Yasmani Grandal is a White Sox pitcher’s best friend

Grandal, 31, has made a deep, wide, almost instant imprint on the Sox since signing for a club-record $73 million over four years. He has done it with a highly unusual combination of analysis, initiative, communicativeness, work ethic, keen observational skill and first impressions.

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White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal takes some batting practice at Guaranteed Rate Field.

White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal takes some batting practice at Guaranteed Rate Field.

Mark Black/AP

GLENDALE, Arizona — Catcher Yasmani Grandal moved a little more than 2,000 miles, from Los Angeles to Milwaukee, for the 2019 baseball season.

Then he had new teammate Gio Gonzalez move about two feet.

At Grandal’s urging, the veteran left-hander — then in his 12th major-league season — changed his positioning on the mound from the third-base side of the rubber to the first-base side.

‘‘I was on the third-base side for, what, 10 years or longer?’’ Gonzalez said. ‘‘At first it was disorienting, but you learn it through bullpen [sessions], try it maybe one or two times in a game, maybe a certain batter, and you eventually make the change. And once I did, just moving me over on the mound alone made a world of difference for me.’’

Gonzalez finished strong with the Brewers, posting a 1.17 ERA in 23 innings in September. That helped him land a free-agent deal with the White Sox in December. Grandal — who had hopped on the Sox train a month earlier, the biggest addition in a momentous offseason for the team — had a hand in that move, too.

Grandal, 31, has made a deep, wide, almost instant imprint on the Sox since signing for a club-record $73 million over four years. He has done it with a highly unusual combination of analysis, initiative, communicativeness, work ethic, keen observational skill and first impressions.

The Cuban-born, Miami-raised switch hitter’s outstanding 2019 offensive numbers — 28 home runs, 77 RBI, more than 100 walks and a .380 on-base percentage that led all big-league catchers — only scratch the surface of what the Sox hope to get from him.

The bigger picture is Grandal’s ability and desire — it’s almost an obsession — to work with each Sox pitcher to discover the hidden keys to meaningful, lasting improvement.

He spent the weeks leading up to spring training — and all the weeks since — studying mechanics, breaking down pitch counts, diving into advanced metrics and identifying any and all tells, no matter how slight, he could see on video.

‘‘I am telling you, what he does is remarkable,’’ Gonzalez said. ‘‘It’s almost the cheat code to the PlayStation game. This guy is at another level. He is playing games, just almost toying with the opponent. What he’s doing now in baseball, it’s next-level.’’

Or as another high-end Sox newcomer, 2015 American League Cy Young Award winner Dallas Keuchel, put it:

“One of the things that sticks out initially is he’s playing the game with us. He’s thinking ahead, thinking behind different pitches. Visually, he’s seeing what the hitter is seeing, so he’s playing my game that I’m playing out there, just from a different view. Automatically, that makes the game easier on us on the pitchers’ side of things.”

Keuchel offered that assessment after his first live batting-practice session of the spring with Grandal behind the plate.

The newcomers aren’t alone. As the actual games got underway, with the Sox pointed toward a regular season — now shortened to 60 games — with seriously elevated expectations, one pitcher after another had a personal Grandal anecdote to share. The man had come prepared, gotten straight down to business and wasted no time exerting his influence.

White Sox pitcher Steve Cishek gets a ball from catcher Yasmani Grandal during practice at Guaranteed Rate Field.

White Sox pitcher Steve Cishek gets a ball from catcher Yasmani Grandal during practice at Guaranteed Rate Field.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

‘‘You trust the man,’’ Gonzalez said. ‘‘He comes at you with such knowledge, such information, that it’s hard to, like, just overlook it. He’s showing you the video. He’s showing you the numbers. He’s showing you his homework. It’s hard to overlook a guy who’s the first person here every day and cares so much about your career and the team.’’

About that simple little slide across the rubber, Gonzalez broke it out in earnest in an excellent outing against the Cubs.

‘‘I believe you’ve got at least three more years in you,’’ Grandal said as they walked off the field after Gonzalez’s final inning.

‘‘Damn,’’ Gonzalez replied. ‘‘I don’t know why nobody ever told me this when I was throwing 97 mph.’’

A bad rep — and reaching out

Grandal is known best for his four good seasons with the Dodgers — and for the All-Star recognition he earned with them and the Brewers. Not nearly as discussed is his time with the Padres, the team with which he broke into the big leagues. It was a mixed bag of things some fans might remember.

In 2012, Grandal rather famously homered from both sides of the plate in the same game for his first career hits, becoming the first player in big-league history to do so. After that season, he was hit with a 50-game suspension for testing positive for elevated levels of testosterone. And in 2013, he suffered a severe injury to his left knee on a slide by Anthony Rendon at home plate.

