It was supposed to be the Dodgers’ great weakness. A humongous hole in their lineup. In the off-season, their limited resources went to the rotation and role players.
Catching would be left to a 31-year-old career minor leaguer. It almost appeared as if they waved a white flag offensively from the position, catching close to an off-season afterthought.
OnlyA.J. Ellishas been the great find of the Dodgers’ first month.
Ellis, who toiled for most of the last nine years in the minor leagues, is the classic guy who made hard work and determination pay off.
He has proved even better than expected behind the plate, in control and growing by the game as a team leader. At the plate, his .442 on-base percentage is tied for the fifth best in all of baseball. He’s batting .284, fifth best among major-league catchers.
“He just keeps getting better and better,” said Manager Don Mattingly. “Guys like that, you can’t limit them. This guy is a winner. He’s just kind of relentless.”
Ellis has reached base in 18 consecutive games and in 21 of his last 22 games.
He has always been a hard worker but knowing he would come to camp for the first time as a starting major-league catcher, Ellis put in even more time into off-season conditioning. He reshaped his body, dropping he said, about 19 pounds.
If he was finally going to get his opportunity, he would be prepared.
“He’s had to fight all the way through,” Mattingly said. “I saw it right away. I’d be at camp and he’s there at 6 in the morning, blocking balls, blocking balls, blocking balls. Doing his drills every morning, 45 minutes of it. Then he’d be in the cage.
“When he got called up and wasn’t playing, he’d hit for like an hour and 20 minutes. He’s worked and worked. Even his body. Four years ago, he looked a little pudgy, looked a little soft. Now he’s kind of leaned down, he’s strong. He couldn’t hit the ball out of the ballpark in BP two years ago.”
Ellis has two home runs and 10 RBI while hitting in the eighth spot. Meanwhile, behind the plate he looks comfortable and in control, like someone who’s been doing this in the majors for a long time.
Ellis credits former Dodger Brad Ausmus for teaching him how to prepare as a catcher and pitching coach Rick Honeycutt for teaching him how to analyze hitters. Now 28 games into the season, everything seems to be coming together for the former 18th-round draft pick.
“It’s a good feeling,” Ellis said.
Now some mention him as an All-Star candidate. That’s a longshot, but it still tells you how far he’s come.
“You know what he’s doing for me? He’s grown in that leadership role,” Mattingly said. “All those intangible things we talk about with him as far as running the game, studying, taking charge of that pitching – he’s getting better and better at it.
“He’s got a great feel for the game. Whenever anything is going on with me during the game, I know he is right there with me. He’s thinking right along with me. He knows exactly where he’s at in the game, where he’s at with the hitter. He’s just prepared. He puts a finger down, he’s not guessing. I know he’s not guessing.”
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