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John Ely Impressing

This past off-season, the Los Angeles Dodgers shipped outfielder Juan Pierre to the Chicago White Sox for pitching prospects Jon Link and John Ely. Pierre is playing good D on the South Side, but his wretched hitting (.254/.305/.286, .285 wOBA) makes him a sub-optimal starter. Ely, meanwhile, made his major league debut in late April and has since made opposing hitters look like Pierre clones — batters have a .226/.260/.301 triple-slash against the Matthew McConaughey doppelganger. Who is this guy, and will he continue to produce for L.A.?

A product of Miami (Ohio) University, Ely was popped in the third round of the 2007 draft. At the time the Pale Hose picked him, Baseball America gave the following assessment of Ely:

Ely is just 6-foot-1 and 190 pounds, and he has a head jerk in his maximum-effort delivery. His stuff is hard to argue with, however. His 89-94 mph fastball and his vastly improved changeup both qualify as plus pitches, and his curve is an average offering. Though he lacks smooth mechanics, he throws strikes and has a resilient arm that never has given him problems.

After getting his feet wet in the pros in rookie ball that summer (56 IP, 9 K/9, 2.25 BB/9, 3.50 FIP), Ely made his full-season debut at High-A Winston-Salem in 2008. The former RedHawk attacked Carolina League hitters, striking out 8.3 per nine innings, walking 2.85 and posting a 4.02 FIP in 145.1 innings pitched. Though he served up 1.11 home runs per nine frames, Ely kept the ball on the ground with a 50.2 GB%. Following the season, BA praised Ely’s tumbling changeup and well-placed 88-94 MPH fastball, but cautioned that his curveball lacked consistency and that “there’s a lot of effort in his delivery.”

Bumped up to Double-A Birmingham in 2009, Ely had 7.2 K/9, 2.88 BB/9, 0.52 HR/9 and a 3.33 FIP in 156.1 innings of work. He continued to induce grounders, with a 50.5 GB%. Prior to 2010, Baseball America noted that Ely’s fastball rarely cracked 90 MPH anymore, but contended that “his mid-70’s changeup is an equalizer.” Some concerns were voiced about his lack of a third consistent pitch — he experimented with a cut fastball/slider during the ’09 season to better handle lineups the second and third time around.

Ely opened this season at Triple-A Albuquerque, where he compiled a 12/8 K/BB ratio and allowed 6 runs in 18 IP. During his first six starts with the Dodgers, covering 39 innings, the 24-year-old has 7.38 K/9, 1.38 BB/9 and a 3.32 xFIP.

True to the scouting reports, Ely isn’t lighting up radar guns — his fastball is averaging 87.9 MPH. However, he’s not using the pitch much (about 32 percent), and when he does, he gets strikes (70.1 percent, 64.4% MLB average). Ely’s bread-and-butter is his changeup. According to Pitch F/X data from texasleaguers.com, he has pulled the string about 41 percent of the time. The change has garnered a strike 74.2 percent (60.7% MLB average), and it has been whiffed at 21.6 percent (12.6% MLB average). He’s also mixing in mid-80’s sliders/cutters, as well as a slooow 70 MPH curve.

Despite his modest stuff, Ely has managed to get swinging strikes 9.1 percent to this point (8-8.5% MLB average), while getting batters to chase his pitches out of the zone 29.1% (27.7% MLB average).

Heading into the season, neither ZiPS (5.53 K/9, 4.11 BB/9, 1.35 HR/9, 5.29 FIP) nor CHONE (6.7 K/9, 4.25 BB/9, 1.58 HR/9, 5.39 FIP) liked Ely’s chances of making a positive contribution at the big league level. Excellent start aside, owners should approach Ely with realistic expectations. Given his good, not great minor league track record and finesse repertoire, it would be best to view Ely as more of a pitcher capable of delivering league-average production than a breakout prospect.