A.J. Ellis wasn’t supposed to make it. At least not according to the A.J. Ellis whom the Los Angeles Dodgers took in the 18th round of the 2003 draft. That Ellis wasn’t planning on a career the major leagues. And yet, here he is, 10 years later with at least one facet of his game considered to be elite, and a regular job on a good team in the big leagues. How he got here — and who helped him along the way — best describes the sort of a player and the man he’s become.
Even when he was drafted, Ellis didn’t think like many of his fellow draftees. “I didn’t have major league expectations,” Ellis told me before this past series with the Giants. “I wasn’t being drafted and mapping out a career.” Ellis doesn’t sell himself short — this was more about his skillset and his draft position, and being honest with himself and the people he cared about. The minors were going to be “baseball finishing school” and he was going to finish up and then go coach a college team.
Enter Cindy. His college girlfriend became his wife. But she also took on other roles. Before he was drafted, Ellis says, “she was the first person to believe in me.” When he was drafted and asked her to tell him if she ever felt that “this isn’t the life you wanted,” she punched back. “You’re going to keep going until they say `no’ because I believe you are going to make it to the big leagues,” she told him. While Ellis was in Double-A, she had a full-time job and made much more. She was “the hero throughout,” even as she gave birth to their son — in the passenger seat of his car — while he drove 75 mph down the freeway.
For her, he made a promise that he would work as hard as he could. And though he didn’t have a great swing, he found his niche as a defensive-first catcher who could work with pitchers. Though dominating that niche might just have been a way to keep his organization interested in his skill set, those abilities have followed him to the big leagues. All that effort has paid off: Defensive Runs Saved rated his glove as above-average in 2012 and Matt Klaasen ranked him seventh-best behind the plate.
And, moments after we finished talking, you could see Ellis following through on the other half of his niche skill set — he sought out Hyu-Jin Ryu and went through the pitcher’s last start with him, “watching him, watching the hitters” and talking to the young starter about what he did right and what he could do differently next time. Working well with the pitchers indeed. (To say nothing of his ability to rein in Clayton Kershaw.)
That said, the first major league number associated with Ellis is always his walk rate. Since his debut, he’s 12th in baseball in that category. His 12.8% walk rate since 2010 is also the third-best by a catcher. And, as he did in the minors, Ellis is improving on that skill through hard work. From a minor-league low of 10.7% in 2005 in High-A, he pushed his rate to 20.2% in Triple-A in 2011. He responded to his first major league playing time with a 10.9% walk rate in 2010. Now he’s got that rate up to 15.2%.
His secret? Why is he so good at taking a walk? “I knew that my best chance to help the team was to not swing,” Ellis said, laughing, of his time in the minors. Beyond handling the pitching staff and impressing with the glove, his quest to prove his offensive value to his major league team focused on getting into fastball counts and letting minor-league pitchers display their lack of command. Even before, even at Austin Peay, Ellis was patient, though: “To me there’s no worse feeling that rolling over or popping up on a first pitch and thinking, ‘What if?'”
His patience showed through more as his swing got better. Ellis credits former Dodgers’ hitting instructor Jeff Pentland for much of that improvement. “My first movement with my hands is down,” Ellis said. But then Pentland came on in 2010 and pulled him aside, telling him that, to hit in the bigs, he’d have to bring his hands back up. Can we see the improvements Ellis made ? Here’s a video of Ellis facing Madison Bumgarner in 2009:
And now here’s a GIF from last night’s game, from the same angle.
Does it look like his hands drift downward less in the more recent video? Ellis hopes so. For him, it’s about getting above the baseball, because, “unless you are an elite power hitter who can swing up and drive balls out, you want to hit line drives and ground balls.” If he’s not quite there yet, that’s okay with Ellis, who calls the work an everyday battle.
Though the long-term effort with his swing has allowed Ellis to be more aggressive, his emergence also has changed how opponents view his bat. “Pitchers are a little bit more aggressive coming after me,” Ellis said. That’s true. The percent of pitches he’s seen in the zone has gone up from 47% last year to 48.3% this year. What was his response? He had already taken “not swinging” to the top of the leaderboards — only three qualified batters swung fewer times last year — but now Ellis has become even more extreme. No qualified batter in baseball is swinging less often than Ellis this year. In essence, he’s only swinging at a third of the pitches he sees.
“This year I have not had the benefit of hitting eighth,” Ellis said. “It’s a credit to the hitter I’ve become.” But Ellis also has taken pride in getting on base “so the pitcher could bump me over.” Now he has to swing even less often to take his walks.
Ellis is batting seventh most often this year, and the walk rate of the seventh hitter in the National League last year (7.8%) is dwarfed by the walk rate of the eighth hitter (9.9%), so he’s right to point out the difficulty of moving out of the spot. Then again, many of those walks to the eighth hitter are intentional. If you remove intentional walks, the eighth hitter only gets a slight boost (8.13% for the eighth hitter, versus 7.3% for the seventh hitter). Though A.J. did get the four-fingers-wide treatment 11 times last year (and none this year), obviously his walk rate has made the transition to a different spot in the lineup.
Does his team value his elite skill? And why don’t they use him higher in the lineup? “They always credit me for my ability to get on base,” Ellis, said, but added that “you want your best hitters to get the most at-bats as they can” and that his team is “stacked with an elite lineup that can do damage.”
It’s this sort of self-awareness (and self-deprecation) that has served Ellis well. As well as the hard work that he’s put in, and the support of those around him. When the season’s over, he’ll head to Milwaukee for the winter. “My wife is from Milwaukee, so it’s happy wife, happy life,” he told me, which means he’ll train in the snow for another season. “I’m like Rocky in `Rocky IV,'” Ellis said, “going to fight the Russian, in the Siberian snow, chopping down trees, getting to the top of the mountain and yelling ‘Zitooo!'”
That would be quite a sight. Especially for the mild-mannered man who repeatedly quotes his teammate Matt Guerrier on how to better yourself: “Find the thing in baseball that you don’t do well, and then don’t do that thing.“