There was a lot of head-scratching on Twitter over the exchange of veteran backup catchers, with the Los Angeles Dodgers trading A.J. Ellis and minor league pitcher Tommy Bergjans to the Philadelphia Phillies for Carlos Ruiz.
Ellis is a highly regarded "glue guy," so why bother messing with clubhouse chemistry when the team is playing so well?
Ellis is also Clayton Kershaw's personal catcher, so why risk upsetting Kershaw, especially considering he has an opt-out clause after 2018 in his contract?
The answer is simple: Ruiz is the better player. Ellis is hitting .194/.285/.252. Among 351 players with at least 150 plate appearances, he ranks 347th. Ruiz is hitting a more acceptable .268/.368/.352. Both are relatively small samples, and Ellis was better than Ruiz at the plate last season, but the current evidence suggests that Ruiz is the better hitter.
As for his being Kershaw's personal catcher, it's pretty clear that Ellis has a good relationship with Kershaw, but it should be noted that Ellis has never rated well as a pitch-framer (unlike Dodgers starter Yasmani Grandal). Kershaw has a 1.97 ERA when Ellis catches him and a 1.98 ERA in 18 outings with Grandal. At this point, there is no strong evidence that Kershaw is better with Ellis catching.
Of course, all that is assuming that Kershaw returns to the rotation in the first place. Plus, if the Dodgers make the playoffs, do you want to bench Grandal -- who, by the way, is hitting .269/.387/.577 in the second half -- to play a sub-.200-hitting Ellis? I don't see Dave Roberts making that move.
Most importantly, this trade is about having better insurance in case Grandal gets injured. Ellis has postseason experience, but Ruiz has plenty as well, including winning the 2008 World Series with the Phillies.
As for Kershaw leaving after 2018 because of Ellis? Ellis is unlikely to be in the majors at that point anyway. Kershaw isn't going to leave the team because it traded his buddy.
Sure, it stings. Ellis has been in the organization since the Dodgers drafted him in the 18th round in 2003. As president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman said, "I can go on and on about A.J. and his attributes and what he brings to a team, and if Carlos didn't possess similar things, we wouldn't have made the move."
Ellis was crushed. "To know that, in almost all likelihood, I will never get to catch [Kershaw] again is definitely the most devastating thing I'm feeling right now," he said.
But players know that the ultimate bottom line on any team is that you have to produce. Ellis hasn't produced, and the Dodgers saw an opportunity to make an upgrade. It's the right move. It's baseball.