All along, 2019 was supposed to be the season of Austin Barnes. The year that Yasmani Grandal would leave the Dodgers as a free agent was perfectly timed for Barnes to complete his journey from the minors to the major-league bench and finally the starting lineup of a title contender.
By Jon Weisman
Before Saturday’s Game 2 of the National League Division Series was postponed, Yasmani Grandal gave a pretty entertaining press session with reporters.
Here’s how it began:
Q. What is it about Kenley Jansen that makes him not only able to have five-out saves, like what Dave (Roberts) asked him to do last night, but lets him thrive in situations like that?
YASMANI GRANDAL: 98-mile-per-hour cutter.
Q. Anything about his mentality —
YASMANI GRANDAL: No. 98-mile-per-hour cutter.
If it seems as if Grandal was being curt, he actually gave thoughtful and lengthy responses to subsequent questions …
On catching Game 2 starter Rich Hill:
It’s fun to catch Rich just because of … all the angles and how much movement he has got on his fastball and his curveball. It seems like he has got five different curveballs and three different fastballs. So that aspect of a game is pretty fun for me to do it.
I don’t know about other people, but you know, at times it’s a little bit challenging. … You don’t know what his curveball is going to do when he drops down. You don’t know what his curveball is going to do when he’s throwing it over the top.
At times it is a little challenging just to catch the ball to try and help him out behind home plate, and to make sure that I help him out doing what I’m capable of doing behind home plate. Like the stats said, framing is one of the top things in the league right now. … My challenge, basically, each and every day, is making sure that I’m prepared to help him. If I’m able to get a couple strikes here and there, then that’s always a good thing.
By Jon Weisman
Instead of a single Winter Development Program for minor leaguers this month, as they have had in recent years, the Dodgers will run three different smaller camps over the next three weeks.
“There’s room for us to do it a little more creatively this time and optimize for togetherness and development of our players, and also our staff members,” Dodger director of player development Gabe Kapler said.
By Jon Weisman
How’s this for a transformation?
For the most part, you can thank Yasmani Grandal, who leads all MLB starting catchers with a .928 OPS behind the plate. (His .401 on-base percentage also is No. 1, while his .527 slugging is best in the National League.)
In smaller doses, A.J. Ellis and Austin Barnes have chipped in.
Ellis, activated from the disabled list today, has a .429 on-base percentage and .511 slugging percentage in 57 plate appearances since May 26. Overall, his OPS behind the plate is .667 in 105 plate appearances.
Barnes, who is returning to Triple-A Oklahoma City, went 3 for 10 with a double, walk and a hit-by-pitch in his second Dodger stint, for a .817 OPS. His overall OPS for the Dodgers is .722 in 18 plate appearances.
Add in Grandal’s MLB-leading pitch-framing numbers, according to Baseball Prospectus, and the team’s above-average rate of throwing out would-be basestealers, and it’s clear how dramatically improved the Dodgers are behind the plate.
(In wins above replacement, Fangraphs lists the Dodgers as No. 2 in the big leagues behind the Giants, though this includes Buster Posey’s 91 plate appearances as a first baseman, in which he has a .429 OBP and .600 slugging. In any case, this is heady company to be in.)
By Jon Weisman
Though it’s doubtful he’ll ever be called upon for this, especially with Austin Barnes on his way to Los Angeles, Kiké Hernandez has become the Dodgers’ emergency catcher. Just in case, Hernandez caught a bullpen session from Brett Anderson this afternoon.
The last non-catcher the Dodgers have really needed to use behind the plate was Derrel Thomas in 1980. This has always been one of my favorite Dodger stories, not only because it was so unlikely for even a proven utility player like Thomas to go behind the plate, but because it wasn’t a one-time thing.
With Steve Yeager nursing an infected elbow and Triple-A starting catcher Mike Scioscia recovering from a broken finger, Joe Ferguson had to leave in the fourth inning of an April 15, 1980 game at San Diego with a back problem. Thomas went behind the plate for the first time in a game at any level — with knuckleballer Charlie Hough on the mound, no less — and stayed there for the next 31 innings.
“He weighs 150 pounds,” wrote Mike Littwin of the Times that week. “A catcher’s gear weighs almost that much.”
Using Yeager’s glove, Thomas was behind the plate for 137 batters and had four passed balls. No one tried to steal against him on April 15 or April 16, but on April 17, with the slow delivery of Don Sutton 60-and-a-half feet away, Houston stole seven bases, two shy of the Dodger record at the time by a Dodger opponent. However, Thomas did throw out Enos Cabell trying to steal second in the sixth inning, for the only caught stealing of Thomas’ backstop career.
Despite his objective struggles behind the plate, the Dodgers adored Thomas’ effort.
“Show me another guy who could do what he did today,” Dodger manager Tommy Lasorda told Littwin. “I’ve been in baseball nearly all my life, and I’ve never seen anything like it. I’m so grateful to him. He’s a great athlete, but more than that, he’s courageous.”
Said Yeager: “You have to handle pitchers and you have to keep the ball in front of you. I told Derrel a couple of things last night and he remembered. He’s a fast learner, and he’s got a lot of guts. All things considered, he did a great job back there. Hey, I weigh 215 pounds. When’s the last time you saw a 150-pound catcher?”
Here’s more from Littwin:
As Thomas, his uniform caked with dirt, sweat dripping from his brow, limped into the clubhouse, someone asked him how he felt. “I feel, he said, like I should be dead.”
His legs might have been. At that point, he couldn’t have jumped over a chalk baseline.
