Ausmus' huge impact on Dodgers can't be measured by statistics
In 17 major league seasons, Ausmus has never done much with the bat
But behind the plate (and in game planning), L.A.'s backup catcher is invaluable
Orioles scout/catching instructor Dave Engle: "He's the Greg Maddux of catching"
Brad Ausmus has tried holding his hands close to his body, and he has tried holding them further away. He has tried holding them high. He has tried holding them low. He has angled his feet towards third base. He has angled his feet towards first. He has experimented with every physically possible degree of knee-bend. "For awhile it looked like I was sitting on a toilet," he says. But no matter how Ausmus has contorted himself, he has never arrived at a batting stance from which he has been able to hit a baseball with any consistency. "At some point, around 2001," Ausmus says, "I cut the line and let the whale go free."
By most statistical measures, Ausmus is among the poorest hitters ever to play in the major leagues for any significant length of time. His career batting average is .252, he has never hit as many as 10 home runs in a season, and his career OPS+ (an advanced statistic that normalizes a batter's on-base-plus-slugging-percentage for the park and league in which he played, and for which 100 represents an average player) stands at 75, which is the 11th worst among the 431 players who have ever amassed more than 6,500 plate appearances. He has had his moments at the plate -- most memorably a game-tying, two-out, bottom-of-the-ninth solo blast off Braves closer Kyle Farnsworth in Game 4 of the 2005 NLDS, which allowed Ausmus' Astros to clinch the series in the 18th ("There couldn't have been any less pressure, because there were no expectations," Ausmus says) -- but a compilation of his greatest hits would more closely resemble The Buggles' than The Beatles'. Ausmus did once tie a single-season National League batting record, as an Astro in 2002, when he equaled Ernie Lombardi's 64-year-old mark by grounding into 30 double plays. "I had two weeks to break it, and didn't hit into another one," Ausmus says. "I blame the people in front of me for not getting on base."
Were a sweet and productive swing the determining factor in a professional catcher's ability to hold on to his job, then Ausmus, like a ballerina with chronic vertigo or a fireman who's directionally challenged with a hose, would have long ago been forced to find a new line of work. Perhaps he'd now be a lawyer, a career path he once considered, and one that was followed by many of his classmates at Dartmouth, the Ivy League college from which he graduated in 1991. More likely, he'd be a manager, a position that virtually everyone in baseball who knows him believes he'll one day hold. But despite his offensive shortcomings, Ausmus, who turned 40 in April, is in his 17th consecutive season working as a major league catcher, a job that has paid him some $35 million and in which few have matched his longevity: He has caught 1,917 games, tied with Benito Santiago for eighth on the all-time list.
That Ausmus is still playing is not the result of a stroke of luck, of a benevolent club willing to give an aging player one last short-leash shot. No, this past winter Ausmus might have been the first 39-year-old free agent who was coming off a season in which he hit .219 to have made demands. Ausmus announced that he was leaving the Astros, with whom he had played since 2001 (that was his second tour with Houston, and he's also had two stints with Detroit and one with San Diego), in order to move closer to the home he shares with his wife, Liz, and two middle school-age daughters, Abby and Sophie, in Del Mar, Calif. Therefore, he would play for only the Dodgers or the Padres. He, in short order, received offers from both of those teams. "At the end of our season, when we had our organizational meeting, we went through all the free agents and I said, I want you to tell me guys who you think can help our club," says Dodgers GM Ned Colletti, who ultimately signed Ausmus to a one-year, $1 million deal last January 27. "It was almost unanimous that the staff, including Joe Torre, circled Ausmus' name."
"I was just fortunate that he was available, and willing to come to us," says Torre, the Dodgers' manager, who sounds as if he's discussing a 28-year-old slugger.
The reason that Ausmus has been a gainfully employed major leaguer for so long, and remained coveted even at his advanced age, is as simple as it is difficult to quantify: his skill as a catcher, a unique position that requires a rare and delicate blend of intelligence and athleticism, ranks him among the finest ever to have played there -- and in certain ways, as the finest, full stop.
"He's the best," says Mike Hampton, a batterymate of Ausmus' in Houston in 1998 and '99. "Without a doubt."
This season Torre has often discussed the positive impact that a group of players he likes to call "the grown-ups" has made on his generally callow club. That group includes 38-year-old infielder Mark Loretta, whom the Dodgers signed to a one-year, $1.25 million free agent deal last December; 31-year-old second baseman Orlando Hudson, signed for one year and $3.38 million in February; and 39-year-old slugger Jim Thome, whom the Dodgers acquired in a trade with the White Sox on August 31.
None of those long-toothed players, however, has boosted the Dodgers in as many nuanced ways as has Ausmus, even though he has primarily served this season as the backup to Russell Martin. The job of a major league catcher is among the most physically and mentally demanding of any in professional sports, and Ausmus' mastery of the position begins, but does not end, with his technical wizardry behind the plate, which remains elite even after 17 seasons of wear and tear -- during none of which, remarkably, has he spent even a day on the disabled list. "That's just luck," Ausmus says. "Luck and genetics. My parents were never on the DL, either."