Granderson’s defense in center did him no favors, either. He was arguably the worst defender in baseball, and he was not even passing the "eye test." He seemed to constantly take bad routes to fly balls that could have been caught, and he frequently appeared to take steps in the wrong direction before correcting himself. Granderson’s range declined, his speed declined, and only those who believe fielding percentage is valuable for outfielders would have believed he had a good year on defense since he had zero errors. (Doesn’t that seem strange? Numerous missteps and not one error.) If the Yankees do not seriously consider putting superior defender Brett Gardner in center for 2013, they could be making a grave mistake since Granderson has had only one good defensive season since ’07.

There was some talk of the Yankees possibly trading Granderson as he enters this walk-year before free agency, but it still is unlikely to happen. Think of it this way—would you want your team paying $15 million for an all-or-nothing hitter who can’t hit lefties, off-speed pitches, or play well on defense? Sure, there is a decent chance that he can recover to at least a compromise between 2011 and 2012 in his contract year. He appears to be on the decline and the 2013-14 offseason could be his last chance at one of those big deals that Joe Biden talks about. The odds that he re-signs with New York could hang in the balance, but even if he has a good year, he could price himself out of town with the Yankees looking toward that $189 million figure for 2014. Perhaps by the end of next season, one of their big outfield prospects in the low minors will assert himself as the future centerfielder in at least 2015, making Granderson’s possible presence even more questionable.

By all accounts, Granderson is a terrific guy in the clubhouse and a wonderful activist in the community, but if he continues to play as he did in the second half of 2012, those boo-birds from the 2012 playoffs will return. It is utterly bizarre that the Yankees’ best power-hitting outfielder since Mickey Mantle is such a question mark, but that is where we are with Granderson.