So Andre Ethier Is Good Again, Apparently

So Andre Ethier is good and not bad. I know! I’m surprised too. More than just kind of good, too, since his .317.407.550 (165 wRC+) would easily represent the best season of his career… and that’s underselling it. I mean, here’s the top five outfielders (min. 100 PA) by wRC+:

(Joc!) That’s insane. It just is. I mean, we spent all winter being certain he’d end up somewhere else, even after Matt Kemp left. Less than three months ago, I pointed out how completely untradeable he was. I guess I was right! Sort of. Now, with Carl Crawford and Yasiel Puig injured, Ethier’s got the second-most plate appearances of any Dodger outfielder (behind only Joc Pederson), and he’s doing… well, this. How?

The obvious: It’s 140 plate appearances and Dee Gordon is still hitting .376 and Brandon Crawford has a 143 wRC+ and good lord it’s still so early, so there’s that. No one wants to hear “small sample size,” but no one should expect Ethier to suddenly be a top-3 outfielder in his age-33 season, either. He will, almost by definition, be worse in June/July/Aug/Sept than he was in April and May. Just accept that, and life will be so much easier.

Still: What he’s done until now is all real production that counts. A .340 BABIP is a little high, but isn’t absurdly so, so it’s not like he’s lucked his way into this. What’s the difference between Ethier last year, and Ethier this year? Earlier this month, Ethier told the Los Angeles Times he thought he knew why:

Ethier said he’s been able to do that because he’s healthy for the first time in several years. He has been plagued with a variety of injuries since he made the All-Star team in 2011.

Don Mattingly said something similar:

Okay, well, let’s go over to the Baseball Prospectus injury database and recall what’s been bothering him since then:

  • 2013, Sept 24 — 9 days, left ankle (plus limitations in playoffs)
  • 2013, Sept 14 — 8 days, left ankle
  • 2012, June 28 — 15 days, oblique
  • 2011, Sept 7 — rest of season, knee surgery

I’m not going to pretend like I know he’s actually felt over the course of the long season, but there doesn’t seem like anything obvious stands out there (and note that there’s nothing listed for 2014, which was his worst year.) Is it possible there’s something we don’t know about? Sure. Probably. But there’s no point in speculating, so we’ll go with what we’ve got.

Here’s what we do know: Ethier’s batted ball profile has changed considerably. Check out his LD/GB/FB% from the last three years:

  • 2013: 24.4 / 39.0 / 36.7
  • 2014: 21.6 / 51.9 / 26.5
  • 2015: 25.0 / 34.0 / 41.0

Those classifications aren’t perfect, but you get the idea, or at least you should by the one I highlighted in red. Last year, Ethier was a grounder machine. That’s great if you’re Billy Hamilton. It’s not great when you’re weakly grounding out to second constantly, as it seemed like Ethier always did. Everything else is about the same; he’s not being pitched differently, or changing his approach, other than slightly better contact and slightly less swinging outside the zone. He just seems to be hitting the ball harder. If you believe the new hard-hit classifications you can find at FanGraphs, you’ll see he went from 36.2% hard hits in 2013 to 24.9% to 35.0%.

What makes that happen? Health seems too convenient of an answer, especially since we can’t see a major issue, but it’s at least plausible given the quotes. It’s helpful, also, that he’s just about never seeing left-handed pitching, continuing a trend that I shared earlier this year. Let’s do a super high-tech update to that chart:

ethier_platoon-2015

When you have Scott Van Slyke and Alex Guerrero running around, both trying to find ways into the lineup, there’s no reason at all to let Ethier face a lefty, and so far, he really hasn’t. (Though he does have six hits in 20 plate appearances, which shouldn’t change anyone’s perception of anythig.) That’s helped, but nothing has helped more than Ethier managing to reverse the slide he’d had against righty pitching.

It’s also possible that we’re just seeing “the good Ethier” at the right time, because he’s been known to be streaky. Remember 2013, when he had a 104 wRC+ in the first half and a 149 in the second? Or 2011, when he had a 137 in the first half and a 91 in the second? This isn’t always unusual behavior from him; if that’s happening again, that it’s happening starting April 6 and not June 28 shouldn’t make a difference, though it feels like it does.

It’s not going to last, again, because it can’t. But for the first time in a long time, Ethier no longer seems like someone you’re desperately trying to dump. For now, he seems like someone you’re happy to have in the lineup, and someone who won’t get shoved aside so easily for Crawford. (Sorry, there’s no argument to make that Puig shouldn’t immediately be given his job back.) When everyone’s healthy, then you’re back to the same “too many outfielders” problem you had before, and maybe that’s when you look to move him again. If he looks anything like he does now, then maybe he’s regained some minor trade value, which is a massive achievement in itself. (Minor, to be sure. That contract, and we’re still talking about 140 plate appearances.)

But that’s still all a while off, since neither Puig nor Crawford have solid return dates. What you have now is something you probably never thought you’d see again: Andre Ethier, valuable and necessary member of the Dodgers. Never stop being weird, baseball.

About Mike Petriello

Mike Petriello
Mike writes about lots of baseball in lots of places, and right now that place is MLB.com.