2012 Dodgers in Review #24: RF Andre Ethier

November 15, 2012 at 9:03 am | Posted in 2012 in Review, Andre Ethier | Leave a comment

Editor’s note: this is the 2,000th post on this site. Good lord. I’m not sure if that makes me happy or sad.

.284/.351/.460 618pa 20hr 3.4 fWAR B-

2012 in brief: Another up-and-down season for veteran right fielder that was somehow simultaneously nicely productive and extremely frustrating.

2013 status: Will make $13.5m in first year of 5/$85m extension.

******

Over at FanGraphs, I bookended the 2012 season with two posts about Andre Ethier. See if you can spot the difference, shall we? On March 30, it was “Andre Ethier is Going to Have a Huge Season”. On October 5, it was “Why Didn’t Andre Ethier Live Up To Expectations?”

Ah, but we’re getting ahead of ourselves aren’t we? Things certainly got off to a good enough start, because Ethier was just as responsible for the team’s great April as Matt Kemp or anyone else was. In the second game of the season, Ethier drove in four against the Padres; on April 10, his 30th birthday, he hit his second homer in two games to help the Dodgers take down the Pirates in the home opener. Four days later, he teamed with Kemp to take Joe Wieland deep three times before the sixth inning was through; three days after that, he hit an eighth-inning go-ahead dinger in Milwaukee.

By April 20, with Ethier hitting .296/.356/.648 after a victory in Houston, it was already starting to sound like a broken record:

I don’t want to shock you, but the Dodgers scored three runs tonight, and every one of them was thanks to Matt Kemp & Andre Ethier. I know, I can hardly believe it either, because that is a scenario which never happens, ever.

Ethier continued hitting into May after Kemp went down, even hilariously making a lone start in Kemp’s place in center field on May 15. He somehow got even hotter, putting up a massive line of .366/.422/.594 for the month as the Dodgers continued to fly high. But on May 31, Ethier went 0-5 against Milwaukee. It’s just a single game, of course, one in a very long season, yet everything seemed to go downhill from there. Like the rest of the team, he cratered in June, following a season-best May with an atrocious .218/.306/.322 line. As the month got going, he kicked off a disastrous road trip with 17 hitless at-bats that stretched to 1-28, though he did manage to hit a grand slam in Seattle on June 10.

That’s not why we’ll remember June, though. The 5/$85m extension with an attainable sixth-year option he signed on June 12 is:

Other than Josh Hamilton, who comes with his own massive set of risks, Ethier was the most attractive bat [on the market this winter], and as hard as this team has found it to get offense with Ethier, imagine if he left and right field was yet another hole. This contract pays him as essentially a three-to-four win player, and he hasn’t always been that, though it’s hard to say that there’s someone else who could really step in and do what he does. The deal looks to be market value or something close to it, and while that’s perhaps not as much of a deal as you’d like from a player staying with his current team, at least no one went crazy and started throwing around Jayson Werth numbers, so you’ve at least spent in a way that doesn’t seem wildly out of touch. (There’s also a pretty big PR element for the new ownership at play here, I would imagine.)

That’s not to say that I’m completely over-the-moon about it, because Ethier is still a player with his fair share of flaws. We can’t yet say with any certainties that he’s “figured out” lefties, not after so many years of flailing against them, and his defense in right field seems to hover between “adequate” & “holy wow, that guy won a Gold Glove?” Guys moving into their 30s don’t generally stay healthier than they did in their 20s, after all, and that’s a real concern too. As I joked to a friend recently as Ethier’s recent slump has reached 2-for-his-last-37, “I wonder what injury he’s trying to play through this time?”

So the end result, in my view, is that the Dodgers paid a fair price to lock up one of the two best and most popular hitters on their team, a player with his share of flaws, but one who provides a service which couldn’t easily be replaced on the open market or via trade. I’m slightly apprehensive about the idea of Ethier being a $100m type player, yet I suppose I can’t really argue with the logic behind the move.

Later that night, Ethier drove in the tying run ahead of Juan Rivera‘s walkoff in Anaheim, but it was merely a blip on the radar. The Seattle grand slam was his only homer of the month, and as the lineup fell apart around him due to injury, he was often (along with A.J. Ellis) the only accomplished big league hitter that Don Mattingly could send out every night. As things really bottomed out near the end of June – what, you’ve really forgotten that road trip to Oakland & San Francisco already? – the month ended in the only way it possibly could have:

Today, we were hit with a doubleheader of depression, and let me tell you, here’s a pretty good way to know how badly things are going right now. You’d think that A) making 2012 Tim Lincecum look like 2009 Tim Lincecum B) blowing sole possession of first place C) getting swept out of San Francisco without scoring a single run, and D) tying a team record for most times being shut out in a row would be painful enough, yet even that collection of woe isn’t the biggest disaster that came out of the club today: it’s the strained oblique which sent Andre Ethier out of the game in the first inning.

