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Zeroing in On Ely

John Ely spent his first three professional seasons in the White Sox organization after they made him a third round pick in 2007 out of Miami (Ohio). The righthander is now part of the Dodgers organization after they netted him him in a deal for Juan Pierre. Luckily for Ely his new big league team plays in one of the games better run suppressing environments and the Dodgers also spend a fair amount of time in pitchers heaven, Petco Park. ESPN’s 2009 park factors has Dodger stadium at 0.857 (1.000 is average) which was the third best run suppressing environment in baseball last year.

Ely will still likely require more seasoning in the minors before reaching LA but he’s one to keep an eye for people in keeper and regular fantasy leagues.

I saw Ely pitch multiple times in the Carolina League during the 2008 season. Below is the scouting report I had on Ely:

“Has some max effort mechanics. But they create very good deception and they make it tough to pick up the ball out of his hand. Fastball ranges from 90-92 MPH. It should end up being at least an average MLB pitch. He’s got a plus-plus change up. He relies heavily on the pitch and it’s his bread and butter. His breaking ball needs a lot of work. It’s definitely his third pitch right now. If the breaking ball improves I could see Ely becoming a back of the rotation/swingman type guy. Plus makeup as well.”

I also suggested that Ely might be suited for bull pen work:

“The change up falls off the table and accompanied with an average fastball (there’s room for more growth if he can blow it up for an inning or two in the pen) he could become a middle reliever type. He’s one to watch.”

First off, I completely neglected to mention Ely’s plus-plus command which has been a key part of his success. He’s been successful at every level he’s been assigned to in the minors and has established a knack for keeping the ball on the ground. Ely has had a 51% groundball rate during each of his minor league seasons (according to Firstinning.com). It also appears that I tended to see Ely on his better days with the reported 90-92 fastball velocity. Ely’s velocity is reported to vary and here’s a snippet about that velocity in Baseball America’s 2009 Prospect Handbook: “Ely’s best pitch is a plus-plus changeup, and he does a nice job of setting it up with an 88-94 mph fastball with good movement“.

That’s a pretty big spread on velocity and it makes me wonder if Ely knows when to add or subtract a little from his fastball in order to make his change up that much harder to pick up…

Ely was very impressive last season in Double-A for the White Sox. He had solid peripherals across the board including a 7.20 K/9 rate, 2.88 BB/9 rate, and a 0.52 HR/9 rate which added up to a 3.33 FIP (the super low HR/9 immensely help his FIP). Stat Corner’s version of tRA really liked Ely last year and his tRA was 3.75 in a league where the starting pitcher’s average tRA was 4.59.

It’s fair to expect the home run rate to jump as he climbs the ladder next year and Ely’s strikeout rate has trended downward over the past three seasons. Below are his strikeout and walk rates as he’s advanced through the system:

2007 (Rookie–56 IP): 9.00 K/9, 2.25 BB/9
2008 (A+–145 IP): 8.30 K/9, 2.85 BB/9
2009: (AA–156 IP): 7.20 K/9, 2.88 BB/9

As he’s faced better competition he’s missed less bats while his impeccable control has remained similar. His strikeout rate has likely declined because he lacks a consistent third pitch and his out pitch is his plus-plus change up. Ely has also failed to pitch deep into his starts at the professional level. He’s extremely durable and has made 66 starts (and one relief appearance) over the past three seasons. Below are the average amount of innings pitched for Ely per start:

2007: 4.6
2008: 5.3
2009: 5.7

On the positive side Ely has pitched deeper into games as his career has progressed but he’s still failed to complete six innings on an average basis. Perhaps the White Sox organization keeps their minor leaguers on a strict pitch count or kept Ely on a strict one. Ely only eclipsed or passed the 100 pitch marker twice last season (and each time that he did he tossed 100 or 101 pitches).

In some regards Ely also reminds me of former Red Sox hero Keith Foulke. Foulke had great command (2.22 career BB/9) and his big out pitch was his change up though Ely throws a bit harder than Foulke did. Foulke’s fastball was typically about 86-87 mph. I do think Ely could have success in a major league bull pen but might be forced into a big league rotation as soon as next year.

Ely will likely begin the 2010 season in Triple-A for the Dodgers but could be pushed into big league action if the cash-strapped Dodgers struggle to establish the back end of their rotation. It would be key if Ely could make strides with his breaking ball and he’s going to face many doubters that think he can’t start without a consistent third offering. And if he fails he’ll likely get a shot as a reliever but his fantasy value would disappear unless he was closing.

But Ely’s had success without a consistent third pitch (accompanied with an above average ground ball rate) and pitching in Dodger stadium can only help him and may serve as a de facto third pitch in some regards.

Track his progress closely in spring training and pick him up now if he’s available in your keeper leagues. If he begins getting starts at the big league level I’d take a gamble on him and see what materializes. He’s had nothing but success thus far despite an abnormal plan of attack.