A.J. Ellis succeeded at his own pace

Kirby Lee-US PRESSWIRE - Presswire

The 2012 season proved A.J. Ellis right, that he was indeed a major league catcher, something that took some time for even him to realize.

The story of A.J. Ellis is one of patience, naturally. The 31-year old catcher, in his first full major league season, led the Dodgers with 65 walks and a .373 on-base percentage in 2012. He was second in the majors in seeing 4.42 pitches per plate appearance, just a tick behind Adam Dunn (4.43) of the White Sox.

But Ellis had a .406 career on-base percentage in the minor leagues, and a .360 on-base percentage in parts of four seasons with the Dodgers before this season, too. As manager Don Mattingly said (but apparently disregarded when making out his lineup cards, which often saw Ellis eighth), "He's always been an on-base guy."

Perhaps we should have seen this season coming. But it took even Ellis a while to see this in himself.

Ellis was drafted in the 18th round in 2003, a draft that saw the Dodgers sign nine future major leaguers. But through the 2005 season Ellis had only played in 100 minor league games and at 24 repeated low Class A at Vero Beach. He got engaged that year to Cindy, now his wife and herself an athlete at Austin Peay when they met.

Life in the minor leagues is tough enough on individuals, with low pay and for only half the year, and long bus rides. It can be hell on relationships, as Ellis saw firsthand with some teammates and friends in the minors.

"I asked my wife right after we got engaged, 'Do you want me to keep going?' I hadn't even played a game in Double A yet, and had just finally became a part time player. Edwin Bellorin was the other catcher," Ellis said. "I asked her what she thought, and she said, 'We're going to do this. You're going to play in the big leagues. We're going to keep going until they tell you you can't play any more' I never myself felt like that.

"That was a huge weight off me. I didn't have to feel the pressure to make it faster. I was able to go at my own pace. I didn't have the expectations at home of feeling like my wife was resenting the fact that I was putting us in this financial burden."

That's not to say it wasn't a tough time. Cindy worked as a pastry chef those first few years while A.J. toiled in the minor leagues, and because they were home at different times the Ellises hardly saw each other.

"It was tough on our marriage, but it was a fun time, too. We enjoyed it," Ellis said. "Without that confidence she put in me right away I wouldn't be here."

That confidence showed at the All-Star break in 2011, when Ellis was optioned to Triple A as Rod Barajas returned from the disabled list, while Dioner Navarro and his $1 million salary stuck around despite hitting just .183/.234/.287. Ellis told Mattingly the team was sending down the wrong guy, that he was ready to be a major league catcher.

Ellis took out his frustration on pitchers the rest of the year, as he hit .301/.448/.410 in Albuquerque and .325/.446/.550 upon his return to the Dodgers. He also hit four home runs over the final two months of the season, snapping a power drought that lasted nearly three years.

In spring training when Matt Kemp had visions of a 50-50 season (unfortunately those numbers would roughly represent games missed with hamstring injuries and percentage of home runs hit in April), Ellis had more modest goals.

"I'm going to join the 3-3 club this year," he joked.

Sadly, Ellis wasn't one of 201 major leaguers with three home runs and three stolen bases in 2012, as he didn't steal a single base. But he did hit 13 home runs, more than he had hit in his previous four years combined.

"He's worked and worked and worked on his swing. I can't even tell you the amount of hours this guy puts in. A couple years ago, he was getting called up he would just wear you out in the cage. He wore Jeff Pentland out," Mattingly said back in May. "It got to the point where Pent would come in at 1 o'clock so he could hit. He'd be in there an hour and a half working on his swing, and he's continued to work. That's why I say it's such a good story."

That good story was a result of hard work and patience from Ellis, who saw a full count in 94 of his 505 plate appearances this season, far more than anyone else on the team. Ellis swung at the first pitch just 10% of the time, the seventh lowest percentage in MLB.

"I've always been somebody, even going back to college, I just felt like the more pitches I see the more comfortable and the better timing I can get," Ellis said. "If you can see a guy's fastball strike, you can see everything else off of that, and make adjustments. For whatever reason there is no worse feeling than swinging at the first pitch, tapping the ball back to the pitcher or popping the ball up to the catcher. That's the most deflating feeling, outside of striking out, I can have personally as a hitter."

