Carlos Ruiz is a better hitter than A.J. Ellis. That’s been true for about 37 years, and it’s certainly true today. Given that classic hypothetical — one at-bat to win the World Series — you choose Ruiz. Statistically minded people choose Ruiz. The people who use nothing but their eyes, experience and sixth baseball sense choose Ruiz.
With a month left in the season, though, I’m pretty sure that I choose Ellis.
It’s hard to make a numbers case for Ellis, unless you really want to do a deep dive on catcher-framing numbers (Ellis is a little below average, while Ruiz is one of the worst in baseball). According to Baseball-Reference, Ruiz has been worth somewhere between a win or two above replacement. Ellis has been a touch below replacement. Which means that over a full season, you might expect to win an extra game or two with Ruiz behind the plate instead of Ellis every fifth day.
There isn’t a full season left, though. And besides, can WAR measure a player’s heart?
Whoa, sorry. This ... this is my first stringent defense of clubhouse chemistry. This is new for all of us, and some things will slip out.
The game isn’t played on paper, after all.
The Los Angeles Dodgers are smart, but there’s something to be said about being too smart.
It’s something called reading the room.
Andrew Friedman should try it.
It’s waaaaaait a second, are those one-sentence paragraphs? Stop that. There’s a way to advocate for a happy clubhouse without being 75 and a one-sentence monster. The Dodgers are clearly a statistically advanced organization, but we all know they care about clubhouse chemistry. It’s why Yasiel Puig (.706 OPS) is in Triple-A and Chase Utley (,727 OPS) is getting key at-bats. A normal player with Puig’s history and numbers is someone a contending team sticks with, hoping for a return to form. Puig wasn’t a normal player, so the Dodgers had to make a change.
It’s possible the demotion had more to do with getting Puig back on track than general mirth around the lockers, but it wasn’t just a numbers move. There was psychology involved one way or the other.
But let’s head back to the numbers match between Ellis and Ruiz for a moment, because this can also strengthen the clubhouse argument, too. Let’s say the true difference between the two players is two wins above replacement over a full season. I’m skeptical that Ellis is really this awful at the plate (he was fine last year), but I don’t have a problem with that assumption
Two wins over a six-month season. Or a third of a win per month. Which is a statistical abstraction that’s so small as to be meaningless. Let’s remember another thing about the Dodgers, which is that they’re perfectly happy with their starting catcher, Yasmani Grandal, a powerful switch-hitter who hits lefties and righties equally well. We’re talking a start every five games for one more month of the regular season.
Boy, if the Dodgers win the NL West by a third of a game, this article will sure look silly.
But the difference over a month isn’t going to make a huge difference. We’re talking backup catchers. You can point to the postseason, where Ellis would start a higher percentage of games (as Clayton Kershaw’s personal catcher), and the numbers argument starts to win over the clubhouse argument again, but when it comes to individual games, we’re still parsing grains of sand when it comes to which player is more valuable for a month or two.
It’s not all about chemistry, either. At least, not in the happy clubhouse sense. This lede from Dylan Hernandez encapsulates a lot:
Shortly after A.J. Ellis received clarification about his future, he asked Clayton Kershaw to meet him outside by the Dodgers bench.
There, the backup catcher shared the news to his closest friend on the team. The Dodgers had traded Ellis to the Philadelphia Phillies for another veteran backstop, Carlos Ruiz.
"We both cried," Ellis said.
The tweets from current and former teammates were earnest and heartbreaking, but it’s hard to make the case that the entire seasons hinges on Ellis keeping 24 other grown men happy. The pain will last a week, but it’s not like they traded for a sleep-deprived A.J. Pierzynski. Ruiz is beloved, too, and there’s something to be written about the mourning of Phillies fans right now. He’ll fit right in.
What that passage up there does, though, is show off the special relationship between Kershaw and Ellis. Or as my co-worker Eric Stephen of True Blue LA told me yesterday, you "can't swing a dead cat out here without hitting 43 stories about their bond." Which is fine, great, grand. Relationships mean a lot. I used to work with a guy who was like my big brother, and I miss him every day. He wasn’t good at his job, though, and I think he might have been stealing from the supply room, so I’m not sure how much our bond increased profits for the company.
(Note: Ellis probably wasn’t stealing rosin bags. That is not the relevant part of the analogy.)
Yet this is about comfort, not chemistry. And right now Kershaw is going through one of the most difficult stretches of his career. He’s almost never struggled on the mound, but now he’s struggling with an uncooperative body. He’s missed more time this season than he’s ever missed in his career, if not his life. He’s dealing with a back problem that doesn’t automatically get fixed with time, something that could linger beyond this season. If he comes back this season, it will be a tentative affair, at least for the first start or six.
I’m not sure how much of a difference a new catcher will make in that situation. Pretty sure that Kershaw could throw a shutout pitching to Billy Butler. At the same time, you would have to guess that comfort counts for something. It’s one less thing running through Kershaw’s mind in a postseason start. It’s the elimination of second-guessing when a sign is put down. It’s knowing just what to expect during the conference on the mound.
How much is that worth? No idea. Maybe nothing. But that’s also my answer for what the difference is between Ruiz and Ellis for a handful of starts over the rest of the season. Because if we’re talking .3 WAR per month, that’s, uh, .01 WAR for each day of the month, or maybe .04 WAR per start, and now we’re officially abusing statistics. Ruiz is probably going to help the Dodgers win more with his bat, but it’s impossible to know for sure what’s going to happen over a small sample.
It’s also impossible to know just how much the loss of comfort will affect Kershaw.
All things being equal, I’ll take the decision that leaves me less in danger of being second-guessed for the next decade if things don’t work out. And considering the only yardstick for success for the Dodgers is a pennant, at the least, the odds are still against things working out, just as they will be for every team that makes the postseason.
We’ll never know if this affects the Dodgers’ chances in the regular season or in the postseason. Ruiz really will make their lineup a little deeper when he starts. Kershaw is probably going to be fine, regardless of whom he throws to. It’ll be impossible to quantify.
But so is a swap of backup catchers for a month or two, at least without the benefit of hindsight. It might work out. I’m just not sure if I understand why that hard-to-quantify improvement was worth the hard-to-quantify second-guessing or alienation when the status quo was sure working fine.
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