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In 2012, a 31-year-old who was selected in the 18th round of the 2003 draft became the Los Angeles Dodgers’ starting catcher. At first, everyone was happy. He hit .270/.373/.414, threw out 33% of attempted basestealers and was beloved by the team’s best pitcher. Just two years later, A.J. Ellis has seen his OPS drop nearly .250 points, his defense regress and his friendship with a star player wane. Actually, I made the last part up, he and Kershaw are still BFF’s. Is it time to replace the Dodgers’ starting catcher?
Ground to Air
While looking at the dystopian wasteland that is Ellis’ 2014 stat line, several things jumped out at me. He just recently hit his first home run of the season, in his 57th game. His BABIP is a measly .222, by far the lowest it has been in his career. Even his line drive rate is down significantly. But, in looking deeper into those numbers, it seems that Ellis has either changed his approach dramatically or has changed his swing.
In his first two seasons as a regular, A.J. was a groundball hitter. In 2012, he hit groundballs 44.5% of the time and flyballs just 32.6% of the time. In 2013, the rates were 44.3% grounders and 37% flyballs. This year, he’s flipped the script, with a 41.2% groundball rate and a 42.6% flyball rate, giving him a 0.97 ground/fly ratio. What’s the cause of this? Haven’t the foggiest idea.
I’ve looked at Ellis’ swing from the past few years and haven’t seen any significant differences. He has gotten a little softer on his front side in 2014, not leveraging as much off of his front leg, but that’s about it. This difference in groundballs and flyballs accounts for a good portion of his decline in BABIP. The lower line drive rate, now at just 16.2%, impacts that as well. These factors greatly influence his effect on balls in play, which directly contributes to his lack of batting average.
Doing the Splits
Another area of Ellis’ struggles is his utter inability to hit right-handed pitching. This is new, as he had done well against righties over the past few years. In 2012, he hit them well, to the tune of a 124 wRC+. In 2013, that number declined to a slightly below average 94 wRC+. This year, it’s 56 wRC+.
Using Baseball Savant’s awesome pitch f/x resource, we can see that Ellis is batting just .210 against right-handed fastballs. What’s given him the most trouble are cutters and sliders, as he’s hitting .133 against him. He’s had a little more success against curveballs, but has only put nine in play.
Don’t Bring the Heat
Staying on the pitch f/x analysis, it appears that the most likely reason for this decline is simply due to age. With age comes loss of bat speed. That theory seems to be backed up by the numbers, showing that Ellis is struggling with even average velocity.
In 2012, A.J. hit .285 against pitches that were thrown 88mph or faster. In 2013, that number dropped to .236. This season, his average against the hard stuff is just .202. To put that in perspective, Josh Beckett and Clayton Kershaw have handled that velocity better than him this year.