2013 Dodgers in Review #1: C A.J. Ellis

We kick off our 2013 review series today, starting off, as usual, with A.J. Ellis. As always, grades are subjective and based on expectations headed into the season, so even though Nick Punto is going to get a better grade than Matt Kemp, no, I don’t think Punto is a better player.

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90topps_ajellis.238/.318/.364 448pa 10hr .304 wOBA 2.2 WAR C-

2013 in brief: Remained the primary catcher all season, but wasn’t able to repeat the magic of his wonderful 2012.

2014 status: Arbitration-eligible and should return as half of the team’s primary catching duo, but it’s not totally out of the question that the team looks to upgrade.

Previous2008 | 2009 | 2010 | 2011 | 2012

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Hold up, before we start: can you believe this is the sixth different year that I’ve done a review on A.J. Ellis? I mean, the first one had Danny Ardoin & Gary Bennett. Those are real people who not only existed on this planet, they actually played for the Dodgers.

Anyway, all these years later… well, even if no one really wanted to talk about it, Ellis had kind of a disappointing season. I’m not sure if it’s because we like him so much or because there was constantly so much else going on — probably both — but it wasn’t something that really got discussed all that much. That’s perhaps just because his 2012 was so great that we expected, perhaps unfairly, another season just as great.

Though he still managed 10 homers, Ellis’ wOBA dropped from .341 (10th among catchers with 400 PA) to .304 (15th). His batting average dipped from .270 to .238 — partially because of a BABIP that dipped from .329 to .269 — but even more disturbingly, his OBP fell from an excellent .373 to a mediocre .318. He was still worth 2.2 wins in 448 plate appearances, but we know that WAR isn’t fantastic for measuring catcher defense, and anecdotally, it seemed like he had trouble holding onto the ball at times behind the plate. (He did, to be fair, show a strong, accurate throwing arm, tying for second in number of runners caught stealing.)

The funny thing is, in early May, I was praising Ellis for just how great he was playing:

So in the meantime, let’s focus on one of the few bright spots we have so far, and that’s that A.J. Ellis is not only backing up his 2012 breakout, he’s exceeding it. His wOBA is up from .341 to .358, which is not only very good, it’s the sixth highest mark for any catcher. (That’s assuming you consider Evan Gattis a catcher, and includes the no-way-in-hell-he-keeps-this-up John Buck.) It’s better than Yadier Molina, and Joe Mauer, and Matt Wieters… it’s damn good, is what I’m saying.

That was May 7. On May 10, he had three hits; on May 13, he tripled, pushing his line to .292/.395/.425. But that, unfortunately, would be the high point. Ellis hit .171 over the remainder of May, then had a .295 OBP in June, after missing the first half of the month with a strained oblique. He had a brief rebound in July, including setting a career high with five runs driven in during a game in Toronto, but then really cratered over the final two months, hitting just .189/.262/.333 in August and September. (He was one of the team’s best performers in the playoffs, however, hitting .323/.400/.613 in 36 plate appearances.)

But then I read things like these, two things I’m snipping from an article about Rick Honeycutt‘s impact, and I remember what it is that makes a catcher Ellis so important to the team…

For those who are not number crunchers, Rick Honeycutt‘s importance to the Dodgers is captured by catcher A.J. Ellis. He downloads the information Honeycutt prepares for each night’s starting pitcher in a pregame meeting, then Ellis implements the resulting game plan in his pitch calling.

“Not everybody gets it. You have to show them you’re credible, you have the information and you’ll give the pitcher whatever information he wants. And it’s not just me. It’s our system, down to the Minors and up here with our catchers. A.J., by far, is the best studier I’ve ever had. Fed [backup Tim Federowicz] does his homework, too.”

…and I see him half-jokingly-but-probably-not calling out Don Mattingly for ridiculous bunt decisions

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…and I remember that it is of course more than simple offensive stats that a catcher should be judged on, and Ellis remains a valuable piece even if he’s only an average-ish hitter, not the plus one we thought we saw in 2012. That’s especially so because he’s not particularly expensive, expected to make around $3m in arbitration, so there’s no reason to think he won’t be back and playing a big role in 2014.  

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Next! Tim Federowicz probably really hated Ramon Hernandez, didn’t he?

