And if you don’t know, now you know! Photo courtesy of AP and daylife.com
As the buzz from the 2009 World Series wore off and Yankee fans began to look to the next season of baseball, Ninja-in-Chief and General Manager Brian Cashman struck with precision and speed and dealt longtime Yankee prospects CF Austin Jackson and RHP Ian Kennedy, along with LHP reliever Phil Coke to the Arizona Diamondbacks and Detroit Tigers as a part of a three-way deal that brought CF Curtis Granderson to the Yankees. After watching Melky Cabrera hack his way through a full season and without knowing what to expect from Brett Gardner, most fans rejoiced. The Yankees were getting a real life centerfielder! And not an old one! And he wasn’t just a good arm in the outfield, he could actually get hits!
In four full seasons with the Tigers, Granderson averaged 23.5 home runs per year and was the owner of a .273/.346/.484 batting line over that time. However, his career had been something of a rollercoaster. His 2009 campaign with Detroit had been something of a disappointment. 2007 was the high-water mark, as a .360 BABIP led him to a .302/.360/.552 line and his single-season 14.3 UZR combined to make him worth 7.4 fWAR on the year. The next year was a bit of a downer, and as his BABIP dropped some 45 points his batting line fell to .280/.365/.494. Oddly, his UZR swung wildly to -11.3, providing yet another good example of the vagaries of single-season UZR (and, by extension, WAR). His next season with Detroit would prove to be his worst and his last. His BABIP fell another 40 points and his line dropped down to .249/.327/.453. For a guy who had gotten on base at a 36% clip in the past, this was a fairly decent sized drop off. The odd part was that Granderson wasn’t past the aging curve. 28 years old is well within the range of the peak level of physical performance for position players, so it wasn’t as if he was simply slowing down. On the other hand, Granderson had always been a player with a very high strike out rate (24% on his career), and his on-base percentage had seemingly been fueled by a high BABIP throughout his career, rather than by taking plenty of walks (BB% only 9.5%). Despite that, some looked at his batted ball data and concluded that Granderson was due for a rebound in 2010. After all, his line-drive percentage had stayed relatively static. He had even dropped his ground ball percentage in 2009, upping his fly-ball percentage, and despite the fact that his IFFB percentage had increased it seemed to the naked eye that Granderson would be a good bet to bounce back to something like .275/.355/.470. Of course, there were troubling signs as well. Granderson has always hit righties better than lefties, but he fared particularly awfully against lefties in 2009 with a .484 OPS. He was a question mark, but a player with considerable upside.
As the 2010 season got underway, it seemed that 2010 was going to look more like 2009 than 2008 or 2007. Things were not going well for Granderson. In the first month of the year he put up a line of .225/.311/.375 with only 2 home runs. Of course, the sample size was small and so when Granderson went down with a groin injury on May 1st fans were still hopeful that the Granderson bounceback year would get underway when he returned. Nearly four weeks later he came back and the early results were good. In a homestand against the Indians and the Orioles he posted an OPS of 1.190 and homered once. He was never able to find a consistent rhythm, though, and when he headed into the All-Star Break his post-injury line stood at .248/.308/.428, leaving him with a first half line of .240/.309/.409. Meanwhile, Austin Jackson had gotten off to a scorching hot start with the Tigers, cruising to a .300/.354/.403 line fueled mostly by good fortune on balls in play. Meanwhile in Arizona Ian Kennedy had already thrown 111.1 innings of 4.12 ERA ball with a K/9 of 8.08 and a K/BB ratio of 2.38. Had the Yankees made a big mistake?
The first part of the second half offered no relief. Up to and including the Boston series on August 7-9, Granderson hit a meager .240/.301/.440, an improvement in power but very unimpressive overall for someone making X dollars. At that point, Granderson approached Kevin Long and asked for help with his swing. As the Yankees traveled to Texas for a two-game series starting on Monday, Granderson got some time off. He appeared in both games as a pinch-runner, but spent most of the games on the bench and working with Long to try to regain some of his past success. When he returned, Mike Axisa of River Ave Blues noted that Granderson had made a few very slight alterations to his stance: lowering his hands and removing some of the extraneous movement.
Whether it was that or some magic pixie dust that Long sprinkled over Granderson, it worked. It worked so well that Granderson went on a tear. It worked so well that Axisa created the Twitter hashtag #cured to refer to every Granderson success. It worked so well that in the 179 PAs Granderson has had since his little Kevin Long siesta he’s hitting .275/.362/.588 with, wait for it, 14 home runs. It’s been an astoundingly hot 45 game stretch for Granderson, and he’s raised his season line all the way up to .249/.325/.470 with a wOBA of .348, which is higher than his .340 mark in 2009.
Granderson was one of the biggest acquisitions the Yankees made this offseason, but the Yankees have relied on players other than him in 2010. The batting order is littered with guys who get on-base and hit with power like it’s going out of style: Berkman, Swisher, Teixeira, Cano, Rodriguez and Posada. There’s the familiar Jeter at the top of the order and the speedy OBP-machine and P/PA monster Gardner at the bottom. But nestled in there in the seven or eight hole in the linup is Curtis Granderson. He’s heating up and turning into a very valuable weapon, one with the potential to do serious damage to opposing pitchers in this year’s playoffs. It’s a no-brainer to name him my playoff sleeper.