You agree to guarantee an employee nearly 10 percent of your company’s valuation. You – and your industry – put that employee on a pedestal, and for good reason, as by all verifiable measures that employee is the best in the world at what he does. Some fear that employee verges on becoming larger than the sum of the company’s parts. Management realizes this is no way to run a company. What to do?
If you are the Los Angeles Dodgers, and you have committed $215 million to pitcher Clayton Kershaw, and you know that the one thing he values above all else on the team is his friend and personal catcher, A.J. Ellis, you restore order by getting rid of A.J. Ellis. And that is what the Dodgers did yesterday, sending Ellis to the last-place Phillies in return for catcher Carlos Ruiz.
For the team, this cannot be a capricious decision. You must have a valid justification. If you are going to (a) risk upsetting team chemistry while in the thick of a pennant race, (b) lose one of the most liked players in decades, and (c) irritate and potentially forever alienate the best pitcher in a generation, you better have a good reason and you’d better get it right.
When confronted with various and sundry questions about the move, Andrew Friedman stated – accurately – that Ruiz is an offensive and defensive upgrade over Ellis. Ruiz’s OPS against left-handed pitching (which is against whom each would bat) is 214 points higher than that of Ellis. Ruiz is considered a better pitch-framer than Ellis. Ruiz has a higher WAR.
And now that Ellis is gone, Yasmani Grandal becomes Kershaw’s primary catcher. How does that look: Kershaw has a 1.97 ERA with Ellis catching, and a 1.98 ERA with Grandal behind the plate.
So far, Friedman’s thinking seems spot on.
But if you dig deeper, you will note that Ellis has been in the Dodgers’ organization for 14 years, and is beloved by his teammates. Ruiz is known to be a catalyst, a leader, and nothing less than a great teammate. On paper, it’s a wash. But can Friedman – or manager Dave Roberts, or anyone else – expect Ruiz command the clubhouse (as a back-up catcher no less) in the same way that Ellis did? To think so would be foolhardy.
WAR, UZR, and OPS aside, this conversation neglects to mention the elephant in the room – Clayton Kershaw. Lest we forget that, while Kershaw is under contract through the 2020 season, he has an out after 2018. It is highly likely (a certainty?) that Ellis will not be a Dodger in 2019, but that is beside the point. It comes down to respect and consideration. Maybe Kershaw shouldn’t have the right to dictate who catches him every fifth day (if/when he pitches again this season), but he at least should have been part of the conversation. He has earned that right, that respect.
Friedman claims he thought about getting Kershaw’s feedback, but chose not to out of fear of information leaking to Ellis ahead of the trade. This is a dubious claim. If you would trust Kershaw in Game 7 of the World Series, if you trust him with a $215 million contract, you could trust him to keep a secret for a few days. Kershaw has every right to be feel hurt by the front office’s lack of candor.
Kershaw is currently on the DL; he has not performed to his standards in the post-season; and Ellis has been atrocious at the plate. In a vacuum, trading Ellis for Ruiz makes sense. But it certainly feels like there is more to this deal. It seem that, at this moment, Andrew Friedman needed to show his team and his star player who is in charge. Friedman is paid $7 million a year to make difficult decisions and to give his team the best chance to win, hurt feelings be damned.
In the aftermath of the trade, Buster Olney said this move will be judged solely on the results. Win the pennant or the World Series, all will be forgiven. Lose the NL West or the Wild Card, everyone will point to Aug. 25 as the day the season changed. (And getting one-hit on your home field hours after the trade was an inauspicious start to the Post-Ellis Era.)
I rarely disagree with Olney, but I do here: Even if the Dodgers win, I don’t think all will be forgiven. I think this decision will resonate for some time, and may play a role in Kershaw’s decision after the 2018 season, and in the free-agent market in the years ahead.
Friedman will always – and, in this case, rightly so – hang his hat on making the tough trades to improve the ball club. And players (including Kershaw) will be free to decide if that is the type of ball club for whom they want to play.