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A.J. Ellis: Where Did That Power Come From?

A.J. Ellis turned 31 last season. That might surprise you, since he had only 244 career plate appearances before this season. He’s so long been the focus of stat-heads for his walk rate that he might have debuted right at his power peak. That allowed him to show the best power of his career and “leap” up to fantasy replacement level status as the 17th-best backstop in roto last season.

But without that power, he ends up a lot like Ruben Tejada among shortstops — devoid of the skills that make a player valuable in most fantasy baseball leagues. No power, no speed, and only a walk rate… that doesn’t play in your average 5×5 fantasy league.

His .144 isolated slugging percentage in 2012 was definitely a breakout. He never ISO’ed above .135 in the minor leagues, and his career minor league ISO was an even .100. That’s not surprising for a guy that has hit almost a ground ball and a half for every fly ball in his career (1.43 career GB/FB). He made a little progress in that arena (1.37 2012 GB/FB), but neither number is great, and he showed the same ground-ball heavy tendencies in the minor leagues.

Robinson Cano, Buster Posey, Billy Butler and David Freese have all managed good power numbers in the face of similar ground ball rates, so batted ball mix is not the be-all and end-all of this discussion. But if you look at Ellis’ monthly splits, you see that it wasn’t all frozen ropes and roses for the catcher. Here are his monthly ISOs, starting in April: .109, .222, .048, .134, .190, .128. That’s four months that would fit into his career (less exciting) power profile, and two months that may be outliers.

We can break his batted ball data down further, though. Look at Ellis’ batted ball angle (left) next to his batted ball distance (right), and you can see where some of his power spike may have come from. Thanks to baseballheatmaps.com:

When it comes to batted ball angle, the more positive the number, the more along the right field line the ball is going. Ellis is a righty, so this graph shows that he’s an opposite-field hitter when it comes to fly balls and home runs. His splits page confirms the fact: 51.6% of his hits to right field are fly balls. But there was that midseason valley in the angle graph, where he was hitting the ball right up the middle, and his batted ball distance on fly balls and home runs spiked. Considering his best ISO months came in the middle of the season, it’s no stretch to say that reigning in his opposite-field tendencies may have led to better power numbers this season.

The problem is that Ellis needs to stay at that peak to be useful. Looking at his batted ball data, you can see that his distance on home runs and fly balls was between 250 and 275 feet before the spike. The most powerful hitter with a an average distance below 270 last year was Ian Kinsler, and second place belonged to Martin Prado. With the spike factored in, Ellis’s distance jumped to 291.1 this season, just short of Jose Bautista and a half a foot behind Jason Heyward.

If you believe that a post-peak catcher can again find the approach that gave him two strong power months last season — even after he lost that approach late in the season — then you can believe in Ellis in your deep 5×5 leagues. But if you’re in a standard league, or are banking on more power from A.J. Ellis next season in order to become relevant in your league, you can see that’s an iffy proposition.