Thursday afternoon, the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Philadelphia Phillies swapped backup catchers. A.J. Ellis went East, Carlos Ruiz went West, and both fan bases mourned the losses of local favorites. Ellis had a sterling clubhouse reputation in L.A., while Ruiz was both one of the last remaining links to Philadelphia's 2008 World Series victory and an inherently lovable type: squat, a good enough bat even in his late 30s, and pretty solid nickname to bellow at the ballpark.
From the Phillies' perspective, the trade was a charitable one. Ruiz had asked the team to see whether it could move him to a contender, and they obliged for little recompense (a couple months of Ellis, who like Ruiz is a free agent at year's end, a single-A pitcher, and a player to be named later). The calculus on the Dodgers' side was more complicated. L.A. sits a couple games clear of the Giants in the NL West race and views this as the sort of move that might make the difference during the stretch run or in the postseason—Ruiz sports a .719 OPS this year to Ellis's .537—but Ellis is also Clayton Kershaw's preferred catcher. When the Dodgers' ace returns from the back injury that has kept him sidelined since June, he won't have his usual partner setting the targets.
Ellis described Kershaw as "shocked" by the trade. The two men wept together, he said.
— Andy McCullough (@McCulloughTimes) August 25, 2016
The obvious way to frame this is as a study of the quantifiable vs. the non-quantifiable. What Ruiz adds to the Dodgers is clear. "The grinder-type approach in the batter's box, we think, can help really lengthen our lineup," team president Andrew Friedman said. The players' responses, though, had a lot less to do with in-game tactics. "We both cried," Ellis said of sharing the news with Kershaw, and Kenley Jansen added, "All I can say is it's a sad day today in the clubhouse."
With the trade, one low-hitting backup backstop for a higher-hitting one, the rest of L.A.'s season becomes a parable. Fans of every team get used to these sorts of moves, but this one seems to have been made with colder eyes than most. This Dodgers season has had a feel-good element, as they have withstood big-name departures and injuries to overtake a Giants team that held baseball's best record at the All-Star break. Zack Greinke and Yasiel Puig are gone, Kershaw is hurt, the starting staff is in shambles, but wins (and San Francisco losses) keep coming. It's the kind of run that can make fans into true believers in things like chemistry and fate.
Now, the good vibes have been swapped out, in part, for an upgraded bench bat. If L.A. doesn't advance in the postseason, Ruiz and Friedman will make a handy peg for blame, doubly so if Kershaw's October struggles continue. Even if the Dodgers keep it up, though—if they bury the Giants and speed through the divisional and league-championship rounds and into the World Series—it will be a little bit more of a bummer than it could have been. There will be no clutch Ruiz double that Ellis, theoretically, couldn't have matched, no stellar Kershaw outing that Ellis couldn't have caught, and to L.A. fans, it all would have been better coming from him.