The 2002 and 2003 drafts by the Dodgers are among the most productive in recent memory, as the club drafted and signed 15 different major leaguers in two years. From 2003 Chad Billingsley and Matt Kemp are the headliners, but that draft produced another regular on the 2012 club in catcher A.J. Ellis, who has slowly but surely made a believer out of most.
After spending the last two seasons shuffling up and down between Triple A Albuquerque and Los Angeles, the Dodgers were ready to have Ellis, now out of options, and Rod Barajas split catching duties in 2012. But when Barajas signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates, the plan changed, and Ellis became the full-time starter.
Manager Don Mattingly said Ellis "has always been an on-base guy," and he wasn't kidding, as Ellis has a .406 career on-base percentage in the minors and has walked in 15.8% of his plate appearances throughout his minor league career. In 244 major league plate appearances over the last four seasons, Ellis has a .360 OBP.
"I have always been someone who wants to make every at-bat count. There's no worse feeling for me than popping up or grounding out on the first pitch of an at-bat and thinking 'what if?'," Ellis said of his approach at the plate. But it hasn't come easy for Ellis.
In 2010, Ellis and Brad Ausmus split catching duties after Russell Martin got hurt in early August and Ellis had two hits in 20 at-bats before Barajas was claimed off waivers. At that point Ellis was hitting .159/.213/.183 in 92 major league plate appearances, and there was some question whether Ellis, then 29, would ever hit enough to stick in the majors.
Hitting coach Jeff Pentland worked with Ellis on shortening and flattening his swing, and it paid off. "Pentland saved my career offensively. Working on my hand path was the biggest thing, coming in from above the zone at the top of the baseball as opposed to be under the baseball," said Ellis.
Ellis ended his season on fire, reaching base 27 times in his final 49 plate appearances.
In 2011 the Dodgers inexplicably guaranteed $1 million to Dioner Navarro, essentially sealing the fate of Ellis, who spent most of the first five months of the season in Triple A. But Ellis managed to hit .271/.392/.376. "At the end of the year, helped me incorporate using my legs. I feel like we're starting to put everything together, and it's up to me to keep things going," Ellis said.
Putting everything together also meant the occasional long ball. After a nearly three-year drought without a home run, Ellis hit two in Triple A last year, and two more with the Dodgers. But the self-effacing Ellis keeps things in perspective.
"My job is to get on base. It's been well documented that I am not a power hitter, so I'm not somebody who can get a pitch and drive it out of the ballpark," he said.
On the first day of camp, Mattingly said that Matt Treanor's role this year would be more of a true backup catcher, comparing it to that of Brad Ausmus in 2009-2010, meaning Ellis will get the bulk of starts behind the plate. Since 1940, there have been 59 catchers to start 100 or more games in their age-31 season, and 50 of the 59 had started at least 400 games at catcher prior to that age 31 season. Here are the nine who didn't:
|Catchers With 100 Starts In Their Age 31 Season|
|Catcher||Age 31 Year||Starts Through Age 30||Starts at Age 31|
Entering his age 31 season, Ellis has started 62 games at catcher. For him to start 100 games this year would be nearly unprecedented. But if there is someone who could pull it off, Ellis is probably the guy.
"The one thing with A.J., you are confident you are going to get every bit of him. As hard as you can work, as much as you can prepare, he's going to give you everything he's got," Mattingly said. "That's one thing as a manager or coach, you can rest assured that this guy is doing everything he can. You're going to get the best he can give you."
Ellis hit .476 during his senior season at Paul Laurence Dunbar High School in Lexington, Kentucky, setting the single-season record which still stands. It is the same high school that produced 1965 Dodgers World Series hero Sweet Lou Johnson.
Ellis will earn $490,000 in 2012. He has one year, 151 days of service time and if he sticks around for the whole season will almost certainly be eligible for arbitration with Super Two status next year. Ellis is out of options.
Previous Player Profiles
2010: Forever in AAA?
|2012 Projections - Age 31 Season|
I think Ellis sticks the whole year, makes 104 starts at catcher, and hits .257/.354/.326.
What is your guess for Ellis in 2012? Be sure to guess BA/OBP/SLG, and anything else you wish to guess.