Catching Nothing But Grief

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It’s been a tough few games for Dodger catchers, but then again, it’s been a tough season for Dodger catchers. Tim Federowicz not only went 0-5 in the loss to Arizona, he let the go-ahead run score when he couldn’t handle Chris Withrow‘s wild intentional walk throw (which, to be fair, is largely on Withrow as well), let another Withrow pitch get past him — his second Withrow passed ball in four days — and then ended his night by taking a ball off the groin after committing catcher’s interference against Paul Goldschmidt.

I’m not writing an entire post about Federowicz’ night, because Eric Stephen already did that, and he did it well. But what it does make me need to do is point out just how ineffective the Dodger backstops have been over the first few weeks of the season. Here’s how the three catchers have performed at the plate:

A.J. Ellis: 29 PA, .167/.310/.167 53 wRC+
Federowicz: 29 PA, .074/.107/.111 -42 wRC+ (not a typo!)
Drew Butera: 11 PA, .200/.273/.200 40 wRC+

Immediately, this is unfair, and I know that. Ellis more than likely was affected by his knee before he actually had surgery, and judging the second and third catchers against the first and second catchers of other clubs isn’t really fair, in addition to these being minuscule sample sizes.

But… 

MLB catching stats by team:
1) Reds — .375.438/.643 187 wRC+
2) Brewers — .350/.435/.500 161 wRC+
MLB AVG — .248/.316/.396 99 wRC+
29) Nationals — .161/.224/.258 29 wRC+
30) Dodgers — .131/.221/.148 11 wRC+

Right there, you can see how much losing your starting catcher hurts, because Washington lost Wilson Ramos on Opening Day, forcing them to go with Jose Lobaton and Sandy Leon. And we knew that Butera was never going to hit, and we were pretty certain that Federowicz wouldn’t either. They haven’t, and this team wasn’t built around requiring offense from behind the plate, so it’s just a disappointment, not a surprise.

But what is disappointing is what’s happening on defense. Butera has built an entire career around being a superb defensive catcher, but pitch framing just hates him. Federowicz is here almost entirely because he’s supposedly a solid defensive catcher, but we’ve seen several times in the last week alone where he’s cost the team back there — and framing doesn’t love him either. As catchers across the sport are hitting better than ever, the black hole from behind the plate in Los Angeles looks even worse, and the seeming lack of defensive value isn’t helping.

The good news? Ellis is progressing well in his return from surgery, participating in all baseball activities other than running, and it seems like he may be back on the low end of the original four-to-six week estimate. Based on what we’ve seen so far, it can’t happen soon enough.

A.J. Ellis to have surgery on left knee for meniscus tear, what now?

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In a reveal that seemingly came out of nowhere, the Dodgers official Twitter broke news that A.J. Ellis would be undergoing arthroscopic surgery on his left knee for a meniscus tear. He also underwent in operation for a meniscus tear in the same knee back in October of 2012.

There’s no information on his recovery timetable yet, but it depends a great deal what type of meniscus tear we’re looking at. For Ellis’ previous tear, he was given a timetable of six weeks and was ready to begin 2013. And while Derrick Rose famously was ruled out for the 2013-14 season with the tear, Russell Westbrook was on a typical timetable of 4-6 weeks.

So we’re not quite sure yet how much time we’re looking at without A.J. until they release more information or until the surgery actually happens. According to Dylan Hernandez though, we may be looking at the optimistic side of 4-6 weeks:

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Now about that move the Dodgers are talking about: This will inevitably be Tim Federowicz. I can’t imagine them bringing up Miguel Olivo when he was shown to be a clear fourth in the pecking order (and isn’t even on the 40-man roster).

Through 193 MLB plate appearances, T-Fed’s line checks in at .227/.283/.341/.624. Steamer doesn’t project much better, predicting a line of .224/.290/.343/.633. But the hope is that he’ll put up better numbers with consistent playing time. By comparison, Steamer projected Ellis to be a .235/.331/.340/.672 hitter and a 3.0 WAR player.

Defensively, A.J. was one of the better catchers in the league at controlling the run game in 2013, but was a mediocre pitcher framer, something he himself admitted to working on. The problem is that in limited time, T-Fed graded out even worse as a pitch framer and wasn’t as effective at throwing guys out. Drew Butera, expected to remain as the backup, is renowned as a plus defensive catcher. Of course, that comes with the downside of being one of the worst hitters in baseball history. No, really.

So while there doesn’t appear to be a massive drop-off in store at the position — it’s not like Ellis was hitting — it could get uglier if Federowicz doesn’t hit better than expected. Everything else at the moment points to a clear downgrade at the position going forward, and that doesn’t even factor in the potential effect this has on the pitching staff. Unfortunately, there’s just nothing available as far as catchers on other teams, so Butera/Fed is what we’ll have to make due with. Come back soon, A.J.

Dodgers Cut 5 In Second Roster Trim Of Spring + Players Without Options

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The Dodgers made their second round of roster cuts yesterday, parting with five players: Matt Magill, J.C. Boscan, Clint Robinson, Brendan Harris, and Carlos Frias.

Magill figures to be one of the primary options to get called up if injuries plague the rotation. He helped his case a bit with a solid spring, allowing just a run in 5.2 innings while striking out six. Magill will probably be assigned to AAA.

Frias was less experienced against this level of competition and it showed. He gave up five runs in three innings of work this spring, but will look to use this as a learning experience and will probably head back to AA for 2014.

Boscan was always a long shot to make the roster, and was fifth on the depth chart behind Olivo and Butera. Boscan got limited playing time this spring, and he had one hit in four at-bats with two walks. He’ll likely settle in at AAA.