Oddly, Ethier didn’t go on the disabled list right away, spending a week forcing the Dodgers to play a man down before finally stepping aside on July 4. Returning along with Kemp after the All-Star break, we expected big things, and Ethier homered and drove in three in his second game back. (That’s the game better remembered as the San Diego game that Kenley Jansen blew by not paying attention as the Padres completed a double steal, though it’s worth noting that Vin Scully pointed out the dinger was Ethier’s first longball at home in more than two months.)

Over the next few weeks & months over the remainder of the season, Ethier was never downright bad, but nor was he making much of a difference, either. This, from August 5, is a pretty representative sample of how we were feeling about him:

This game took on so many different forms that for most of it, I was sure we’d be discussing how disappointing Andre Ethier has been for months now, yet he ended up with two of the biggest hits of the day – a two-run double off of lefty (!) James Russell in the seventh and a single off of Shawn Camp in the ninth, pushing Matt Kemp to third.

When Ethier homered against Atlanta on August 17, it was his first homer in exactly a month, and just his second in more than two. Considering how hot he’d been to start the season, it was a frustrating run of mediocrity. Five days later, I was resorting to posting articles with titles like “So When Do We Get To Be Worried About Andre Ethier?” After going through all the possible reasons Ethier might be struggling, I settled upon this:

While the poor K/BB trend isn’t good, I don’t think he’s suddenly lost all patience and ability to make contact. It seems to me that it’s more of a symptom than a cause, and that the real root of the trouble is simply this: other managers aren’t blind.

Year
Total PA
vLH
vRH
LH%
2007
507
119
388
23.5
2008
596
155
441
26.0
2009
685
187
498
27.2
2010
585
178
407
30.4
2011
551
151
400
27.4
2012
417
180
238
43.0

Here’s what I mean by that. Check out the percentage of lefty pitching that Ethier has faced over the last six years, shown in the table at right. For years, Ethier routinely faced lefties 25-30% of the time. This year it’s well over 40%, and as I hardly need to tell you, Ethier is absolutely awful against lefty pitching. Well, I don’t need to tell you, but I will – in over 1,000 career plate appearances against southpaws, Ethier hits only .238/.298/.351 (.650); this year, it’s even worse .216/.281/.315 (.596). Despite his briefly effective first few weeks against lefties this year, Ethier’s back to his typical awful performance against them, and other managers are taking advantage of that fact. If there’s any mystery here, it’s why it took them so long to do this since Ethier’s never really been able to hit them.

Yet either because Don Mattingly is unwilling to offend a star or he simply has no one on the active roster to turn to (and while I know Mattingly-bashing is a fun sport, I’m more inclined to believe the latter, because the bench is short and does anyone really like Rivera that much?) Ethier continues to hit against lefties. It shouldn’t be expected to work, and it doesn’t – it’s a situation that cries out desperately for a platoon partner, a hole I’ve been attempting to fill here for years in my various yearly plans, and all you need to do is look at first base with James Loney & Rivera to see that Mattingly isn’t strictly against the idea.

While that was a change that never really was able to happen in 2012, especially once Jerry Sands was gone, Mattingly did seem open to discussing the idea near the end of the season, and he at least pushed Ethier down to 7th against lefties. (Sitting Ethier against lefties is an idea I cannot endorse enough, by the way. Not only have I been calling for it here since at least 2009, Ethier’s wOBA against righty pitching this year was 7th in the game.)

After completing an underwhelming August, Ethier rebounded somewhat in September, hitting six homers, though with only a .319 OBP. On September 3, he hit a game-tying homer in the ninth, allowing A.J. Ellis & Luis Cruz to then walk off in the tenth, and he had hits in 21 of 28 games for the month, though of course it wasn’t enough.

Used properly – by which I mean, if they could finally, finally get him the righty compliment he so badly needs –  he could look like the stud he’s being paid to be, and just like every year I hope 2013 is the year it happens. If he just stopped playing against lefties, does anyone think his line couldn’t look something like .300/.350/.500? It might also keep him a little healthier, and while I’ll admit that a platoon bat may not be what you want for that kind of money, it’s also the best way to maximize the talent he has.

That’s if he’s a Dodger, of course, because the big Ethier news over the last few weeks has been rumors about whether the Dodgers might trade him. For the record, I don’t think there’s a lot there, because simply knowing that the Dodgers would listen if approached is hardly news at all. Besides, this isn’t another McCourt contract that they’re still stuck with, this is a deal that was signed with the consent of the new ownership group. I can’t imagine Ethier’s going anywhere, so let’s hope that the team does what it can to make him more productive. For the first time, based on Mattingly’s comments and September usage, I’m hoping that it’s finally a reality.

******

Next up! Has Scott Van Slyke‘s opportunity already come and gone? (Spoiler alert: yes.)

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