Of the many things that have gone wrong for the Dodgers this season, among the most troubling is the total power outage from Andre Ethier, counted upon to be a lynchpin of the offense alongside Matt Kemp. Ethier’s 30-game hitting streak ended on May 7; since then, he’s hit just .255/.336/.373 with seven homers in 375 plate appearances. He hasn’t homered since July 25 (against you guessed it – Colorado) and August is shaping up to be an especially brutal month, with just three extra base hits and a .189 batting average in 89 plate appearances.
So what’s wrong with the longest-tenured Dodger hitter? T.J. Simers of the LA Times points to two issues, the first being his supposedly injured right knee:
Ask Ethier if he should still be playing on a right knee that will require off-season surgery, and he says, “If you’re expecting me to do what I’ve done in the past, no, there’s no possible way I can do that right now. You can say tough it out and give it your best shot, but it’s not going to happen.
There’s a lot more to get to in this piece, but let’s start with the knee. We’ve known that Ethier’s been dealing with a sore knee for a while, but this is the first time that I’m aware of that we’ve seen Ethier “will” require surgery on it. (It’s here where we note that Simers is generally a clownshoe who prefers to make fun of how to pronounce Marcus Thames‘ name than to actually break news, so consider the source, though it’s not his style to falsify a fact like that.)
I couldn’t remember a specific incident where Ethier had hurt his knee, and it hasn’t kept him out of the lineup for more than a game or two this season. A Google search turned up this Ken Gurnick story from July 19:
Andre Ethier was out of the Dodgers starting lineup Tuesday night, in part because he’s struggled against left-handed pitchers and in part because of a right knee that could require offseason cleanup arthroscopy.
“It’s just a day off,” said manager Don Mattingly. “Dre’s been battling lefties [.228] and I’m hearing a little more about his knee. It’s a good day to give him.”
Ethier hyperextended his right knee in Spring Training 2010 and ices it after every game. On an at-bat in Arizona over the weekend, he stumbled out of the batter’s box on a swing. Nonetheless, he’s played all but two games this year.
I couldn’t find any reference to Ethier hurting his knee in articles published in February or March of 2010, and it doesn’t appear in the Baseball Prospectus injury database. He was crushing the ball to start that season before injuring his finger in May; his struggles in the second half of the season were largely blamed on that injury. Still, I’m willing to believe that his underwhelming performance over the last year has to have a root cause, and as Gurnick notes Ethier has looked bad on several swings this year, so the idea that the knee was a small problem that’s progressively gotten worse passes the small test.
If that’s the case, that leads us to a larger concern, which is Ethier’s apparently deteriorating relationship with the team. (Assuming, again, that Simers is still pretending he’s a journalist and hasn’t completely inflated these quotes.) If Simers is to be believed, these quotes from Ethier sound as though player and team are at odds about the severity of the injury:
“It’s only going to get worse from this point. I’ve dealt with it all season long, but as the season goes on my body wears down. That’s just the way it is — I keep getting put in the lineup, so what am I supposed to do?”
The Dodgers played all season without a left fielder, so why not make a change in right, shut down Ethier and wheel him into the operating room?
“A million-dollar question,” Ethier says before catching himself. “But I think there is a value in finishing anything you start.”
“Other than going into the training room every day and saying my knee hurts,” Ethier says, “and having six-inch needles stuck into it to make it feel better, I’ve told them my mechanics are messed up because of my knee. They know.
“But they’ve told me, ‘Grin and bear it.’”
That does seem to infer that the club doesn’t agree about how much pain he’s in, and the article also includes some less-than-supportive quotes from Ned Colletti on the situation. If the team really thought he was hurt, Don Mattingly probably wouldn’t be saying things like bumping him down to the 5th spot in the lineup was done to relieve some pressure on Ethier. That said, it’s hard to know who to believe here; Colletti may be the guy who foolishly called out Matt Kemp last year, told Xavier Paul that he needed to learn how to be a big leaguer, and announced on the radio that Jonathan Broxton was out as closer weeks before that was actually the case, but Ethier’s also well-known for his emotional outbursts, including dropping the thought that he might be non-tendered just 48 hours before the start of the season.
The point is, it’s impossible to determine the truth from these quotes, other than the seemingly unavoidable conclusion that Ethier and the organization may be at odds. If Ethier is hurt, then it does neither him nor the team any good to keep throwing him out there to worsen the knee and torpedo the offense. With Jerry Sands‘ return imminent, it’s not the worst thing in the world to throw Sands and Juan Rivera out there around Kemp every day, with Tony Gwynn, Trent Oeltjen, and Jamie Hoffmann around as depth. If Ethier’s not hurt, then that might even be worse – why, then, has his performance suffered so much?
Either way, I’ve long taken the opinion (unpopular among casual fans) that Ethier is not someone I want to see the team invest tens of millions of dollars into, since he’s nearly 30, less than a star-level hitter who can’t hit lefties, doesn’t play outstanding defense, and is a bit too vocal with his criticisms – particularly since Kemp and Clayton Kershaw both need to be taken care of, despite the uncertain ownership situation. Unfortunately, none of this is doing much to help his trade value.