What happened in 2014: Struggled horrendously at the plate and spent time on the disabled list twice, once for what was easily the funniest injury of the season. (Sorry, A.J.)
If A.J. Ellis did anything this season, it was to allow me endless opportunities to point out how flawed batting average is. “Yeah, he’s hitting under .200,” I’d say, “and that looks really bad, but he’s still getting on base better than the average player (which is .314), and at basically the same rate as Andre Ethier & Dee Gordon are.” Which is true! Batting average is kind of dumb. Walks are super valuable. Home runs and singles are not the same thing. To say that Ellis had a bad season merely because he hit .191 is lazy.
I still believe that. But man, even I can’t talk my way around this one. A .191 batting average might not be enough to say “bad season,” but a 72 wRC+ certainly is. 263 players had at least 300 plate appearances this year. Only 18 of them had worse marks, and honestly, I’m surprised it’s even that many. Of particular disappointment was his complete lack of power, as his .254 SLG was easily the worst of those 263 players; only two players in Los Angeles Dodgers history, John Shelby (1989) and Alfredo Griffin (1988), have done worse. It’s the lowest SLG by a Dodger catcher with 300 PA in over a century. It’s bad, is what I’m saying.
Of course, we know that a catcher’s main priority isn’t necessarily offense… except that Ellis was viewed as one of the worst pitch-framers in baseball, an issue he was well aware of when I chatted with him about it prior to the season.
So, did anything positive come from this? Any reason for hope for the future? Well, yeah, I think so.
While I’m not going to pretend that this season was anything other than a massive disappointment for Ellis, I do think it’s pretty fair to point out that when a catcher has two serious leg injuries, that’s understandably going to affect his game. In Ellis’ case, his season lasted all of seven games before he injured his left meniscus, requiring knee surgery.
So, we can’t see exactly how this happened. But — and sure, maybe I’m looking too hard to see something that isn’t there — does it not look like Ellis limps away from the plate a bit?
Either way, Ellis is expected to be out for four to six weeks at the least, and that puts this team down their starting catcher until well into May, and perhaps June.
Chad fretted about a world with Tim Federowicz and Drew Butera behind the plate, and he wasn’t wrong to, because both were awful. (This was my go-to whenever people would complain about Ellis, by the way. “What, you really want more Butera? Come on.”
On April 11 in the Chase Field visitors’ locker room, four hours before the Dodgers played the Diamondbacks and two days after Beckett had been lit up in his 2014 debut, the catcher approached the pitcher with an urgent message.
“It was basically, ‘This is what you (expletive) need to do,’” Beckett said. “But he didn’t put it that brutally. He said, ‘Hey, I want to show you some numbers.’”
Of the data Ellis then presented, Beckett remembers most the unexpectedly low slugging percentages against his curveball for both left- and right-handed hitters. There was other information, too, all about his curve and its unhittability.
“He had clearly already been thinking about this,” Beckett said. “And he finally goes, ‘People just don’t hit your curveball.’”
Ellis returned for a home game on May 14, then played regularly through a road trip through Arizona, New York, and Philadelphia. He played in eight of those games, starting five in a row, then took a day off to let Butera catch Beckett on May 25 in Philadelphia, the final game of the trip. You may remember that Beckett threw a no-hitter, which was awesome. You may remember how considerably less awesome the celebration got when Ellis tripped on Butera’s discarded mask, spraining his ankle:
See? If Ellis hadn’t helped Beckett improve, maybe that no-hitter never happens. Anyway, that put him right back on the DL, and with the criminal Miguel Olivo having been dispatched for his attack on Alex Guerrero just days earlier, the Dodgers were so thin behind the plate that they had to go out and get Johnny Monell from Baltimore, just to make sure the Isotopes had two catchers. This time, though, Ellis spent only the minimum time on the disabled list, and were I to learn for certain that he rushed back sooner than he was ready, it wouldn’t surprise me in the least.
When he returned on June 13, the Dodgers had played 68 games. Ellis had played in 15 of them. Any accounting of his season that ignores the impact these two injuries had is just totally missing the point. And Ellis, for a few weeks, played well. For the remainder of June, he hit .279/.426/.302 in 54 plate appearances — SSS, selective endpoints, I know — although the total lack of power was a concern.
Still, on July 10, I wondered if the Dodgers should try to add some catching depth, should Ellis get hurt again; two days later, he had a walkoff hit against the Padres as the Dodgers took the best record in the National League.
Unfortunately, that was one of the few high points of July, a month where Ellis hit just .161/.270/.226. On Aug. 4, I worried about the total lack of production from all four Dodger catchers, and noted that Ellis was dealing with a sore right knee. August wasn’t really better — .176/.305/.250 — nor, really, was September, (.190/.297/.286).
But the playoffs, man… the playoffs. I know we’re talking about four games, the smallest of sample sizes. I know that ultimately this doesn’t mean more than a full season’s worth of evidence. Ellis stepped up 17 times against the Cardinals, and he reached in 11 of them, including four walks, a homer, and a double. A nicely-timed hot streak? A finally healthy ankle? Grace under pressure? All, none, we don’t know. It was sure fun to watch.
Ellis is going to be 34 in April, and it’s fair to wonder how much longer he can be a starting catcher. I think it’s clear that his lousy offensive performance was influenced by injuries, and when healthy, he can be better than that — Steamer has him projected for .228/.328/.332 in 2015, a 92 wRC+ — but obviously you can’t say for sure injuries won’t happen, and it seems clear now he’s never going to be a good pitch-framer.
Shortly after the Dodgers’ season ended, Clayton Kershaw imagined a future without his longtime catcher. As Kershaw started talking about the possibility, his voice cracked.
“I don’t know what I’m going to do if he’s not back,” Kershaw said.
Ellis made $3.5m in 2014, and will probably get an arbitration bump to $4m or so, which is maybe a bit much for an older catcher with questions on both sides of the ball. (Not that the Dodgers ever go to arbitration, of course; they haven’t since 2007, so a one-year contract agreement in that range would be more likely.) Since part of Ellis’ value is what he brings in terms of preparation, I don’t necessarily mind the idea of bringing someone else in to handle the bulk of the workload, with Ellis becoming one of the better backups in the league. Unfortunately, that’s easier said than done. You’re going to hear a lot about Russell Martin this winter, but the thing is, Martin is the only viable alternative. Good catchers are just so hard to find.
I don’t want another year of Ellis and Butera/Federowicz; I also don’t see a clear path to upgrade. Ultimately, I think the Dodgers will bring Ellis back, just because the situation without him is dire and Kershaw values him so highly, but I’d also be surprised if Andrew Friedman doesn’t find some way to reinforce this group, perhaps pushing Ellis to a reserve spot..
2015 status: Eligible for arbitration, at least a potential non-tender possibility, but probably back in some capacity.