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A.J. Ellis Also Cares Not For Your Bunts

ellis_aj_intentional_talk_mlbn_2013-10-09As alluded to earlier today, A.J. Ellis was a guest on MLB Network’s generally insufferable “Intentional Talk,” and as expected, he was fantastic. When Michael Young wasn’t running out to tape up Ellis’ nipples — yes, that’s a thing I just typed — Ellis was showing off his broadcasting skills, and, at just past three minutes in, dropped this wonderful bit regarding Juan Uribe‘s failed bunt:

stop_bunting_kenny“You never bunt in baseball anymore, that’s what all the sabermetric people tell me. Stop bunting! No more bunting! Only pitchers bunt. Listen to me, Don Mattingly, no more bunting.”

About eight minutes later, after Ellis talks about Zack Greinke‘s fantasy football team, Skip Schumaker‘s wife, and Clayton Kershaw‘s beard, Mattingly comes walking down the dugout (wearing some sort of “anti bug splat” shirt) and whispers to Ellis, with a huge smile on his face, that he’d heard the anti-bunting comments and that Tim Federowicz will be starting Game 1 of the NLCS instead. You know I’m generally a “talent over chemistry” kind of guy, but I do believe that both are important, and the more you see of things like this and Hanley Ramirez making jokes and Nick Punto tearing off jerseys, well, it sure seems like this is a pretty good collection of guys.

But of course, the takeaway here is Ellis’ not-so-subtle please-stop-bunting viewpoint. I’ve joked in the past that I wonder if guys like Ellis just internally roll their eyes when they get the call in big spots — looking at you, Game #161 — before following directions and doing it anyway, and now I’m more sure than ever.

Like I said before, he’s a good catcher, but he’s going to be an outstanding broadcaster — if that’s what he wants.

Dodgers 5, Cardinals 1: A Nearly Perfect Road Trip

aj_ellis_homers_2013-08-08I keep worrying that Hyun-jin Ryu is going to just blow up at some point, as we wonder about his velocity and teams getting multiple looks at him, and maybe he will. But I also know that we’re into the second week of August, and after seven innings tonight allowing zero earned runs, he’s got an ERA of 2.99 and a FIP that is close enough to backing that up at 3.28. There’s only 22 starters with ERA marks that start with 2; there’s only 25, including him, with a FIP of 3.28 or better. (Sidenote: one of those guys is former Dodger Eric Stults. Baseball just owns sometimes.)

I’m not quite ready to call Ryu an “ace”, because I honestly don’t feel that he is, subjective as that term may be. But I think we can all agree that he’s far exceeded even our wildest expectations at this point, and it may only be due to the fact that Yasiel Puig exists (along with one of the most ridiculous rookie classes in recent history, including Jose Fernandez & Shelby Miller) that prevents Ryu from winning the Rookie of the Year award. Over his last three starts, he’s struck out 22 against a single walk, and over his last 2.98 starts — note: made-up math — he’s struck out 22 against zero walks, since he started off his outing against Cincinnati on July 22 by walking Shin-Soo Choo.

Of course, after all that praise of Ryu, it’s not his picture you see at the top of this post, it’s A.J. Ellis, who crushed a ball off rookie St. Louis starter Carlos Martinez, inexplicably left in by Mike Matheny even though it was clear he was gassed. We’re just shy of the two year anniversary of Ellis’ first career homer, which also came in the fifth inning of a game in St. Louis back in 2011, though off of Jaime Garcia. Ellis’ blast brought in Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier, and while Jerry Hairston had a big pinch hit in the eighth, it was Ellis who put the game away.

Puig, by the way, had three more hits, and while two were of the infield variety, one was of the “I’m going to line a golf drive to left field, yes, left field, and beat it out for a triple” variety, because that’s a thing that you can do now, apparently.

Kenley Jansen was used to finish it out in a non-save situation because… well, I’m not sure, really. Because he hadn’t pitched in any of the first three games of the series, I suppose, but you’d think a four-run lead is why Brandon League or Carlos Marmol exist, with Jansen ready to come if needed. Anyway, he was not scored upon — because: awesome — and finished off a perfect game of sorts, retiring 27 in a row by getting the first two before allowing a single to David Freese.

With Arizona off tonight, the Dodgers pick up a half-game to move to 5.5 games up in the West after winning seven of eight on the swing through Chicago and St. Louis. They return home for what looks to be an incredibly interesting series against Tampa Bay. Chris Capuano, who has been oddly very good lately, faces David Price, who has been incredibly good with no “oddly” attached, tomorrow night. Can’t wait for James Loney to hit three homers, you guys.

