Curtis Granderson for Four Years? Bad Idea

The hot rumor action on Tuesday connected the Mets to free agent outfielder Curtis Granderson. Oh, the Mets were “serious” about liking him and planned to set up a meeting with his agent. And while I was writing this, apparently a team insider “downplayed” the Mets’ interest in Granderson. Granderson’s agent was so encouraged by the early-winter flirting that he is now asking for a four-year deal. That’s a problem. The Mets should not sign Curtis Granderson to a four-year deal. No team should.

A four-year contract would lock up Granderson’s age 33, 34, 35 and 36 seasons.

In 2013, his age-32 season, coming off back-to-back 40+ homer seasons with the Yankees in 2011 and 2012, he hit .229/.317/.407 in 61 games. His season started late – in May after he fractured his forearm in Spring Training. Then, after playing just eight games in May, a broken left pinkie kept him out until August. For what it’s worth, he had a strong August – .278/.394/.444 with six doubles and three homeruns and a 27/18 K/BB ratio in 27 games. Then in September, he stopped walking, hitting .177/.233/.375 with a 36/7 K/BB. His whiff percentage spiked in September and his strike zone discipline cratered.

Beginning of the end, or small sample size?

The Comps
Baseball reference lists Granderson’s top comparables, and for the Mets, or any team interested in signing the Grandyman, it should be a scary list.
Here are Baseball Reference’s top 10 most similar players to Curtis Granderson through his age-32 season:
1. Ron Gant
2. Bob Allison
3. J.D. Drew
4. Roy Sievers
5. Jose Cruz
6. Jason Bay
7. Wally Post
8. Jesse Barfield
9. Bobby Thomson
10. Kirk Gibson

The historical names are fun, but lets drop anyone who’s career ended in 1970 and earlier because it was a different game 40+ years ago. That eliminates Allison, Sievers, Post and Thomson and leaves us with six players.

Using Baseball Reference’s amazing career calculator the following gives the career bWAR totals for this group beginning in their age xx season.

bWAR 33+bWAR 34+bWAR 35+bWAR 36+
Gant7.75.93.91.7
Drew6.62.2-0.80
Cruz0.5-0.500
Bay-0.70.5NANA
Barfield0000
Gibson6.84.43.73.5
Total20.912.56.85.2
Avg3.4832.0831.3601.04

Beginning at age 33, this group totaled 21 bWAR for the duration of their career, an average of 3.5 (I’m rounding here because decimals on WAR give a false sense of accuracy).  By age 36, three of the six were out of baseball, and it’ll likely be four out of six when Jason Bay decides to walk away to watch his kids ski and hang out with and listen to Pearl Jam. (Note: if my retirement includes watching my kids ski, skiing with my kids, or hanging out with Pearl Jam, I’d be one really happy dude.)

Gant, who hung on until age 38, is perhaps a best case for Granderson. After finishing fifth in the MVP balloting in 1993 with Atlanta, he missed the entire 1994 season, his age-29 year, after breaking his leg in an ATV accident. He bounced around after that, putting together strong seasons at 30 and 31 with Cincinnati and then St. Louis. Like Granderson, Gant had a down year at age 32 (83 OPS+) his lowest since his age 25 year. From age 33 on, he posted OPS+s of 114, 97, 106, 95, 125 while playing for six different teams. Gant, like Granderson started his career as a centerfielder, but after playing the position at -27 runs in total zone, in 1991, the Braves wisely moved him to left as his primary position (and all pre-Andrew Jones, who did not debut until 1996). From age 33 forward, Gant’s seasonal bWAR peacked at 2.1 at age 34, never to exceed two again.

J.D Drew is a great cautionary tale. He posted a strong, and perhaps underappreciated 2009 season with Boston when he was 33, hitting .279/.392/.522 for a 134 OPS+ and a 4.3 bWAR in 139 games. He was solid, but clearly declining a year later at 34 (.255/.341./452 – 109 OPS+ – 3.1 in 137 games) but was done at age 35 when he hit .222/.315/.302 – 68 OPS+- -0.9 WAR in 81 games. He was out of baseball at age 36.

