Dodger Thoughts

Jon Weisman's outlet for dealing psychologically with the Los Angeles Dodgers, baseball and life

Personal catchers, schmerschonal catchers

Los Angeles Dodgers first workout for pitchers and catchers

By Jon Weisman

A.J. Ellis’ Opening Day partnership with Clayton Kershaw did little to dissuade those who believe that Ellis will remain the Dodger ace’s personal catcher, but you can bet you’ll see Yasmani Grandal behind the plate in several Kershaw starts.

I wouldn’t go as far as to say Ellis won’t catch the majority of Kershaw games. Even if the plan is for Grandal to start 80 percent of the Dodgers’ 162 outings this year, which is about the maximum imaginable, that would still leave at least 32 starts for Ellis, or enough to make him Kershaw’s permanent catcher if that were the desire. (It would be plenty surprising to see Ellis’ starts split evenly among the five spots in the starting rotation.)

But even allowing for Kershaw’s obvious bond with Ellis, several other considerations remain, such as:

  • There are going to be times when the Dodgers want Grandal in the lineup, even when Kershaw is pitching.
  • Kershaw is signed through 2020. Ellis is 34 years old. Grandal is 26. Sooner or later, Grandal will be the guy.
  • Given that the Dodgers traded Matt Kemp primarily to acquire Grandal, he should be the guy.
  • Grandal’s pitch-framing skills should be something the Dodgers want to take advantage of, even when Kershaw is on the mound.
  • Don Mattingly has said repeatedly that he wants every Dodger pitcher to trust every Dodger catcher. For Kershaw, the team leader, to show he’s not willing would set the wrong tone.
  • Kershaw is smart enough to realize all of this.

I’m not sure how many of Kershaw’s starts (usually 33 per year) Ellis would have to take to be defined as his personal catcher. If you make the bar 25 starts, that might happen. If you say 30, that’s a lot less likely.

What I do feel is that this will ultimately reveal itself to be a non-issue. Ellis could catch most of Kershaw’s starts without it being a reflection of Grandal’s worth or ultimate importance to the Dodgers.

Grandal as pinch-hitter

A footnote: As early as the sixth inning of Opening Day, questions were raised about whether Mattingly should have had Grandal pinch-hit for Ellis. After the game, Mattingly replied that he thought it was too early in the game to make such a move — but he didn’t rule out doing so in later innings of future games.

The obvious deterrent is the worry about what would happen if your last catcher then was injured. But Grandal’s ability to stay in the game and play first base would allow the Dodgers to keep two catchers available, though it would mean losing Adrian Gonzalez for the rest of the given game. It’s not a move you want to make, but it’s also not a horrible tradeoff if you think Grandal would make a difference off the bench in a particular moment.

The chances of a second catcher getting hurt late in a game are extremely remote, especially with the plate-blocking rules Major League Baseball instituted last year. However, given that the Dodgers’ have strong pinch-hitting options in Justin Turner, Alex Guerrero and whoever isn’t playing outfield that day, you can probably expect that using a catcher to pinch-hit will remain Mattingly’s last resort.


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  1. The fewer the AJ starts, the better for the Dodger offense.

  2. The assumption is Grandal is a much better hitter than Ellis, but there isn’t that much evidence to support that. Ellis’ lifetime OPS is .694, even after his horrible year last year when he had some physical issues that clearly affected his hitting. Grandal’s OPS the last 2 years is .693 and .728. In 2012 with over 400 ABs, Ellis put up a .786 OPS. Grandal certainly has more upside and power, but hasn’t looked that good at the plate so far. Expect Ellis to return towards his offensive norm, and what we will get from Grandal with the bat, we need to wait and see.

    • Jon Weisman

      I love Ellis, but comparing the lifetime OPSes of a 34-year-old and a 26-year-old is problematic right off the bat, even if Grandal’s weren’t 70 points higher. One’s in the rising phase of his career, the other in his decline.

      Citing Ellis’ physical issues as an excuse while ignoring Grandal’s is another fault, as is using Ellis’ career-high OPS from three years ago as a bellwether (and conveniently ignoring Grandal’s .863 OPS from the very same year). Grandal’s worst career OPS in a season is the same as Ellis’ career average.

      I’m also not sure what you mean by “so far,” given that Grandal hasn’t played in a game yet, but if you’re talking about Spring Training, that’s the most flimsy sample you could draw from.

      So yes, I guess we’ll wait and see, but even Ellis would tell you Grandal has the superior bat.

  3. Who is a better defensive catcher? I think that is a more relevant question, though probably more difficult to determine. Apparently Grandal had some problems just holding onto the ball during ST, which have hopefully been fixed. My utmost respect for those who play that position.

  4. oldbrooklynfan

    Although several pitchers have personal catchers I hope this doesn’t affect Kershaw. It’s good that he’s already pitched to Grandal in spring training and pitched well..

  5. Grandal has a career 120 OPS+ to AJ’s 96. Even setting aside the age differential, there’s a disparity in offensive capability. Ellis is as good a team guy as you can find, but he’s been living off the proceeds of his 2012 season, which as an aberration. He was an 18th rd pick, never hit above .260′ s in the minors until he reached hitters’ parks in AAA in his late 20’s and didn’t get regular PT in the majors until age 31. What we’ve seen over the last 2 yrs from AJ unfortunately may be the truer reflection combined with some natural age decline. Injuries may have contributed to his poor 2014, but hopefully Mattingly will put limits on his PT this year and not over-value his veteran-ness. Or relationship with Kershaw.

  6. Bottom Line is that we traded Matt Kemp and his 30ish dingers and 290 average to upgrade the catching. I love Kershaw but we pay him 20+ Mil a year to pitch, not to dictate who catches him. By the time his bail out year comes, AJ will be managing in the minors and will shine at it. Come on Dodger mgt, grow some brass ones and put a hitter in the 8 spot. Ellis is smart enough to know that hitting less than Ethier shouldn’t give him a special deal when Clayton pitches. Do it now so it doesn’t become an issue 2 months down the road and divide the clubhouse.

    • Jon Weisman

      Again, I don’t think this kind of concern is required. Grandal can’t start 162 games. He’ll play plenty, believe me.

      • You are probably right, so let’s just bask in the glory of the first of many Dodger wins and the terrific defense and power hitting we saw yesterday.

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