Don’t Worry About A.J. Ellis Just Yet

As Clayton Kershaw had another outing that wasn’t quite up to his usual standards yesterday — and while I know no one wants to hear “BABIP,” realize that like four of those Rockies hits traveled something like a combined 100 feet — a lot of the conversation seemed to turn to A.J. Ellis, who has had himself an absolutely brutal month as he attempts to prove that an awful 2014 was merely the result of multiple lower leg injuries.

While I’m more than a little hesitant to break out any actual stats over 33 plate appearances, it’s hard not to notice a .138/.219/.172 line. Because the sample is so limited, I’m not going to actually write out any plate discipline stats lest anyone think they mean anything, but in his brief opportunities so far, he’s been challenged more in the zone — not surprising, given last year — and swinging more because of that, which is why he’s not drawing walks like he used to, and the hits aren’t landing when he’s making contact. (Which is less than ever.)

But really, this isn’t about offense, and not just because it’s not possible to sustain a wRC+ of 6 (!) for an entire season. You figure that will be better, just because it has to be. The issue is defense, because when a backup catcher — and make no mistake, that’s the situation here, because Ellis has started only 9 games to Yasmani Grandal‘s 21, five of which have come in Kershaw’s seven starts — doesn’t hit, you don’t notice. You assume the backup catcher brings plus defense, maybe someone like a David Ross type.

That hasn’t happened. For a few years, Ellis has ranked among the least-regarded pitch framers in baseball (a fact he was well aware of when I asked him about prior to 2014), and based on the limited numbers we have available for 2015, he’s still below-average. StatCorner and Baseball Prospectus don’t line up exactly on this, but neither likes him very much. Really, I think it’s more noticeable not because Ellis is performing that differently, but because Grandal is so good at it. To watch them one after the other makes the difference that much clearer. Grandal earns strikes for his pitchers, and Ellis doesn’t.

None of this is good. Ellis is 34, it’s been a long while since he wasn’t a disaster at the plate, and he’s not even adding as much as you’d like behind it. So why, as I’ve already seen some fans suggest, not just get rid of him?

Well, there’s a few reasons, and I’ll be totally up-front about my bias in favor of the player who is universally regarded as one of the best people in baseball. Primarily, there’s the fact that no matter how badly they play, it’s incredibly difficult for a backup catcher to be worth more than a win or so in either direction over the course of the season. They just don’t get enough playing time, and the mild difference between one backup and a slightly better backup makes so little impact. The pain involved in removing a guy that Kershaw (and others) have been so open about wanting to throw to simply isn’t worth it.

There’s also the simple fact of, well, who are you going to replace him with? Trades, now? Forget about it. Austin Barnes? Sure, maybe at some point, and at 25 he’s not exactly unreasonably young, but with 21 games above Double-A (and in the organization at all) it’s fair to say he’s better served playing every day in Oklahoma City rather than playing sparsely behind Grandal — unless you really want less playing time for Grandal right now. (You don’t.)

There’s also the off-the-field value that you’ve heard about so often, and is so difficult to explain when Pedro Moura isn’t writing columns about how Ellis reinvigorated Josh Beckett‘s career. From ESPN’s Mark Saxon:

Catcher A.J. Ellis wasn’t in such a rush to get to his dinner plans when the Los Angeles Dodgers’ game at Coors Field was rained out Saturday night, so he reserved a little quality time with team video coordinator John Pratt and a monitor.

Ellis watched each of Clayton Kershaw’s first six starts from 2014 and compared them to his first six starts of 2015. He looked at how hitters reacted to inside fastballs vs. inside sliders. He looked into what they were doing with his first pitch of each at-bat when they swung at it. He correlated counts with pitches with swings and broke them all out into categories, so he could sniff out any trends that have Kershaw stuck at 1-2 with a 4.26 ERA as mid-May approaches.

Though it may not have seemed like it yesterday, there’s real, actual value to that kind of effort. You saw how it helped Beckett. You know Kershaw values that work. Now, the counter-argument to that is “great, but he’s 34 and not producing on either side of the ball, so let him coach and get someone in who can actually perform.” Maybe that’s what will happen in the not-too-terribly-distant-future. 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 payer 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.

About Mike Petriello

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