As we all focused, and continue to focus, on the need for help in the rotation and bullpen, something that kept quietly coming up was the Dodger catching situation, which has been something of an issue all season long. Way back in April, I wrote a post about how atrocious the Dodgers catchers had been, pointing out that Tim Federowicz and Drew Butera weren’t doing much while trying to cover for A.J. Ellis‘s absence due to knee surgery. Ellis came back for eight May games, then hurt his ankle on Butera’s mask in the Josh Beckett no-hitter celebration, then came back again on June 13; in the meantime, Butera, Federowicz, and (briefly) Miguel Olivo hadn’t given us much to dream on. The hope was that Ellis, once he was healthy, could bring some level of stability to the situation, even if last month I still wanted to see the team add catching depth.
Unfortunately, it hasn’t really happened. Dodger catchers are hitting .189/.284/.267, a woeful 59 wRC+ that is better than only that of Tampa Bay. It’s currently the third-worst offensive season in the last 100 seasons of Brooklyn/Los Angeles catchers. (Unsurprisingly, the top eight seasons are all either Mike Piazza or Roy Campanella.) It is, clearly, something of a mess.
Lately, most of the heat, at least that I’ve seen from fans, has fallen on Ellis, hitting .194/.335/.239 and seeming to have his struggles behind the plate. It’s both fair and not; while any batting average that starts with a “one” is obviously ugly, we know enough by now not to think that it’s the most important offensive stat, and Ellis’ .333 OBP is still 13 points higher than the non-pitcher MLB average. It’s also important to remember that a catcher’s offensive performance is often secondary to how he handles the pitching staff, and it’s easy to think that Ellis deserves a large part of the credit for Beckett’s unexpectedly outstanding first half.
Of course, the complete lack of power — only two players in baseball with as many plate appearances have lower slugging percentages — leads to a 71 wRC+, which is of course poor, and simply saying “look at OBP, not batting average” isn’t going to talk around that. I don’t think Ellis, who was very good at the plate in 2011-12, and acceptable in 2013, suddenly forgot how to hit. I do think it’s pretty clear that he’s probably not really been healthy all season, from the April left knee injury (the same one he had surgery on following 2012) to the May ankle sprain to his current sore right knee, which cost him the weekend after taking a ball off it on Friday. He’s reportedly supposed to be back in the lineup tonight against the Angels, but that of course doesn’t mean he’s fully healthy.
Still, here’s the thing: that 71 wRC+, as lousy as it is, is still the best of the four catchers the Dodgers have used this year. There’s absolutely no one in the organization who can help right now, though we’ll likely see Federowicz as a third catcher in September. There wasn’t really anyone to go after at the trading deadline, and even if there was, it’s very difficult to ask a catcher to come in during the season and learn an entirely new pitching staff in a pennant race. There simply wasn’t really reason or motivation to attempt to upgrade on Ellis; it just wasn’t realistic.
Now, in the offseason, as Ellis looks towards his 34th birthday with an increasing run of leg injuries on his resume, I imagine we’ll have conversations about the future of the position. (As far as starters go, anyway; I do believe that Ellis’ value as another pitching coach out there is enough to earn him a roster spot for years to come as a backup, if he wants it.) But for now, this is what the Dodgers have. It was all they could have, and so the best we can really do is remember that Ellis was pretty valuable in the not-too-distant past, and hope that his health allows him to be once again.