Decline and injury came in a hurry for Gibson after his MVP performance and post-season heroics in 1988 – his age 31 season. He played 100 games just twice more after that point in 1991 with Kansas City and 1993 with Detroit. Gibson was basically a league average hitting from 1989 – 1993 (his age 32-36 seasons) combining for a 105 OPS+ and 85 games a season. He then bounced back to have, a for me, inexplicable age-37 year with Detroit in 1994 when he hit .276/.358/.548 for a 130 OPS+ and a 2.3 WAR, his first above two since 1988.

The Granderson Offensive Decline
So, has Curtis Granderson shown any indication that he can buck the rapid decline his most similar hitters experienced from their age 33 seasons forward? In a word, no.

These are Granderson’s base rates in his secondary statistical categories from his age-27 season onward. What do you notice? His big homerun years with the Yankees were driven by a spike in HR/FB. Is there any reason to think that will spike again as he ages? No.

BB%K%ISOHR/FBHR
20077.720.9.25010.923
200811.317.6.21312.322
200910.119.9.20412.630
20101022.22114.524
201112.324.5.29020.541
20121128.5.26024.243
20131128.2.17811.37

Now, about that rising strikeout rate. Lets take a look at his swing rates and contact rates from the last four years (remember 2010 and 2011 were his Yankees peak and 2013 was abbreviated). O-swing percentage is just the percentage of pitches outside the zone a batter swings at. O-Contact percentage is the number of pitches outside the zone which a batter swings at that he connects on. Z Contact is the percentage of pitches inside the strike zone at which a batter swings that he connects with.

                   O-Swing%             O-Contact%              Z-Contact %
2010           25.6                        60.1                                   89.9
2011            25.7                        60.8                                   88.1
2012           29.5                        58.9                                   81.0
2013           31.3                        54.5                                    80.0

In the last two years, Granderson has chased more pitches outside the zone and made contact with fewer. Can the Mets teach him to lay off pitches out of the zone again? Maybe.

Moreover, and more damning, when he has swung at pitches inside the strike zone in the last two years, his contact percentage on such pitches has plummeted.

Defense?
The advanced defensive metrics have split a little on Granderson in his last four years with the Yankees, but all agree that among his last full seasons, 2011 was poor and 2012 was worse.

UZR is all over the place on Granderson’s defense in center, giving him UZR/150 the last four years of 9.0, -5.3, -18.5, 21.4 (small sample size on ’13). He was negative his last two years in Detroit in 08 and 09.

Total Zone is more charitable on the whole for his Yankee years: -1, -4, -12, 5. BIS Defensive Runs Saved from average tell a similar story: 12, -6, -10, 3 (’13, coming all three outfield positions).

The ranges on 2012 suggest Granderson cost the Yankees at least full win by playing center.

 

Conclusion
Since the start of 2011, Granderson has been a below average defender in center and getting worse.  Granderson’s declining defensive abilities should push him to a corner over the life of a four-year contract.

At the plate, he is chasing more pitches outside the strike zone and connecting on fewer. He is connecting on fewer inside the zone. As a result, his strikeout rate has spiked.

His big homerun seasons in Yankee pinstripes were the result of a HR/FB spike that has disappeared in last year, and was well out of line with his career norms.

Players most similar to Granderson were at best league average players from age 33 forward, and most fell well short of that mark and were in fact out of baseball by their age 36 seasons, the last covered by a potential four-year contract.

Granderson turned down the Yankees’ qualifying offer of $14.1 million dollars. In previous years, free agent wins cost in the range of $5 million per win. Granderson would need to be a three-win player moving forward every year to reach that mark at $15 million annually. I suspect that there will be inflation in this market, but I also suspect based on Granderson’s own performance and his most similar players that his decline will be steep and in fact, has already begun.

Two-year commitment? Ok. Four? Run away.

2 comments
Scott Klose
Scott Klose

Wow. This has to be one of your best!! Great job.