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Yasmani Grandal ready to carry a heavier load for Dodgers

MLB: NLCS-Chicago Cubs at Los Angeles Dodgers Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

PHOENIX — Yasmani Grandal came to camp 10 pounds lighter than usual for this time of year. But, now fully healthy, the catcher is poised to assume an even heavier workload behind the plate for the Dodgers.

Even if Grandal doesn’t necessarily view his role in those terms.

“I never really thought about it as being a number one. It was more of 'How can we get the job done?',” Grandal said. “I feel like the catching spot, as with any other position, should be thought of as a team, even within the position, and how can we help ourselves be the best team we can be.”

Grandal started 106 games at catcher for the Dodgers last year, after 100 starts behind the plate in 2015. But his workload began to increase in the second half in 2016. After 54 starts in the team’s first 91 games, Grandal made 52 starts at catcher in the final 71 games after the All-Star break.

That coincided with Grandal heating up at the plate. After seven home runs in the first three months of 2016, Grandal hit 20 home runs over the final three months, hitting .267/.376/.581 in 69 games.

He was finally healthy after undergoing shoulder surgery after the 2015 season, which affected his offseason training, then dealing with a nagging wrist injury during spring training, causing him to miss the first week of the regular season on the disabled list.

"Having to rehab that offseason, not knowing what was going to happen, then getting into spring training and having another injury that wasn't major but was lingering and bothering,” Grandal said. “It was a matter of getting those things out of the way.”

This offseason presented no such obstacles for Grandal, who seized the opportunity by overhauling his diet while still able to work out and prepare for the season. He showed up to spring training 10 pounds lighter than usual this time of year.

"It's something you can always adjust. It's a long season and you're going to lose weight, period. As long as you're feeling strong and you're bat speed is there and your body is feeling good it doesn't matter what weight you're playing at,” Grandal said. “Energy-wise, you're going to be tired. You just have to figure out a way to get ready for that day, day in and day out.”

Grandal went vegetarian in the offseason, though he said he might reintroduce meat into his diet if he wants to, also noting, “There are plenty of ways you can get calories you need without adding meat.”

"We have an over/under on how long he can sustain this plant-based diet, and I have the under,” joked manager Dave Roberts.

There was some concern that because he usually drops weight during the grind of spring training, that showing up even lighter could sap his strength.

"Coming in lighter, if I do drop some weight, it just means I get to eat more,” Grandal quipped, smiling.

But even though he is lighter, Grandal has maintained his strength, and he is not as obsessed with his weight as he might have been earlier in his career.

"There were times when I got down under 220, and I just didn't feel strong, and felt like I needed to get [my weight] back up there. It was a mental thing. It was my fault, because preparation wasn't as good as I've gotten it to,” Grandal explained. “The past few years, as I've gotten older I have perfected it even more where I actually feel stronger, so if I do drop weight it doesn't matter.”

San Diego Padres v Los Angeles Dodgers
Yasmani Grandal worked on his right-handed swing all offseason.
Photo by Victor Decolongon/Getty Images

Roberts likes what he sees from his catcher.

“He's really come a long way. He's lighter, but this is as good a shape as I've seen Yasmani in,” Roberts said. “We've seen him bigger, but as far as having a weight to be able to sustain and manage throughout the season, he's there.”

This is also the first spring for Grandal with the Dodgers that isn’t cluttered with several questions about whether he or A.J. Ellis would catch Clayton Kershaw — it was usually Ellis, though perhaps not as one-sided as you might think, with Grandal catching 17 of Kershaw’s 49 starts before Ellis was traded last August. But it didn’t seem to bother Grandal.

"I don't really think about these things too much. I don't really care if someone has a personal catcher. It has happened before, and it's going to happen again,” Grandal said. “The way you have to look at it is, if that day the pitcher feels comfortable throwing to a certain guy, go ahead and do it. It's not about me, it's not about the catcher or whoever is playing that day.

“It's about the whole team actually winning that day. If we got a win out of it, everything is good. If we didn't, it's 'How can I help whoever is playing so he can help us win?'“

Dual threat

One thing Grandal has focused on this winter and into spring training is batting right-handed. The switch-hitter batted .224/.385/.395 from the right side last season, but his swing wasn’t consistent. Roberts said this spring, Grandal has worked on keeping that swing from the right side in the strike zone longer.

“He was productive from that side as far as getting on base. But the balls he did square up, the trajectory was more negative and down to the ground,” Roberts said. “We talked about elevating the ball to the pull side, and with the contact rate he should be a productive player.”

Grandal in 2016 had a ground ball rate of 53.6% from the right side, compared to 42.4% from the left side. His fly ball rate was just 26.8% while batting right-handed and 42.4% batting left-handed, which helps explain the home run discrepancy.

Batting left-handed last year, Grandal hit 23 home runs, one every 15.7 plate appearances, compared to four home runs right-handed, one every 24 PA.

For most of his first two seasons in Los Angeles, Grandal would strategically get days off against left-handers, starting just 22 of 90 games (24.4%) against southpaws compared to starting 80.3% of the time against right-handers. That figures to change in 2017.

Over the last 25 years, the only Dodgers to start 100 games behind the plate three years in a row are Mike Piazza (1995-97) and Russell Martin (2006-09). Grandal in 2017 will try to become the third.

Roberts didn’t have a specific number of starts in mind for Grandal, but there is no doubt Grandal will see a ton of playing time behind the plate.

“In a perfect world, it's just contingent on the schedule, and not left versus right,” Roberts said. “Just having our backup catcher being the guy that spells him in spots.”