A.J. Ellis: hardly swinging, hardly missing

Last week, Dave Cameron wrote an excellent piece on Josh Hamilton and the degradation of his batting eye. Hamilton has been swinging at some terrible pitches this season, and pitchers are beginning to figure out that they can throw just about anything to get Hamilton out.

We’ve seen only a month of baseball, and we all know how meaningful many results thus far are. The good thing about plate discipline statistics, however, is that they don’t take much time to stabilize. Things will obviously change over the course of a season, but April plate discipline data give us something more meaningful to talk about than any April counting statistic does.

With this in mind, I began to look through the FanGraphs plate discipline leaders of 2013. If you sort the leader board one way, you’ll find the league’s free swingers. We know these guys pretty well. Hamilton is ruining his career, while Pablo Sandoval (somehow) continues to make a living off hitting terrible pitches. We hear a lot about this group, and it makes sense that we do. We enjoy watching hitters flail at all sorts of pitches—sometimes connecting, and sometimes looking like Vladimir Guerrero after a night out.

If you sort the leader board the other way, though, you’ll find a group that gets a lot less notoriety (well, at least outside of the sabermetric community). These plate discipline leaders swing at pitches outside the strike zone about a third of the time a Sandoval or Hamilton does. At the top of this list (and by a large margin), you’ll find A.J. Ellis.

Ellis has always had above-average plate discipline, but his eye really improved in 2012. Last year, Ellis saw more pitches per plate appearance (4.43) than any other major league hitter. This year, he remains on top in that regard. The catcher has swung at 13.4 percent of all pitches he has seen outside of the strike zone. He has whiffed at only 23 pitches (out of 473) thus far.

When a career backup catcher suddenly grabs hold of a major league starting job after almost 10 years in the minor leagues, you would think that we would take notice. Ellis has managed to stay under the radar, since he doesn’t hit for power (or average, for that matter). Manager Don Mattingly has typically slotted Ellis in the five or six spot for Los Angeles, and it is possible that he benefits from hitting in the heart of the lineup, behind Matt Kemp, Adrian Gonzalez and Andre Ethier. These hitters have average plate discipline, but they sure appear more threatening than Ellis does. Is it possible that, after dancing around these three hitters, pitchers give Ellis great pitches to hit?

This argument is a convincing one, and the data provide some support for it. This season, 48.3 percent of all pitches Ellis has seen have been in the strike zone. In 2012, the overall league zone percentage was 44.9. Ellis has seen a significantly greater number of pitches in the zone this year than the average hitter typically does, and his high walk totals become even more impressive in this context. However, Ellis posted similar (though not quite as spectacular) plate discipline rates in 2012, a year in which he hit primarily out of the eight hole.

Ellis is also seeing a relatively high number of fastballs (66 percent of all pitches seen) this season, which is obviously working to his advantage in terms of plate discipline and overall offensive production. I do buy the argument that pitchers will throw relatively more fastballs to Ellis after facing Kemp, Gonzalez and Ethier, but we can’t evaluate that argument until we see Ellis hit in other lineup spots.

Is it sustainable?

It’s extremely likely that we will see Ellis’ discipline regress, since he is outperforming his 2012 plate discipline rates. Ellis can continue to be valuable asset for the Dodgers, but it is quite possible that he will have to start swinging the bat a little more often if he is going to do that. Only Brett Gardner and Bobby Abreu have posted lower swing percentages over the last three years, and these hitters give pitchers added motivation to throw strikes. Gardner is dangerous when gets on base, and Abreu could still hit for power when he posted a swing rate of 32.9 percent.

Some might hope that Ellis will start to hit the ball harder when does swing thebat. He will continue to see a good number of fastballs, but he won’t if he starts to hit for power. If Ellis becomes a hitting threat, as opposed to a walking threat, pitchers will also start to offer him fewer pitches in the strike zone.

Kevin Youkilis exemplifies this evolution well. In his early years, Youkilis posted high on-base percentages and little power. Many criticized his patient ways, and some argued that he didn’t hit enough home runs to be a major league corner infielder. In 2008, Youkilis responded with more than a few of those home runs. His zone percentage fell after that breakout year, and he began to see a lot more breaking balls. Youkilis responded well as his plate discipline skills were really put to the test, and he became much more valuable offensively.

This is obviously all speculation, as Ellis has more than a few hills to climb before becoming the next Kevin Youkilis. In many ways, Scott Hatteberg is a much more realistic comparison. Hatteberg’s inability to hit for power was really a blessing in disguise, as his ability to get on base was continually overlooked by pitchers and opposing pitching coaches.

A.J. Ellis has found a way to be successful at the major league level, and I’m sure he isn’t going to try to fix what isn’t broken. The Dodgers should be delighted with what they are getting out of their 32-year-old catcher. While I did bring some attention to his name with this article, my real hope is that we all continue to overlook A.J. Ellis. That’s how the Scott Hattebergs of the world operate best.

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