In appreciation of catchers

Fourteen years after his last game as a Dodger, Mike Piazza still has us all spoiled.

Piazza, arguably the greatest hitter in Los Angeles Dodger history, and without question the best hitting catcher of all time, will no doubt enter the Hall of Fame next year as a New York Met. Thank you very much Rupert Murdoch, Chase Carey or whomever at News Corp you want to blame for the sacrilege.

The batting skill exhibited by The Strongest Man in SoCal (still a great nickname, and one I intend to use forever), to a lesser extent by Paul Lo Duca (cheating bastard) and Russell Martin (briefly), wonderful while it lasted, is far from the norm. Because catchers don’t hit .360. They don’t homer 40 times and drive in 100-plus runs per season. They just don’t.

Piazza was an aberration beyond our wildest dreams, and you should be pissed about being cheated out of half his career. More than half, actually. I know I am.

It’s unfortunate that subsequent Dodger catchers – or catchers anywhere, really – continue to be judged against the accomplishments of a player the caliber of Mike Piazza.

With the Braves beginning a three-game series at Dodger Stadium tonight, I thought this might be a good time to talk backstops, because in Brian McCann, Atlanta has a catcher worthy of comparisons. Catchers don’t hit .360, as I said, but .270 to .300, with 20-some-odd home runs and 80 or 90 RBIs a year sure works, and that’s about what you get with McCann. Plus a smart, savvy presence behind the plate, big-game experience and clutch hitting.

The Braves have another receiver you might remember, guy by the name of David Ross. Play word association with Ross’ name and you’re liable to come up with, “oh sure, name the player who homered against ‘relief pitcher’ Mark Grace” ten years ago in Arizona. Yep, that David Ross, Lo Duca’s old backup, and someone who you might not have expected to have much of a career after leaving town.

But he did, and it’s worth a mention now. McCann plays as much as any catcher, but with two Dodger lefties (Chris Capuano and Ted Lilly) going, you might get a game’s worth of Ross in the upcoming series. And if so, why not a tip of the Dodger cap to the 35-year-old veteran, who after bouncing around with the Pirates, Reds and Padres, has made a name for himself in Atlanta.

He’s hit .273, .289 and .263 in his three full seasons there, playing in 50 to 60 games each year, with more than respectable on base and slugging percentages. Plus fine play receiving the always professional Braves pitching staff.

The Arizona home run occurred in a 19-1 Dodger runaway game, during Ross’ first call-up on September 2, 2002, at what was then Bank One Ballpark in Phoenix.

I prefer to remember Ross for a more significant L.A. highlight, from the 2004 National League West race. On September 30 at the stadium, Ross gave the Dodgers a 4-2 win in extras, with a walkoff two-run homer off Brian Fuentes. With San Francisco winning the same day, Los Angeles held a three-game lead going into their season-ending series with the Giants the following day. Some 48 hours later, of course, Steve Finley cliched the division with that oh-so-memorable grand slam of his.

You’re also going to see another catcher of distinction during the homestand, in A.J. Ellis. Compare him to Piazza, Lo Duca, or even Russell Martin, if you like, but I wouldn’t. But put Ellis up against the catchers available to the Dodgers during the winter, and realize they came out just fine.

I’m happy to go on record predicting these numbers for A.J. Ellis: .265, 10 homers, 50 RBIs and an OBP of .400, hitting in front of the pitcher all season long. Yes, batting eighth throughout 2012.