Here’s what few know about his time with the Padres: He had a bad reputation with their pitchers.

‘‘Looking back, I think everybody kind of saw me as being hardheaded,’’ he said. ‘‘They didn’t quite understand what I was seeing, and obviously the hardest thing for some guys to do is change.

‘‘When I would talk to somebody about an idea, it was almost like I had to have them do it in a game, so they could understand it. And even when it happened and it came out good, they didn’t want to hear it.’’

Grandal figures now that there probably was a good bit of ‘‘Who does this kid think he is?’’ going on. He was young; his communication style was a little rough around the edges.

After he was traded to the Dodgers heading into 2015, he was determined to build better relationships. So he started out with a bunch of simple text messages.

‘‘They didn’t have to text back,’’ he said. ‘‘But at least them having the understanding that, ‘Hey, I’m acknowledging you,’ was good. So it started there and just kept going. What I ended up finding out is it’s easier to get your thoughts across later in the year when you started the conversations early on instead of just waiting for them to start.’’

When the Sox made a recruiting pitch to Grandal in Arizona, general manager Rick Hahn brought an advanced report intended to relay to him how the team goes about its game prep, among other things.

‘‘He looked through it for a few minutes and then said, ‘OK, this is good, but do you guys use X, Y and Z?’ ’’ Hahn recalled. ‘‘He wanted to get it even stronger. That made an impression on us in terms of the seriousness with which he takes us. It wasn’t necessarily going to be about the most money in the end; it was going to be about the best position to win.’’

Hahn followed up with Grandal’s agent a couple of days later, hoping to learn Grandal was eager to move forward. He was — in a sense.

‘‘He wanted video on [our] starting pitchers, so he could start figuring out how he could potentially get them better,’’ Hahn said. ‘‘This is before we’ve exchanged an offer. Yasmani had his own timetable.’’

It wasn’t long before Grandal was on board and the texts and phone calls began. He volunteered his thoughts to Hahn on free agents and guys on the waiver wire. He peppered pitching coach Don Cooper and assistant pitching coach Curt Hasler with questions and opinions.

He got All-Star starter Lucas Giolito on the phone — for an hour — to take the temperature of the clubhouse. What were Sox players’ collective intentions? What were they aiming to do? What would their goal be in 2020?

‘‘He’s awesome,’’ Giolito said as spring training got cooking. ‘‘He really cares about his teammates. He really cares about the game. He wants to come over here and start a winning culture. Anytime I look around, he’s talking to a guy, helping a guy out, and also putting in hard work for himself on his own end.’’

It’s the little things

By the time the rest of the Sox were playing their first Cactus League games, Grandal already had done — despite his own debut being delayed by a calf injury — a world of impressing.

Giolito took particular note of Grandal’s intuitive feel for sign-sequencing ‘‘because,’’ he said, ‘‘in this day and age, you never know who’s looking.’’

‘‘We’re getting more into the nuances of the game in these meetings that we never have covered, at least in my experience, in the organization,’’ Giolito said. ‘‘He’s bringing in new things, new ideas, and I think it’s going to be really good for us.’’

Keuchel, who is entering his ninth big-league season, had become a practitioner of visualizing pitches before throwing them, but he thought that, in doing so, he had gotten away from his strengths of arm-side movement with his fastball and changeup and that his control — with the curveball, too — had suffered some.

The first time he threw to Grandal, the catcher told him: ‘‘Just watch where I flash my glove. That’s exactly where I want you to throw the ball.’’

‘‘Instead of me visually thinking I need to make this curveball go from a ball to a strike, I’m visually seeing his glove and just trying to throw that pitch right to the glove,’’ Keuchel said. ‘‘Automatically, I felt a lot more comfortable with what I’m trying to do out there initially than I have the last few years. That speaks volumes to — verbally and non-verbally — what he brings already.’’

Grandal advised 24-year-old right-hander Dylan Cease to rely on his eyes, rather than on his mechanics, to make adjustments. In this case, it was as simple as having Cease — who has a tendency to yank his fastball outside to right-handed hitters — train his eyes more to the right.

‘‘He does a lot of things that are impressive,’’ Cease said. ‘‘And he’s definitely intense. How you would picture a catcher that would lead a team is how he is.’’

Grandal watched 23-year-old fireballer Michael Kopech, an enormous part of the Sox’ plans for the rotation, throw live batting practice and asked him to sit for a minute. Kopech learned in that discussion that he had a bad habit of opening his glove and tipping pitches. Grandal had noticed this on film before arriving at Sox camp, too.

