It hasn’t been an easy year for A.J. Ellis. It got so bad that by the second week of May, when his wRC+ was 6 (!), I was having to write articles trying to justify his roster spot, basically saying that because catcher is a very unique position, the mild offensive upgrade you might get from Austin Barnes or some random veteran wouldn’t be worth the learning curve of asking a new catcher to learn the staff:
Maybe this is Ellis’ final season as a Dodger player. Maybe things don’t get better for him and the front office is forced to act later on this summer.
I’m not sure how it’ll play out. For now, it’s not worth losing sleep over. This particular backup catcher is adding where he can, in ways not easily visible. Ultimately, swapping out backup catchers just doesn’t make that much of a difference. No point in losing depth or shaking up the pitching staff in order to gamble on the slight overall upgrade a change would bring — not that you could find that player in May, anyway. He’ll play every few days, because Grandal can’t catch every day. He’ll catch Kershaw most times, because it makes Kershaw happy. And hopefully, probably, likely, that bat will wake up. Almost by definition, it has to.
And it did! A lot! Check out his rolling OPS:
(Yes, OPS is imperfect, but Baseball-Reference makes it easy to get to, so, close enough.) Ellis has been so good lately that his wRC+ is up to 113, which is to say that he’s been 13 percent better than the league-average hitter. Maybe that’s improved health. Maybe that’s the extreme platoon situation. Ellis told Pedro Moura of the OC Register that he thinks it’s about simplicity:
“I don’t know if it was just health, or bad swing mechanics,” Ellis said. “I was hitting a lot of ground balls to the left side of the infield on pitches I should have traditionally stayed up the middle on or hit the other way. I worked hard on staying up the middle.”
“My bad habit is, when I have a lot of free time, I want to get in the batting cage and tinker and tinker. The problem with that is you’re in between swings every time you go to the plate. So, when I made the decision to make it simple, I feel like I really took off.”
Ellis quoted June 12 as the turnaround date, and since then, he’s hitting a massive .323/.468/.581. (In only 79 plate appearances, of course, but still.)
The timing couldn’t be better, obviously, because Yasmani Grandal, who had gotten off to such a great start that he was nearly up there with Buster Posey in conversations about elite catchers and had made the Matt Kemp deal look like a heist, has been in a terrible slump lately. Since hitting a homer on August 1, he’s just .137/.250/.157 in 60 plate appearances.
Now, there’s obvious reason for that, as he’s suffering from a sore shoulder:
Yasmani Grandal has a sore shoulder that is radiating pain all over his upper body, and there is absolutely no assurance it will heal anytime soon.
“It started out in the [trapezius], then went up to the neck, then went up to the middle back,” Grandal told The Times’ Dylan Hernandez prior to Thursday. “Then right rib, then left rib. The past couple days, it’s gotten better to where we could start strengthening that shoulder without having to worry about the rib, the back or the neck.”
So, that’s bad, though Barnes is likely to rejoin the team tomorrow when rosters expand to add some depth. With Yasiel Puig and Howie Kendrick and maybe Enrique Hernandez out and Joc Pederson lost at sea, the offense can’t really withstand the loss of Grandal’s bat, too. (To say nothing of his elite framing.) But if they have to, at least Ellis has come to life.
The combined 127 wRC+ by Dodger catchers is the best in baseball. That’s mostly Grandal. It’s not entirely Grandal, however, not anymore, and it’s why the insistence of so many to dump Ellis in May was premature.