The Dodgers ranked 30th in our positional power rankings for catchers last week in a close race with the Pirates. Matt Treanor, the backup catcher, doesn’t have anything left and it’s unclear what Tim Federowicz will provide or how often he will even play. The de facto starter, A.J. Ellis, is better suited for backup duty yet will likely amass 450+ PAs. Put together, it’s an ugly situation behind the plate.
In response to that ranking, through comments, e-mails, and on Twitter, it became clear that Dodgers fans thought that Ellis was being undervalued. After all, his ZIPS projected on-base percentage of .356 was higher than any other catcher in the bottom half of the positional rankings.
The problem is that, while Ellis has always boasted serious on-base skills, his slugging inability is a substantial detriment to his overall value.
Over 206 major league PAs, Ellis has a .262/.360/.330 line, with a slugging percentage as uninspiring as his on-base percentage is impressive. It isn’t just a matter of getting used to big league pitching either, as his career minor league slugging mark is just .380, with the last three years being spent in the notorious Albuquerque Isotopes launching pad.
Turning 31 years old this year, it sure seems unlikely that his development will take a major step forward, and that was one of the main factors in ranking the Dodgers backstops last for the upcoming season. But, historically, how have players in similar situations fared?
Is Ellis just a late bloomer primed to start slugging after the typical peak years?
The first step here involved defining players similar to Ellis. To that end, I pooled together all non-pitchers who tallied 200+ plate appearances throughout their first three seasons. Sticking with data from 1950-onward, there were 2,540 distinct players fitting this criteria.
Of that larger group, only 122 players were at least 30 years old in their third season. Intuitively, that makes sense, as major leaguers are usually established by their age-30 season, with several years under their belts, or it’s established that they aren’t major leaguers. And since getting even one plate appearance in a season qualified it as a countable season, many players who were 30+ years old by their third year of regular playing time had several cups of coffee in their twenties.
Only 40 of those 122 players posted slugging percentages that matched or fell below Ellis’s career .330 mark. Fitting these pieces together, Ellis is in a rare situation to begin with, as an older player without much major league experience. His air is even more rarefied when slugging percentage is introduced, as very few major leaguers have ever posted a rate that low while being at least 30 years old through their first few seasons. Again, this follows intuition, as 30+ year old players lacking any semblance of slugging ability are unlikely to garner more playing time.
In fact, of those 40 players, only 13 managed to play three more seasons after the initial three in the span. Those 13 players consisted of eight catchers: Russ Gibson, Mickey Grasso, Ken Huckaby, Jerry McNertney, Ray Murray, Mike Sadek, Danny Sheaffer and, lo and behold, Matt Treanor. The group also featured four shortstops in Alex Grammas, Gene Michael, Roberto Pena and Jeff Reboulet. The lone non-C/SS was Champ Summers, an outfielder whose first three seasons came in 1974-76. Fittingly, Summers didn’t fall in line with the rest of the pack.
The 12 aforementioned catchers and shortstops posted average slugging percentages ranging from .233 to .368 over their 4th-6th seasons, after maxing out at .330 in their first three campaigns. Suffice to say, they never developed any true power at the major league level. Remove Murray’s .368 SLG and the range is .233-.340. They also posted average on-base percentages ranging from .237 to .338; during their first three seasons, the highest OBP was Reboulet’s .335 mark.
Summers was the odd man out, as he actually did develop both power and on-base skills. After a .283 OBP/.300 SLG during his first three seasons, Summers produced an impressive .371 OBP/.506 SLG over his 4th-6th seasons.
It makes some sense that the group predominantly features catchers and shortstops: it’s okay for backup catchers and utility infielders to lack pure slugging ability, because they aren’t on the team to start everyday. And if they are, it’s usually because their defensive wizardry makes up for offensive ineptitudes.
Ellis doesn’t have many historical comps based on age and experience, and that number shrinks substantially when trying to match his career slugging percentage. Of the very small sample of players that managed to match more of his attributes and managed to stay in the major leagues — Summers excluded — none developed any slugging or on-base skills. Granted, not much can be determined from such a small sample of comparable players, but that’s kind of the point — selection bias tends to weed these players out, which makes it difficult to gauge Ellis’s future.
The key differentiating factor here is Ellis’s impressive OBP, which has translated to the major league level, albeit over a minuscule sample size.
Scouts praise his defensive ability, and his on-base skills seem legitimate, but the odds aren’t in his favor as far as ever hitting for more power.
How that combination of skills plays over 500 PAs remains to be seen, but it isn’t unreasonable to think of Ellis as a solid backup catcher being pressed into starting duty. The Dodgers would do well to allocate playing time among all three of their catchers instead of relying on Ellis as the lineup’s regular.