‘‘Just minimal changes that can make all the difference in a game,’’ Kopech said. ‘‘He’s really on top of that and has such a good eye for it. The game can speed up, for sure, so you forget about the little things like that. You’ve got to make sure you’re on top of every little thing when you’re in a big-time situation. I’m really glad that he showed me that.’’

Veteran reliever Steve Cishek tells the story of being summoned by Grandal to an indoor field at UIC before SoxFest in January. They had faced off many times in the National League — Cishek came from the Cubs — and ‘‘he knows what my stuff does,’’ the sidearming right-hander said.

‘‘The first day I met him, we played catch,’’ Cishek said. ‘‘He was setting up certain ways just to see how I would react to his visuals. He’d seen where the Cubs’ catchers set up, but he already had a different plan for how he wanted to set up behind the plate in terms of getting me to have a good visual to hit my spots. It made total sense to me.’’

And then there was Grandal’s effort to connect with 2019 All-Star catcher James McCann, the man whose playing time will decrease dramatically. This was no easy matter because Grandal texted McCann while the latter was in Mexico on Sox business.

‘‘Anything you need, just let me know,’’ the text read. ‘‘I’m here for you.’’

‘‘I completely understand it’s kind of hard to come into a team — and especially one having an All-Star catcher — and not come off the wrong way,’’ Grandal said. ‘‘But he is a guy who loves to prepare, a hard worker, pretty much a poster boy for somebody you want to root for, right? Guys like that, you let them do what they’re going to do. Talk to them as to: ‘What questions do you have? How can I make you better?’ That’s all.’’

McCann has been working hard at improving his pitch-framing, one of Grandal’s specialties. In Glendale, Grandal dared to ask about that and other fronts:

‘‘If you allow me to come up to you whenever I see something, kind of redirect you to do the move we want you to do, do we go for it?’’

McCann was all for it. To his credit, he became something of a student.

‘‘So, beginning of spring training, I kind of took over, showed him, gave him ideas: ‘This is how we can do this and this,’ ’’ Grandal said. ‘‘Once I kind of saw that he got it, now it was me looking from the outside in as an extra pair of eyes for him to get him where we want him to be.’’

White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal throws during practice at Guaranteed Rate Field.

White Sox catcher Yasmani Grandal throws during practice at Guaranteed Rate Field.

Nam Y. Huh/AP

Telling it like it is

Alaynah Grandal is a talented 11-year-old who has played softball and soccer and has done gymnastics. Her stepdad intends to let her and his toddler son, Yasmani, do their thing athletically without a whole lot of advice.

‘‘Just let them be them,’’ he said.

But it is in his nature to fix things — at the professional level, anyway.

‘‘As a human being, a person, if you don’t try to get everybody around you better, then what’s the point?’’ Grandal said. ‘‘What’s the point of not wanting everybody else to have the same things you have? But I guess it makes sense that my circle is a little small.’’

It might be that Grandal is still a bit hardheaded, that his bent is more toward building a World Series team than it is toward building friendships. So be it.

He sees himself as part of a core of veterans that stands apart from the young studs — Yoan Moncada, Eloy Jimenez, Luis Robert, Giolito, Reynaldo Lopez, Kopech, Cease and others. It’ll be those players whose efforts will drive the Sox going forward.

‘‘Those guys will be our engine,’’ Grandal said. ‘‘What the veterans are going to do is kind of make them accountable to keep the engine running. And then once that happens, all the young talent that’s coming up? They’re just going to take over.’’

Understand this: Grandal has done a close inspection of all the arms on the team, and what he sees is something different from what he saw with the Brewers or even the star-studded Dodgers. He sees massive potential. He sees an army of throwers who might be chasing awards someday soon.

‘‘[Bleep], you’ve got a lot of guys,’’ he said. ‘‘If we can get them to maximize what they’re doing, we’re talking possible candidates for Cy Youngs and definitely All-Stars. We’ve got guys who can be at the top of the league. But I want all the guys to have expectations as high as the best starter in the league, best reliever in the league. The more pitchers we get into the All-Star Game, the better, right?’’

Grandal’s tutelage only will help.

Meanwhile, Grandal will be diving into those metrics, though not to a fault. That’s not how he rolls. Ultimately, he’s a feel guy, which seems to be what might serve the Sox best of all.

‘‘I came up in an era in the minors when you had no numbers,’’ he said. ‘‘So you’d just call a game off of feel. I know all the numbers for a certain hitter, but I’m also reading body language. I’m also reading swing type. I’m also reading how you’re taking this pitch, how you’re not taking this pitch. Are you trying to set me up? Are you sitting on a pitch?’’

He’s doing that while tweaking his staff into one subtle improvement after another. The Grandal effect is real, and it is taking hold in a big way. One never knows which change will make all the difference.

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