Robinson was an unstoppable force early in spring, and he ended up posting an .826 OPS in 23 at-bats. Most importantly, he put the fear of god into Adrian Gonzalez that he was about to lose his job at first base, thus motivating A-God to his .988 spring OPS. Clint Robinson for President. AAA is calling his name.

Harris was another long-shot to make the team given all the utility bodies in camp, and he didn’t help himself much by posting a .419 OPS in 19 at-bats. He’ll be a solid option to have in reserve at AAA.

All in all, no surprises yet, and the toughest decisions are yet to come. The team still needs to make decisions on the utility infielders, the reserve outfielders, the fifth spot in the rotation, the starter at second base, and also sort out the bullpen crunch.

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Given all that, the roster cuts figure to be coming quicker and quicker in the coming days, so it’s worth looking at the guys still in camp without options. They include Scott Elbert, Javy Guerra, and Drew Butera. If cut, the trio would have to clear waivers to remain with the team.

Elbert will remain with the Dodgers, if only because he’s currently injured and on the 60-day DL. The tough decision will come down the road when he’s ready to return.

Barring injury, Butera is almost assured to be cut eventually, as A.J. Ellis and Tim Federowicz have the starter and backup spots locked down. Also, he’s getting the fourth most playing time this spring, behind even Miguel Olivo, and hasn’t helped himself by posting one hit in eight at-bats with two walks. Butera’s a useful defensive option as a third catcher, though a team in need of a backup could pick him up.

Guerra has had a solid spring thus far, even if the peripherals are mediocre. In five appearances and six innings of work, he hasn’t allowed a run while striking out three and walking two. However, the bullpen situation is simply packed at the moment, and the only realistic shot of making the team for him is multiple injuries. So in order for him to be retained, he’ll either need a phantom injury or will need to clear waivers. I still think he could be an effective middle innings guy for someone, but he’s arguably the 10th best reliever in camp, so he belongs in AAA for now.

2014 Spring Training Preview: Catchers

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Age BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+ WAR
A.J. Ellis 33 2013 .238 .318 .364 .304 95 2.2
’14 ZiPS .244 .337 .367 .306 n/a 2.4
’14 Steamer .243 .337 .367 .313 102 3.4
Tim Federowicz 26 2013 .231 .275 .356 .266 69 0.0
’14 ZiPS .233 .295 .362 .285 n/a 1.6
’14 Steamer .228 .298 .352 .287 83 0.3
Drew Butera 30 2013 (AAA) .187 .228 .281 bad n/a n/a
Miguel Olivo 35 2013 (Marlins) .203 .250 .392 .280 73 -0.1
J.C. Boscan 34 2013 (AAA) .232 .297 .270 also bad n/a n/a

 

Ladies and gentlemen, your 2014 Los Angeles Dodgers catchers, also known as “oh please oh please oh please A.J. Ellis stay healthy,” because… there’s not a lot of depth here behind him, is there? (In addition to these five, Griff Erickson and Chris O’Brien will be in camp just because the Dodgers have 32 pitchers and they need someone to catch them. This is not meant to make you feel better.)

Ellis is coming off a bit of a downer year, because while he maintained his power by popping another 10 homers, his OBP dropped by 55 points, thanks to a walk rate that dropped three percent and a BABIP that fell 60 points. On defense, reviews of his ability to frame pitchers were rarely kind. Both ZiPS and Steamer forecast slight rebounds in OBP, but it doesn’t seem like anyone thinks he’s going to get back to the heights that made him the hero of 2012.

Still, he doesn’t need to be what he was in 2012 to be a valuable piece, and the constant rave reviews about his role in the clubhouse and to prepare the pitching staff count in some of the ways that don’t show up on the stat sheet. That’s partially why despite the down year, we never heard a peep about any particularly serious effort to upgrade at the position, which makes sense. If he is merely a somewhat above-average catcher, which isn’t really unreasonable to expect, Ellis is a valuable member of this team,  no matter what Kirk Gibson says.

But really, he has to stay healthy, and he reportedly lost weight this winter in an attempt to do so. You can live with Federowicz as a backup, because he’s got a solid enough defensive reputation that getting him in there once or twice a week is fine, but it’s a real problem if he’s forced to play every day. In parts of three seasons — which to be fair, is still only 193 plate appearances — his line sits at .227/.283/.341. That’s poor, the projection systems don’t really see him improving much, and he’s shown little indication in the minors that there’s much more offense to come. (No one start pointing to his Triple-A numbers, because for the umpteenth time, .348/.416/.592 at home, .255/.338/.390 on the road.)

Beyond that… well, avert your eyes. Take small children out of the room. Butera is arguably the worst hitter in recent history, while at least Olivo can go deep every now and then, on the extremely rare occasion that his bat touches the ball. Boscan is a minor league lifer, with 30 big league plate appearances in a pro career that started back in 1997.

The only intrigue is this: Butera is out of options, which means that he’d have to pass through waivers if and when the Dodgers attempt to send him to Triple-A. (Federowicz has an option remaining, but I’m not ready to delve into those conspiracy theories just yet.)

The good news is that FanGraphs has the Dodger catchers as the 10th best group in baseball, but that comes with an appropriately enormous grain of salt. That projection in based on 3.5 WAR, which I imagine we’d all take, but WAR is not meant to be used down to tenths of a point, and the span of teams that look to be between 3 and 4 WAR include 15 clubs, or half the sport. That’s a pretty big error bar, but it does keep the Dodgers comfortably in the middle of the pack at the position. It does all depend on Ellis, however. If anything happens to him, this could get pretty ugly.

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