Major League Baseball

Ex-Dunbar star A.J. Ellis has taken long road to big league success

Dodgers' Ellis has taken long road to big success

New York TimesMarch 18, 2013 

Dodgers Ellis Emergence Spring Baseball

In this photo taken Feb. 13, 2013 photo, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis puts on his mask during spring training baseball in Phoenix. Ellis' winding path through the minors improbably led to one of the majors' highest-profile catching jobs, and he's aware of the responsibility resting on his shoulders with the Dodgers' high-priced starting rotation. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

PAUL SANCYA — ASSOCIATED PRESS

GLENDALE, Ariz. — The Los Angeles Dodgers' clubhouse feels odd to an outsider, with so many famous names and faces better known for starring elsewhere. From Zack Greinke to Brandon League, Hanley Ramirez to Carl Crawford, Adrian Gonzalez to Josh Beckett, the names read like the draft board in a fantasy league.

It might just work, though. The Dodgers, flush with cash as they approach their first opening day under new ownership, have cornerstones from the farm system in Matt Kemp and Clayton Kershaw, and promising international prospects in Yasiel Puig and Hyun-Jin Ryu. Their payroll will be about $230 million, the highest in major league history.

The man with the best seat for the show will be starting catcher A.J. Ellis, a former Paul Dunbar standout who was drafted in the 18th round a decade ago out of Austin Peay. He was a senior with no leverage, not even the first catcher the Dodgers chose in that draft.

"I signed for two-point-five," Ellis said. "Hundred."

Ellis made $490,000 last season, his first as a starter, when he hit .270 with 13 home runs and saw more pitches per plate appearance than anyone else in the National League. He will earn $2 million this season, which makes him a pauper on the Dodgers; they will pay more than that to 22 players in 2013, including Manny Ramirez and Andruw Jones, who are long gone.

For the Dodgers, a team with eight legitimate starting pitchers, no bauble seems too excessive. That is why Ellis worried last winter, just for a moment, when he saw a report that the team had interest in the veteran catcher A.J. Pierzynski, a free agent.

"But that night I got a text message from Ned Colletti," Ellis said, referring to the Dodgers' general manager. "Just sent me a basic text: 'Just want you to know, you're my catcher, you're my guy.' That was awesome, to have that reassurance to know that I was part of their plan."

Ellis, who turns 32 in April, never expected to be an everyday catcher. In college, he said, rival coaches suggested he call them in two or three years, after his pro career had ended.

To them, he profiled best as a coach, not a major league player, and Ellis said he trusted their judgment.

He decided to treat professional baseball as a graduate school for his future in coaching. He would make contacts, absorb the best instruction and refine his game so that he would leave with no regrets.

"He never was a big prospect," said Dodgers starter Chad Billingsley, who roomed with Ellis in the instructional league. "Never one of those. He was just one of those guys who worked his butt off."

Billingsley was the Dodgers' first-round draft choice in 2003, taken 517 spots ahead of Ellis out of an Ohio high school. The next season, at Class A Vero Beach, Ellis was Billingsley's personal catcher; teammates called them Chappie and Gus, after the battery in "For Love of the Game."

A more heralded catching prospect, Russell Martin, was the regular catcher, and Ellis understood.

Martin was on the fast track, reaching the majors to stay by early 2006. Ellis took a slower climb, and after a couple of brief call-ups, he made his breakthrough in 2010, when he lived with the veteran Brad Ausmus for the summer.

Despite his lack of service time, Ellis, by then 29 years old, had an advanced understanding of the way to handle pitchers, and Ausmus said he fit easily into pregame meetings.

After games, Ausmus said, they would stay up late and talk baseball, something of a graduate course for the rookie.

Even then, Ellis said, his greatest hope was to stick as the backup to Martin, and Ausmus conceded that he had not imagined that Ellis would ever become an everyday player. He did not have any exceptional tools.

"But the fact of the matter was, he did everything well and just got overlooked," said Ausmus, now a special assistant for the San Diego Padres. "You throw on top of that how he prepared for games, how he cared about the team and the pitching staff more than himself, and you had all these aspects that just made him invaluable."

When the Dodgers let Martin leave for the Yankees after the 2010 season, they patched the catching spot with the veterans Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro. Neither had an on-base percentage above .290, and neither returned for 2012. But reaching base was Ellis' specialty.

In the minors, he said, his low personal expectations allowed him to focus on team success instead of his own. Working a walk, he said, was often the smartest strategy.

"It's funny, I spoke to the minor league players the other day, and they were asking about my approach," Ellis said. "Half-joking and half-serious, I said: 'The reason I took so many pitches back when I was younger was because I stunk. I knew I couldn't hit.' I tried to be very patient and get in predictable fastball counts because that was my best chance."

By seeing so many pitches, Ellis said, he learned the strike zone and sharpened his pitch recognition. When the mechanics of his swing improved, he became a .300 hitter at Class AAA, with a .406 on-base percentage for his minor league career.

Last year, his on-base percentage was .373, the best on the Dodgers, but more impressive was the way he got it. Ellis averaged 4.43 pitches per plate appearance, mostly from the No. 8 spot, where the discipline to lay off bad pitches is essential.

The payoff was a one-year contract that does not even make him the highest-paid Ellis on the team. (Infielder Mark makes $5.25 million.) The news was easy to miss, unless you knew how long it was in the making.

"I've been through quite a few drafts, and that was one of my happiest moments as a scout," said Marty Lamb, a Dodgers scout since 1999, who gave Ellis that first small bonus. "Obviously, he didn't get much out of college, and he's been at the minimum. Of all the people that are making good money, this guy really deserves it."

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