A.J. Ellis is making the most of itby David Wade
June 07, 2012
By now, most baseball fans know about A.J. Ellis. This time last year, hardly any had heard of him. The starting catcher for the Dodgers, after spending about a decade in Los Angeles' minor league system, won the starting job during this year's spring training at age 31 and is now putting up the best season for any catcher in baseball.
At the plate, he's using a skill he first developed in Little League and then later mastered over parts of nine seasons in the minors. That skill, the ability to draw walks, is the most obvious reason he is having so much success as a starter. But even though statistics like his 336 walks in 543 minor league games compared to only 283 strikeouts over the same period show an incredibly disciplined hitter, there's more to him than that.
Though at first glance it looks as though Ellis has come out of nowhere, we can focus in a little and see a talented high school player who excelled at several positions at Dunbar High School in Lexington, Ky. After he went to college in Tennessee, at Austin Peay University, he played four spectacular years and earned All-OVC honors every season.
Over those four years at Austin Peay, Ellis played a couple of different roles before he settled into the catcher position. It was his play behind the plate, showcasing his outstanding arm, that first drew the attention of Marty Lamb, an area scout for the Dodgers.
Lamb liked Ellis's throwing accuracy, but loved the consistency of that accuracy. It seemed every game the Los Angeles scout saw, Ellis put every throw—including every throw down to second in between innings—at the bag where the runner's foot would be. Every single time.
Lamb still remembers a throw Ellis made about 10 years ago with a right-handed hitter in the box—but it didn't even involve a baserunner. After his pitcher recorded a strikeout, Ellis wanted to fire the ball down to third, and around the horn. But, the hitter hadn't left the box yet, and with no direct line of sight to the bag, Ellis basically threw a hook shot around the batter. And the throw was still accurate.
So Lamb kept coming back, and Ellis kept gunning down baserunners. But it wasn't just Ellis' defense that impressed. When asked about the part of Ellis' game that has made the Dodgers catcher fantasy baseball's version of finding a $50 bill in the pocket of an old jacket, Lamb knew the money was there the whole time.
"Oh, his bat stood out in college. I mean, we're talking about a guy who left the school as their all-time hit leader, so it's not real surprising to see him hitting now."
On Lamb's recommendation, Los Angeles selected Ellis in the 18th round of the 2003 draft.
After dominating his competition as an amateur, Ellis ran into some bad luck when he broke his wrist at the very beginning of his professional career. That injury cost him his first season, and since he turned pro after four years of college, as far as prospects go he was already getting a little old.
For instance, Russell Martin was drafted in a similar spot the year before Ellis (for Martin, the 17th round) but Ellis is two years older than Martin. With Ellis coming off an injury and Martin looking like the player with the higher ceiling, Ellis was mostly a backup in his two years in the Florida State League.
In 2006, the Dodgers promoted Ellis to Double-A, where he played in 82 games and put up a nice OBP of .383. His power, however, was non-existent. A nice run in the Arizona Fall league of that year seemed to spark him and when he repeated the level in 2007 he hit eight home runs in 430 plate appearances. But he wasn't wowing the organization with his power. Lamb remembers talking to one of the local coaches around that time and they were wondering if A.J. should try to hit for more power to draw the organization's attention. Lamb remembers thinking that if Ellis just concentrated on his hitting, the power "would take care of itself."
It's been reported several times that Ellis essentially decided he would simply try to make himself the best player he could and give up the idea of trying to do different things to catch someone's eye. He had planned to serve out his contract and get enough experience to land a college coaching job. But, after he decided to rededicate himself to the game, things started to come together.
In a little over 1,000 plate appearances from 2008-2011 in the Pacific Coast League, a minor league level with a reputation for propping up players' power numbers, Ellis hit only six home runs. But, his real value at the plate started to stand out. In his time there, he walked a lot more than he struck out and he posted an OBP well over .400, despite the fact he still wasn't a home run threat.
He also bounced back and forth with the big club during that time, backing up catchers like Brad Ausmus or Dioner Navarro, guys who had more major league experience. But those brief stints with the big club convinced Ellis that he could handle the competition.
And handle it he has. Since winning the starting job during spring training, Ellis has even at times carried the Dodgers. His surprising bat has turned into an essential component of the lineup, what with superstar Matt Kemp missing time with an injured hamstring. With his OPS over .900 and a CS% over .40, he's challenging Carlos Ruiz and his .358 batting average for the title of best catcher in baseball so far this season.
Ellis' BABIP sits at .379, a number that isn't propped up by a 31-year-old catcher who is beating out a bunch of infield hits. That will be a hard standard to maintain, although not impossible. The .379 is supported by a LD% of 22.9 and, as a general rule, hitters who smack line drives all over the field tend to keep that BABIP average high. While hitting line drives is something Ellis has done his whole life, the challenge will be keeping it up as pitchers adjust to his patient approach at the plate.
Maybe Ellis' arduous journey has forged the strength he'll need to play at this level over the course of an entire season.
"He's always had the intangibles," said Lamb. "You could just tell he was the kind of guy who could grind it out and work hard and keep improving."
If nothing else, he's making the most of his opportunity. Like any worthwhile player, he's made some internet fame for his sense of humor. Perhaps he'll continue to entertain us when he makes the National League All-Star team.
David welcomes comments below. You can reach him via email at david DOT wade AT insightbb DOT com.
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