In the 20 times that Ellis did put the first pitch in play, he did some damage hitting .588/.579/.706 (10-for-17) with two doubles. Perhaps those 450-ish plate appearances of taking the first pitch was all part of some long con.

"I'm like Robert Redford in The Sting, setting things up, Johnny Hooker," Ellis joked. "You try to pick your spots."

Ellis proved durable as well, as he finished fourth in the majors with 131 games caught, 128 starts and 1.151 innings behind the plate.

Ellis did have his struggles in 2012, too. He was not happy with his 107 strikeouts, and said he would work in the offseason to focus on "getting back to where I should be." Ellis also had 11 passed balls, third most in the majors.

"One thing I'm proud of is that a great number of them were in the first part of the season. I think I had nine in the first half, and two since," Ellis said. "It's just concentration level and focus. We always talk about catchers and first basemen always expecting a bad throw. You get comfortable and spoiled by these major league guys who throw the ball to the right spot, but they're going to make mistakes and you have to always be on alert and be ready for it."

But for Ellis, his 2012 performance goes beyond numbers. He is universally respected in the clubhouse, and was voted by players and coaches as the 2012 Roy Campanella Award winner, given annually to the Dodger who best exemplifies the performance, spirit and leadership of the Hall of Famer.

"I think he kind of exemplifies it," Mattingly said. "He's a guy who's had to work really hard and just battle and battle and battle. He's perfect for it."

Ellis spent countless hours in the video room studying opposing hitters to help devise a plan of attack with pitching coach Rick Honeycutt, not only for that day's starting pitcher but for the bullpen as well.

"I feel like I've gotten to a place with a lot of the relievers where they kind of trust me, and trust the work that I do. My main goal is that I want them to focus on execution, not selection," Ellis said. "If I can take the selection off their plate and have them only focus on executing whatever pitch that I call, I feel like they're a lot more convicted to throwing that pitch."

Ellis even took blame for Joe Blanton's 4.99 ERA in 10 starts with the Dodgers.

"One thing I regret is how long it took me with Joe. I fell in love with his fastball command sometimes. He has such a great ability to use his fastball to hit spots. I think early when he got over I was calling too many fastballs," Ellis said. "One thing I should have realized is that not only does he have great fastball command but he has command of all his pitches and great feel.

"Major league hitters are good major league hitters because they can hit a fastball, no matter where it's located. In the last 3-4 starts I started to use Joe's off-speed a lot more, especially in fastball counts, and we've been a lot more successful. It's something I wish from the first game I would have had more a feel for him pitching backwards and using everything."

Blanton put up a 2.08 ERA over his final three starts, including just one run allowed in his final two outings.

Ellis refused to make excuses for his 0-for-30 September slump, and never once mentioned his meniscus tear that required left knee surgery last Friday. Instead, Ellis ended his season by playing through pain and hit .400 (10-for-25) over his final seven plus games, with two home runs and two doubles.

It wasn't just a physical grind that Ellis endured, but a mental one.

"With the major league catching position, you're never afforded the luxury of your brain turning off. Even when you try to separate when you go home at night, you're still thinking about the game and tomorrow's starter. It's more defensively than offensively," Ellis said. "But you're still thinking of the opposing starter you're going to face too and what you want to do offensively against him. Then when I get here, I don't get to hang around my locker at all because I'm stuck in the video room. I'm not complaining at all, I love it. I feel like it's one of my greatest strengths that I bring to the table. But it just weighs on you after a while."

But after eight seasons in the minor leagues, two children plus another one on the way very soon, Ellis has matured, a long way from splitting time in Vero Beach with Edwin Bellorin.

"That's the best thing about having kids. They don't know what happened in the game, and they don't care. That's helped me a lot," Ellis said. "Early in my minor league career I was not a good husband when I came home, but it's something I've gotten better at. It's more internal than external. At least wait until they go to bed, then stew a little bit."

Ellis will be arbitration eligible for the first time this offseason, putting him in line for a substantial raise over the $490,000 he earned in 2012. But fully realizing the potential that his wife saw in him seven years earlier was a greater reward for Ellis.

"I'm happy what it has meant for me and my family. Just being able to share it with them is the most important thing," Ellis said. "Most importantly my wife and kids, but also my parents and her parents, everyone who has supported me since I was an 18th round pick out of Austin Peay."

At home or in the clubhouse, Ellis is always a team player.

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