What happened in 2014: Well, that could have gone better.
Lord, where do you start? Andre Ethier started in center field for the first five games of the year as Matt Kemp rehabbed, and then when Kemp went back into center, Ethier went everywhere else. To right, for a few games here and there to spot Yasiel Puig. In left, rarely, when he could squeeze between Carl Crawford and Scott Van Slyke. Back in center now and then to get Kemp a breather. But despite the fact that Don Mattingly did a much better job of keeping Ethier away from lefties, Ethier’s porous offense did little to force the manager’s hand towards putting him in the lineup.
You know what did, though? Kemp’s atrocious center field defense, which got so awful that on May 24, I wrote about how Ethier, believe it or not, was the team’s best defensive option at the position:
In the years since, he’s absolutely upped his game; I wouldn’t say he’s ever really been a plus, but he’s probably a roughly-average defensive outfielder now, and that’s both valuable and a positive reflection on him. Last year, when he was forced to make 70 starts in center, we all cringed at how horrible it would be, but it really wasn’t. The numbers had him as slightly below-average, and that’s really not bad at all considering he hadn’t played the position in the bigs and how much worse it could have been.
As it turned out, Kemp had started his final game in center for the team two days prior, taking a few days off and then heading to left before ultimately settling in right. That made Ethier the team’s primary center fielder, and for a span of two months, from May 18 – July 18, all 38 of his starts came in center. With Crawford injured, Kemp in left and Puig in right, Ethier and Van Slyke (!) made for an extremely bizarre center field platoon. And still, Ethier didn’t hit. During that two-month stretch, his line was just .238/.304/.381 with two homers.
By mid-July, we knew this was a situation that was simply untenable, since Crawford was nearly ready to return from his injured ankle. On July 11, we wrote two different posts about what a mess this was. Here’s Dustin pointing out that Ethier’s defense wasn’t really acceptable:
The Dodgers’ -17 defensive runs saved in center field is the worst in baseball, and their -16.7 UZR/150 is 28th in MLB. For good measure, they rank 28th and 29th in DRS and UZR/150, respectively, at shortstop. But overall numbers are worse in center. Some of that has to do with Matt Kemp, and some of that has to do with Andre Ethier.
It’s no secret Kemp isn’t a good center fielder, because he hasn’t been for years, to the point that the Dodgers could finally take no more in May. When Ethier replaced him earlier this year, folks probably expected him to perform closer to what he did filling in for Kemp last year; Instead, Ethier is patrolling center field at a worse clip this year (-4.1 UZR/150, -6 defensive runs saved in roughly 122 fewer innings) than last (-4.7 UZR/150, -3 DRS).
Later that day, after seeing Van Slyke in the lineup against another righty, I wrote that I thought Ethier was totally finished in center:
My friends, I think we’ve seen the last of Andre Ethier as a center fielder. We’ll talk about this more when the game thread goes up later, but this was a move that was a long time coming. Scott Van Slyke is probably the center fielder this weekend against the Padres, but I’d be surprised if he is when the second half kicks off after the break. Maybe that’s Joc Pederson, maybe it’s someone else. But what we do know is that the status quo simply was not working.
Mattingly tried to play off Ethier’s benching as fighting “soreness”, but we knew what was up:
So Ethier is sore in multiple areas. One, in fact, might actually say his soreness is “general,” and you know what that means, don’t you? Ding-ding-ding! That’s the magic word of the day for “we don’t want this guy to play right now, and we’re not going to throw him under the bus by actually saying that, but we can’t be more specific either,” which is basically exactly what happened when we all figured Josh Beckett was in line for a phantom DL stint, before maybe actually hurting his hip in his last start.
The team confounded us by having Ethier start the next two games in center and then three more later in the week, but with Crawford healthy, it was the beginning of the end for Ethier. Puig moved to center on July 25, and the outfield configuration was set, with a Crawford/Van Slyke platoon in left, Puig in center, and Kemp in right. Over the season’s final two months, Ethier started just 10 games, further fighting for time when Joc Pederson arrived in September. (I’m not going to talk about his bizarre start and brutal running mistake in the final game of the NLDS. I’m just not.)
Ethier’s diminished role became so minor, in fact, that it became a running joke:
Ethier last started on July 22 in Pittsburgh, then sat the next day, followed by a day off. He hasn’t played defense since, failing to get into the entire San Francisco series with the exception of pinch-hitting on Friday. (He walked.) It’s not even that there’s just been an endless stream of lefties either, not with old friend (I… guess?) Aaron Harang starting tonight. It is, apparently, that Carl Crawford is the starting left fielder, even though he has not played well this year.
We now go live to Ethier’s reaction:
To Ethier’s credit, he handled the situation admirably, at least in public. This is a player who hasn’t always done a great job of keeping internal matters quiet — remember back in 2011 when he said he thought he’d be non-tendered? — and he handled this with class, accepting his role as a backup. I can’t imagine he’s willing to do that for the remainder of his contract, but for 2014 alone, he helped to keep what could have been a huge problem more of a minor inconvenience.
Still, that doesn’t make him a better baseball player, and his offense just completely disappeared this year. (He hit as many homers as Madison Bumgarner, for instance.) His one major skill, crushing righty pitching, just wasn’t there. If you want to argue it was because of irregular playing time, fine, but he clearly wasn’t producing in that mid-season stretch when he was the (mostly) regular center fielder. It’s not because of bad batted ball luck. There were some scouts who thought his bat speed was gone. Maybe so. I have a hard time thinking he can be as bad as he was in 2014 again; on the other hand, he’s going to be 33 and it seems more clear than ever that he peaked at 27. For everyone’s sake, it will be best if we’ve seen the last of him as a Dodger.
2015 status: Ethier will make $18 million in the third year of his five-year deal… for someone. I can’t imagine it will be the Dodgers. The Kemp deal doesn’t change that.