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.
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.
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.)
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 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.