Dodgers 14, Blue Jays 5: It’s AJ’s Day

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That man above, my friends, is A.J. Ellis. That’s the look of a man who just drove in his fifth run of the game, a new career high, along with four hits and a no-doubt homer to center field, and a guy who often gets overshadowed by the bigger, more expensive names around him. That’s a man who deserves a good deal of credit, along with Tim Federowicz (who finished off the game at first base, believe it or not), for providing the Dodgers with solid, top-third, above-replacement production at a position where it’s often difficult to find even mediocrity.

I focus on Ellis tonight because of his career night, but really, there’s not going to be a shortage of heroes on a night in which the Dodgers scored four runs in three separate innings. (For comparison’s sake, they’ve scored fewer than four runs in a game 52 times this year, and they hadn’t hit 14 runs since back in 2011, per Bob Timmermann.) Andre Ethier doubled twice; Hanley Ramirez reached three times, continuing his absurd run; Skip Schumaker drove in three while hitting his first homer of the season; Carl Crawford had three hits. Every starter had at least one hit,with Yasiel Puig adding a great catch at the center field wall in the eighth, and you can hardly get on Adrian Gonzalez for walking three times; even Juan Uribe at least drove in a run and scored one without adding a hit. And as though the 16 hits and four walks the Dodgers collected weren’t enough, Toronto helped out with five errors.

All of that offense overshadowed what was a decent-but-not-great outing from Hyun-jin Ryu, who allowed four runs and 11 baserunners in 5.1 innings, but it’s admittedly difficult to focus on that when the team has now won 21 of 26, once again tying them with Arizona for first as we await the outcome of the Diamondbacks against the non-Matt Garza Cubs tonight.

This run can’t keep up, we keep telling ourselves. At some point, they’re going to run into a streak where they lose five-of-seven and we’re all going to worry that the sky is falling. It won’t be. This team is real, and they’re spectacular.

Dodgers 4, Giants 1: All You Need Are A.J. & Clayton

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Sometimes, your massively expensive team that’s been crushing the ball all over the place runs into a guy they just can’t solve, even if that guy is mediocre veteran of 9 teams in 11 seasons like Chad Gaudin. Sometimes you just can’t do any better than one run and four hits while striking out nine times in seven innings against a guy who hadn’t started a game before this year since 2009, and who has been released by the Yankees, Athletics, & Nationals since then.

Those days are painful, but they happen. But there’s a simple solution to days like that: Clayton Kershaw & A.J. Ellis.

Kershaw matched Gaudin and then some, pitching at least eight innings in AT&T Park for the fifth time in his career while holding the Giants to a mere three hits over eight innings. (Though striking out only three, a low number for him.) For eight innings, Andre Ethier‘s second inning single and Andres Torres third inning sacrifice fly represented the entirety of the scoring, as neither side could solve the other.

In the ninth, Sergio Romo came in to relieve Javier Lopez, and here’s where the wheels began to fall off. Yasiel Puig singled to left, then made it to third after Buster Posey (playing first base) couldn’t cleanly handle an Adrian Gonzalez grounder, then awkwardly flipped it into short left field while trying to make a play on Puig that he had no shot whatsoever on. But after the red-hot Hanley Ramirez grounded back to Romo, and Juan Uribe struck out after Andre Ethier was intentionally walked to load the bases, Ellis stepped up with two outs… and ripped a liner to left-center field, clearing the bases and giving Kershaw (and Kenley Jansen, who finished it off) all the support the Dodgers would need.

Puig’s single — and fantastic diving catch in the eighth — somewhat obscured that he’s been a bit of a mess the last few days. After striking out four times yesterday, Puig whiffed twice more today, along with a fourth-inning caught stealing that absolutely everybody in the park knew was coming. Since hitting the wall in Colorado on July 3, it’s been a rough stretch for him. In 19 plate appearances since, he has just 5 hits and a walk to go with eight strikeouts.

The pessimist in me wonders if he’s “playing through pain” as so many others seem to, but there’s also so much more at play here. There’s the admittedly small sample size of 18 plate appearances. There’s the fact that no matter what people liked to believe, he was never, ever, ever going to keep up his smashing debut indefinitely, as we discussed weeks ago. And perhaps most relevant of all, there’s the fact that opponents have figured out his weakness, which is to feed him nothing but low-and-away breaking stuff — as you can clearly see by where San Francisco catcher Guillermo Quiroz is set up with two two strikes against Puig in the seven inning. Gaudin threw a junk ball in the dirt, and Puig missed badly. Honestly, it’s probably some combination of each of those things.

With the win, the Dodgers are now three games under .500 and 4.5 behind the streaking Diamondbacks, setting up a massive series as the Dodgers head into Arizona tomorrow night.