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.