Preparation gives Dodgers' catchers an edge
Honeycutt and Ellis make sure Los Angeles' backstops have plan of attack
SAN FRANCISCO -- One day after last week's knee surgery, A.J. Ellis was back at work in the pregame catchers meeting that precedes the pregame pitchers meeting.
Brad Ausmus was there, too, in spirit.
Ausmus now manages the Detroit Tigers. But Ellis said in his rookie season in 2010, he was schooled by Ausmus to take his responsibilities as a Dodgers catcher to a higher level -- "reinventing" the position, Ellis said -- by assisting pitching coach Rick Honeycutt with developing a game plan and guiding each pitcher in understanding and executing it.
"Before Brad, Honey did all the work," said Ellis. "But Brad said if there's information there and available, it's your fault if you don't try to learn it. Brad said take ownership of the job."
As Ausmus taught Ellis, now Ellis mentors Tim Federowicz, as well as shares knowledge with Drew Butera, a four-year veteran with the Twins, now adjusting to the National League. With Ellis sidelined, Federowicz and Butera share the starting job.
You see Dodgers catchers flashing signs, blocking nasty pitches with their bodies and taking foul tips and occasional backswings off their heads. You don't see them poring over charts and spreadsheets and laptop videos of past game action, as if studying for a master's degree in their "spare" time.
Together with Honeycutt, they will arrive at AT&T Park on Tuesday for the opener of the series against the Giants as early as six hours before first pitch to study scouting reports and digest the big data spat out by the Sydex B.A.T.S. system, which provides pitch-by-pitch data to each video clip.
The goal: to present a synthesized attack plan to each pitcher in an understandable and actionable package.
"The last game of a series, if I'm not playing, I'm already preparing for, say, the Giants -- looking at the scouting report, the hot/cold zones, checking to see if they've changed anything in the week since we played them or if they're the same," Ellis said.
"The first day of a series, each of us goes over everything individually, taking notes, and there isn't much talking. After a break around 3, the four of us go over it together to create bullet points on each hitter to take into the pitcher's meeting so it can be presented in a simple, uncluttered way. We write down what resonates with each pitcher, what might be important about a hitter that maybe is different for a reliever than a certain starter. After that, the starting pitcher and the catcher for that game and Rick go over the individualized game plan."
Some pitchers -- like Clayton Kershaw and Zack Greinke -- take an active role in dictating what they want to do. Others -- Hyun-Jin Ryu and Josh Beckett among them -- take direction from the game plan and focus on execution.
Honeycutt said the system of preparing a game plan has evolved with advances in technology and the sport's embracing of statistical breakdowns.
"When I first got here, we depended on the scouting reports from the advance guys and they do a great job, but those reports don't fit every pitcher," Honeycutt said. "So we take those reports and take them a little farther, come up with a game plan for each pitcher in each game. If they execute, we usually have success. When I got to this level and saw the information that was available, I thought we could help the pitchers by finding what a hitter can and can't do and what the pitcher can and can't do, and match it up."
Butera said the Dodgers' approach was an eye-opener.
"The Dodgers have a different way of going about what they do with the scouting reports, breaking it down more in depth, the hitters' strengths and weaknesses and how it matches up to the pitchers' strengths and weaknesses," Butera said. "With the Twins, we didn't get involved with a lot of numbers. It was more, 'This guy's strength is the ball away.' Or, 'He has trouble with the breaking ball.' I think this is a good thing. If you have the information, why not use it?"
Ellis has been the starting catcher for three seasons in large part because of his complete buy-in to the Ausmus vision of a catcher.
"A.J., I feel, is like an extension of me -- sometimes even better," said Honeycutt. "I don't call many pitches with him back there. The beauty is the trust the pitchers have in him. Guys come over here and they know he's prepared, and that gives them comfort."
It doesn't hurt the other catchers, either.
"It's great that A.J.'s here with us," said Federowicz. "He's seen all the hitters, he knows the pitchers and how they need to attack the hitters. With him and Honey here, it's easier on me and Drew."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.