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A.J. Ellis Should Be Walking His Way Onto Your Team

Pop quiz, hotshot: without looking, try and name the three batters at the top of the MLB leaderboards in on-base percentage (entering Wednesday).

Give up? Well, Matt Kemp at the top should be no surprise, since he’s coming off an MVP-caliber season and just finished up one of the best Aprils in decades. David Wright in second isn’t a shocker either; after a few down seasons, he’s healthy and motivated for the surprisingly pesky Mets. And in third place… Josh Hamilton? David Ortiz? Joey Votto? All worthy choices, and all in the top ten, but if you really guessed that the answer was a 31-year-old catcher with 244 career MLB plate appearances under his belt entering the season, then you’re either an enormous Dodger fan or an immediate member of the A.J. Ellis family.

All season long, the common refrain around the Dodgers is that they’ve been carried by the dynamic duo of Kemp & Andre Ethier, with little support from the rest of the lineup, and that’s not entirely true: Ellis enters play on Friday carrying a line of .306/.449/.468. That’s good for for 1.1 WAR in just under a month of play, and the ensuing .392 wOBA places him fifth among all catchers, despite not having near the type of power you’ll see from those ahead of him like Matt Wieters & Buster Posey. After hitting a double and a homer off of Jhoulys Chacin on Tuesday, he’s now reached base in fifteen consecutive games, thanks in large part to his 20.2% walk rate, third best in baseball. (Lest you think this is a function of hitting in front of the pitcher, think again, because this is serious business; he even enters games to the excellent and appropriate “Walk” by the Foo Fighters.)

Yet for all of his early achievements, Ellis has gone all but ignored in fantasy baseball. He’s owned by just 4% of teams in Yahoo and a miniscule 0.8% in ESPN leagues, far less than several clearly inferior options. Those numbers are so tiny that it basically means that Ellis is a free pick-up in all but the most extremely deep leagues.

So what’s keeping Ellis off fantasy rosters? The obvious culprit is probably simple lack of name recognition, since this is his tenth professional season and the first in which he’s been a full-time big leaguer. While that may lead many to look upon his productive April as merely a streaky good start, I’m not so sure. In over 2100 minor-league plate appearances, his career OBP was .406, and it gets more impressive as you go; he hasn’t come in at under .400 since 2007. Spending most of four seasons in Triple-A is admittedly less than impressive, though you’ll find more than a small minority of Dodger fans who had been calling for the Dodgers to bring him up rather than play the likes of Brad Ausmus & Dioner Navarro over the last few seasons. It’s probably unrealistic to expect him to keep up that line for the remainder of the season, yet it should be noted that ZIPS has him down for a tasty .370 OBP projection the rest of the way.

Perhaps there’s other reasons, as well. Ellis is far from a power threat, having hit just six homers in 1021 Triple-A plate appearances despite calling the hitting havens of Las Vegas & Albuquerque home – though he has improved that rate considerably in the bigs, making him an outside shot for double-digit homers this year. His runs scored and batted in are also not helped by hitting 8th in the Dodger lineup, ahead of the pitcher and behind the ineffective likes of Juan Rivera, James Loney, and Juan Uribe. That has the potential to change, however, as the drumbeats for manager Don Mattingly to move Ellis to the top of his OBP-challenged order continues to intensify, and Ellis being on base in front of Kemp & Ethier would instantly change his outlook in these other categories. (Eric Seidman will have more on this later morning.)

Basically, it comes down to this: if your league counts OBP, as many do, then he’s an immediate must-add. (I just dropped Geovany Soto to pick him up in one such league.) If your league is NL-only, then he’s almost certainly an add, assuming you don’t already have Posey, Brian McCann, or Yadier Molina. And in most other leagues, he’s probably worth a look as well. A player with that line, with that minor-league history of on-base prowess, and at that slim of a position, absolutely deserves to be seeing time on more fantasy squads.