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Hard work pays off for Dodgers' A.J. Ellis

Catcher excels behind the plate after years of waiting for his turn, but Ellis never expected to be in the majors.

August 15, 2013|By Kevin Baxter
  • Teammates rip the jersey off of A.J. Ellis after his game-winning RBI single in the bottom of the ninth inning of the Dodgers' 4-3 victory over Philadelphia.
Teammates rip the jersey off of A.J. Ellis after his game-winning RBI single… (Mark J. Terrill / Associated…)

PHILADELPHIA — The way A.J. Ellis has it figured, the less people hear his name, the more valuable he is to his team.

"You hope at the end of the game that nobody noticed you," the Dodgers catcher says. "If nobody noticed you, then you did all right."

It's a lunch-bucket approach on a team of superstars. Yet it fits a guy who wears a mask to work, does his job while squatting in the dirt and was so overlooked during his climb up the minor league ladder, the Dodgers tried 20 guys at his position before finally making him the everyday catcher last season.

Since then, Ellis has quietly made himself into one of the best in the game at his position and one of the foundations of a team that has won 40 of its last 48 games.

Heading into the Dodgers' final East Coast swing of the regular season, a trip that begins Friday in Philadelphia, he has thrown out a higher percentage of would-be base-stealers than any catcher in baseball. And with Ellis behind the plate, the Dodgers' staff earned-run average is 3.10, also the best of any catcher in the majors.

"He's gotten better each and every day," catching instructor Steve Yeager says. "Nobody works as hard. He's excelled because he's done everything right.

"He waited a long time to get here. It was just a matter of getting the opportunity."

An opportunity that, Ellis admits, even he wasn't sure he deserved — or even wanted. Although he was a four-time all-conference player who hit .351 in four seasons at Tennessee's Austin Peay State, Ellis was somewhat surprised when the Dodgers drafted him in 2003, part of a class that included Chad Billingsley and Matt Kemp.

"Probably the best thing that happened to me was when I got drafted, I had no major league expectations. At all. I was going to go back and coach college baseball. That was my dream," says Ellis, who looked at pro ball as a kind of graduate school to prepare him for coaching.

And he had plenty of free time to study. In his first three professional seasons, Ellis had fewer than 300 at-bats. Combined.

"I never played," he remembers. "I was not frustrated at being a backup catcher. I had a uniform on, still playing, learning."

One of the things he learned was to change his approach at the plate. Because he played so infrequently, Ellis found he was overmatched when he went to the plate hacking. So he became patient, waiting out the pitcher and hoping for a mistake.

"There's nothing less productive than going up there and swinging at the first pitch," he says. "There was definitely some lack of confidence as far as my swing and knowing who I was, knowing that I wasn't a proven hitter.

"That wasn't my job. My job was to catch well and give Russell [Martin] a day off."

But after Martin was promoted to the majors, making the National League All-Star team in each of his first two full seasons, his understudy began thinking he could play Broadway as well. The Dodgers had other thoughts, so they auditioned Rod Barajas, Dioner Navarro, Danny Ardoin, Gary Bennett, Brad Ausmus and Hector Gimenez — flashier catchers who hit harder, threw better and ran faster.

Ellis, meanwhile, waited in the wings, batting .310 and putting up a .441 on-base percentage in three seasons at triple-A Albuquerque while earning a reputation as a tireless worker and solid handler of pitchers.

"For some reason we don't give enough credence to smarts, preparedness, baseball sense and things like that. And he has all of those things," says Dodgers third base coach Tim Wallach, Ellis' manager for two seasons at Albuquerque. "Sometimes tools are overrated. He's a baseball player. And that's … probably more important."

The hard work finally paid off last season when Ellis, 32, made his first opening-day start. And over the winter the Dodgers rewarded him again, quadrupling his salary to $2 million.

But on a team of blue bloods, he's still blue-collar. What he lacks in glitz, though, he has more than made up for with dependability.

"Maybe the biggest tool I have is my head," he says. "I can kind of use that to keep me around, keep me productive and try to help my team win. Whether it be the way I call the games, helping the pitcher through some tough innings. Sometimes it's keeping my cool in a tough at-bat."

Other times it's just being patient, another skill Ellis has honed.

Among National League players with at least 300 plate appearances, no one is averaging more pitches per appearances than Ellis. That has not only helped the Dodgers run up the pitch count for opposing starters, but it has helped Ellis compile a .338 on-base percentage, nearly 80 points higher than his batting average.

As a result, Ellis, father to three children age 10 months to 5 years, has begun to rethink his career goals. After spending the better part of a decade convincing everybody else that he belonged in the major leagues, Ellis has finally begun to believe it himself.

So although coaching remains in his future, maybe he'll forget about college and just stay right here.

"I'm really intrigued now by the professional game," he says. "Any time you get to this level, you want to be at and compete at the highest possible level.

"I don't know what the future holds for me after the game, but I'm enjoying this."

kevin.baxter@latimes.com

Twitter: @kbaxter11

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