Surging Ellis worthy of more reps in October
Identical hitting lines obscure very different trends
For the first half of the season, Yasmani Grandal wasn't just baseball's best-hitting catcher, an All-Star, and an elite pitch framer helping Zack Greinke push towards his scoreless streak -- though he was also all of those things. He was also making the new Dodgers front office look very, very smart for pulling off the winter trade that had sent franchise icon Matt Kemp south to San Diego for Grandal and two prospects.
For most of that same first half, A.J. Ellis, the organization's longest-tenured player, was worried about losing his job, as he admitted to local media in late September. At 34 and coming off a poor and injury-plagued 2014, where he'd hit .191 with a 72 Weighted Runs Created Plus score (meaning he was 28 percentage points below a league-average score of 100), an awful start to the season and the presence of well-regarded Triple-A catcher Austin Barnes meant that his fears weren't unfounded.
With that as a backdrop, you might be surprised to see that there's even a question about which catcher should be getting the bulk of the playing time in the upcoming NLDS against the Mets, which begins with Game 1 on Friday night at 6:30 p.m. PT on TBS. But then again, you might be shocked at just how identical their final 2015 stats ended up being. No, really. Identical:
Grandal: .234/.353/.403 -- 115 wRC+
Ellis: .238/.355/.403 -- 116 wRC+
It's nearly impossible to be closer than that. Even their batting average on balls in play (BABIP) marks of .268 (Grandal) and .265 (Ellis) are essentially even. The superstar newcomer and collapsing veteran ended up in the same place.
So how did we get to this point? It's true that both catchers had first halves that were so extreme that even if only through expected regression to the mean, we'd see them coming closer together, but nothing quite like this. To see both of them coming back (or ahead) this far almost demands that there were real tangible changes made to their game, and for both of them, there were.
Though we're saying "first half," neither player's big change came right at the All-Star break. For Grandal, he was sailing right on up until a trip east in the first week of August. On Aug. 6 in Philadelphia, he took a foul tip off his left shoulder. See if you can tell the difference in his Statcast™ before and after stats -- it shouldn't be too difficult:
Through Aug. 6:
.295/.400/.513 (155 wRC+) ---- 93.6 mph exit velo, 227 feet avg. distance
After Aug. 7:
.064/.226/.096 (7 wRC+) ---- 89.7 mph exit velo, 194.9 feet avg. distance
If that "after Aug. 7" line seems inconceivable, well, it is. That's six hits, all but one a single, in 94 at-bats over the final two months. It's not hard to see the clear drop in exit velocity and diminished average distance and point to the injury. Grandal missed several days in August and then had an MRI on the shoulder in early September, and you can't help but wonder how much the injury is bothering him.
Meanwhile, Ellis' batting average didn't get above .200 until July, but he made a mechanical change with his swing, primarily with his left hand, before a game against San Diego in early June. He reached base three times in a 4-3 Dodgers win that night, and his before/after splits are just as jarring as Grandal's only in the other direction.
Through June 6:
.138/.231/.172 (14 wRC+) -- 87.43 mph exit velo, 206.50 feet avg. distance
After June 7:
.285/.409/.512 (160 wRC+) -- 89.31 mph exit velo, 225.45 feet avg. distance
To put that into context, Ellis' "after" wRC+ of 160 is about equal to the 159 first-half mark that got Grandal on the All-Star team.
For most of the season it's been easily assumed that the Dodgers would be headed to the playoffs, and for nearly all of that time any suggestion that Ellis should play over Grandal seemed laughably implausible. (Especially so since the overwhelming majority of Ellis' starts came against lefty pitching, and the Mets are throwing righties in the first three games, perhaps exclusively so if lefty Steven Matz can't go in Game 4.)
While manager Don Mattingly hasn't tipped his hand yet, it seems a safe bet that Ellis will be behind the plate in Game 1, given his longstanding relationship with Clayton Kershaw. Grandal, the superior framer, probably catches Greinke in Game 2, given that he caught 26 of Greinke's 32 starts. Beyond that, well, it's anyone's guess. That's perhaps not a satisfying answer, but predicting Mattingly's lineups isn't really the point. It's the simple fact that we're even able to make the case for Ellis over Grandal right now.
A mere two months ago, that would have seemed ludicrous to the point of absurdity. An injury and a mechanical change, neither deemed serious at the time, changed everything.