“I didn’t sleep last night,” he said. “I was too nervous. There are so many things to remember. When they got those guys on base, I just tried to stay relaxed and remember what Yang (Yeager) had told me to do.
“I didn’t care if they stole 30 bases, as long as we won.”
The Dodgers won two of Thomas’ three starts at catcher. Yeager, who had been sidelined since April 13, returned to the starting lineup April 19. Scioscia would then be called up April 20 to make his Major League debut.
After catching the ninth inning of a 2-0, one-hit loss to J.R. Richard of the Astros on April 19 (Yeager had gone out for a pinch-hitter), the Dodgers never needed to use Thomas behind the plate again. But it wasn’t the last time the Dodgers saw him with the tools of ignorance.
In the last season of his 15-year Major League career, as a 34-year-old with Philadelphia, Thomas entered the game behind the plate after Phillies catcher Ozzie Virgil left in the top of the eighth inning of an August 21, 1985 game against visiting Los Angeles with a bruised wrist. In the bottom of that same inning, Thomas hit a three-run homer off Fernando Valenzuela — the 43rd and final home run of Thomas’ big-league career.
It also meant that after previously homering as a first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, third baseman, left fielder, center fielder, right fielder and pinch-hitter, Derrel Thomas had also hit one out as, yes, a catcher.
For more photos from Friday, visit LA Photog Blog.
By Jon Weisman
Dodger catcher A.J. Ellis — who was thrust into action midway through Friday’s 2-1 victory over San Diego after Yasmani Grandal was injured — has taken some grief in recent times for not being a strong pitch framer. However, according to a report by Harry Pavlidis for ESPN.com, Ellis ranks No. 1 in Major League Baseball in a new statistic measuring game calling: game-calling runs above average (GCAA).
Here’s a fun task: Try quantifying something as ephemeral as game-calling. Well, after a decade of research, that’s just what we’ve managed to do — by crafting a statistical model that attempts to quantify the value of everything from stolen-base prevention and directing pace of play to identifying hitter tendencies like swing behavior in various game situations and knowing which batters expand hit zones in RBI opportunities. Sound complicated? Oh, it is. But based on these factors, and controlling for others, we can now quantify, in runs saved, how well catchers manage their pitchers. …
… Ellis is the best game caller in the business, and now we can actually prove it. His game-calling alone saved the Dodgers 38 runs from 2012 to 2014, though he gave back 19 of those runs with everything else he did behind the plate (see below). Does it hurt to be Ellis? At times, perhaps. But at least now, when that ninth foul tip slaps his once-unheralded (but now-appreciated) inner thigh, it might not sting quite so much.
There’s not a whole lot of detail in describing the methodology behind GCAA, so we’ll see how it stands up to scrutiny. Update: On his Twitter feed, Pavlidis has been adding to the discussion.
Grandal, meanwhile, is uncertain for tonight’s game after being hit in the face in consecutive innings Friday by Yangervis Solarte’s bat and a Matt Kemp foul ball. Triple-A catcher Austin Barnes was removed midway through Oklahoma City’s game Friday in case he needs to be called up. Ken Gurnick of MLB.com has more details.
In other developments …
- Hyun-Jin Ryu spoke to reporters post-surgery Friday, and revealed that there was knowledge about his labrum tear two years and 344 innings of 3.17 ERA ago. ” Ryu, his left arm in a sling during a Dodger Stadium news conference, said he was always able to pitch with it and figured he’d be able to again after it flared up in Spring Training,” wrote Gurnick.
- Yasiel Puig and Carl Crawford are not much closer to returning to the Dodger outfield, Don Mattingly told reporters Friday. Puig, who has an .845 OPS in 50 plate appearances, has felt tightness trying to even jog.
- Double-A Tulsa righty pitcher (and converted outfielder) Blake Smith was traded by the Dodgers to the White Sox for right-handed pitcher Eric Surkamp. Both are 27 years old. In 53 2/3 career MLB innings, Surkamp has a 6.20 ERA with 33 strikeouts against 98 baserunners. For Triple-A Charlotte this year, Surkamp has a 2.81 ERA with 30 strikeouts against 28 baserunners in 25 2/3 innings.
- Carlos Frias’ ongoing adjustments are the subject of Daniel Brim’s piece on Carlos Frias today at Dodgers Digest.
- The Dodgers’ offensive scoreless-inning streak ended at a record-tying 35 innings with Andre Ethier’s RBI double in the fifth, though they didn’t score an earned run until Joc Pederson’s game-winning homer three innings later.
- Chris Hatcher, who threw 1/105th of the pitches that Zack Greinke threw, was credited with his first career Dodger victory.
- Kenley Jansen struck out two in his perfect ninth inning. His K/9 dropped to 21.0.
- Pederson has struck out four times in his past 39 plate appearances (10.3 percent). Prior to that in 2015, he had struck out 43 times in 127 plate appearances (33.9 percent).
[mlbvideo id=”127025883″ width=”550″ height=”308″ /]
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.
[mlbvideo id=”33699075″ width=”550″ height=”308″ /]
Our big story in the June issue of Dodger Insider magazine was a roundtable with catchers A.J. Ellis, Drew Butera and Tim Federowicz about all the ins and outs of their position.
It’s an interesting, far-ranging and often funny chat, filmed while Ellis was on the disabled list and Butera and Federowicz were both on the active roster.
Thanks to the Dodger video production team for putting together the highlight package above, and thanks to Ellis, Butera and Federowicz for their time.
Below, the full print version of the big magazine feature (click pages to enlarge a bit). There’s more great content like this every month in Dodger Insider magazine.