A.J. Ellis' patience is an L.A. virtue
LOS ANGELES -- A.J. Ellis abides.
That line comes from one of the fan sites that has sprung up over the course of Ellis' breakout season -- recognizing his extraordinary plate discipline -- which has turned him into something of a folk hero among Los Angeles Dodgers fans. The site, "A.J. Ellis Facts," run by Justin Drummond, a 30-year-old fan from Moorpark, Calif., is homage in the form of The Most Interesting Man in the World ads.
"A walk was only as good as a hit until A.J. Ellis came along and made it just a little bit better."
"A.J. Ellis does not regress to the mean. The mean progresses to A.J. Ellis."
It got rolling about the same time Ellis did this season, which is to say he started strong out of the gate (.291, seven RBIs in April), only got better (.333, four HRs, 16 RBIs in May) and is now helping to carry the team through Matt Kemp's extended stint on the disabled list with a .303 average, 6 home runs and 25 RBIs on the season.
Ellis' teammates have even written in to contribute to the site. On May 18, Dodgers reliever Josh Lindblom wrote: "A.J. Ellis invented the strike zone."
Hyperbole, sure, but he does lead the majors with 4.54 pitches seen per at-bat.
The attention is more humbling than fun. Ellis got here by learning to focus on what's in front of him, not around him.
"As easily as my name was on the Opening Day roster, it might not be on that lineup card tomorrow," he said. "I can't get comfortable; I can't get complacent. I just try to be the same, consistent person every day.
"Mike Easler was my hitting coach in Double-A, and he always told us, 'There are two types of baseball players: Those who are humble and those who are about to be humbled.' I always tried to be the first type."
In a way, though, he is both -- a humble man who became the player he is because the game humbled him.
Two years ago, it almost broke him. He was 29, hitting .214 and about to be sent to Triple-A Albuquerque again. Most within the Dodgers organization had long since judged him: good catcher, great character, weak bat. A career backup, if there was room on the roster.
Ellis felt it. For years he'd been fighting to change the prevailing opinion of him. This time he did something different.
"Right around the All-Star break in 2010, I kind of walked up to former hitting coach Jeff Pentland and said, 'I'm handing you the car keys. Do whatever you want. Just remake it,'" Ellis said. "The whole first half I'd kind of fought the changes that he had. I just kind of wanted to do it my way. Finally I had this moment where I knew I needed to submit and let him help me. I gave him full permission to break it down and do whatever he wanted."
Pentland deconstructed Ellis' swing and started helping him build it back up into something that worked, something he could trust going forward.
"Pent's just an amazing teacher of the swing mechanically," Ellis said. "His big thing is always with the hands, so we really worked on my hand path and got that down, just staying above the ball, being more direct to the ball."
They worked every day Ellis was in the majors. Dodgers manager Don Mattingly would arrive at the ballpark around 1 p.m. and find Ellis walking back from the cage, shirt drenched, having got his work in early so he'd be done by the time the pitching staff got in and wanted to run, lift or go over a scouting report.
When Pentland was fired as the team struggled out of the gates in 2011, Ellis continued the work of remaking his swing with new hitting coach Dave Hansen. They worked on Ellis' lower half and his mental approach. Hansen taught him that taking pitches could be part of a strategy, not just reactive, but mostly he just helped him trust in himself and his abilities.
"I'd seen A.J. about five years ago down in the minors, and he was a good little player. Heck of a catcher. Hitting he was OK," Hansen said. "Now I catch up with him a couple years down the road, and it's neat to see that evolution. The desire is the difference with him, and he has the ability to grasp what [Pentland] had worked out.
"Now, with him knowing that that swing's not going to go anywhere, now he can kind of focus on plugging that into different equations. He's got a weapon, now he's learning how to use it."
While there is an extended discussion to be had about the mechanical adjustments Pentland and Hansen got Ellis to make, the real truth is simply that they taught him to trust.
In himself. In his abilities. In the work he put in. That all of it was enough.
"It's like you're this piece of clay," Ellis said, "and instead of trying to take that piece of clay and trying to make it the best product I could make it, I would always try to grab something else.
"I finally just said, 'This is who I am. Let's just make it the best I can.' I'm in the cage now and it's like, 'Don't tinker, don't change, trust it.'"
The next challenge was something he couldn't work on or work through. He had to trust that his time would come.
With his swing remade and confidence high, Ellis was ready for his chance in 2011. But the Dodgers weren't ready to give it to him, having brought in Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro in the offseason and acquiring top Red Sox catching prospect Tim Federowicz at the trade deadline.
"One thing I've learned is that I don't get to make the time frame," Ellis said. "God has a time first, and the organization has a time frame second. I have to submit to both of those. Once I got rid of the frustration of thinking I could control the time frame, it made things a lot more free and easy.
"It definitely taught me humility, patience, it taught me about being a better teammate."
This year, he finally got his chance. Barajas signed with the Pirates. The team gave up on Navarro (.193 in 202 plate appearances). Federowicz wasn't ready. With a payroll drastically reduced in preparation for a sale by former owner Frank McCourt, 31-year-old A.J. Ellis was the team's best option.
Eight years, nine months and 29 days after he signed with the Dodgers out of Austin Peay in 2003, Ellis was the team's starting catcher on Opening Day, April 5 in San Diego.
There's karma in this story, something Ellis would never indulge or acknowledge. But there is a sort of trust in baseball, in the game itself, that those who do right by it will be rewarded. If that sounds a little like why the Dodgers and their fans are being treated to such an unlikely, extraordinary season after enduring McCourt ownership for eight years, well, you can make that leap too if it feels right.
Today, he leads major league catchers with a .436 on-base percentage. His batting average is third among catchers. And he is a team leader in the clubhouse.
"A.J.'s a guy that you're not willing to sell short because he'll go to extreme measures to be good," Mattingly said.
It still feels strange for Ellis to see himself that way, to hear about the fan sites or campaigns to get him voted into the All-Star Game in Kansas City.
"I'm completely humbled by it all," he said. "By the Dodger fans and everything they'd done for me and all the other guys. Just how they treat me when I come on the field or when I come up to bat, I'm just blown away by how they've supported me and the other guys.
"It's really cool here. The ownership change really kicked it off, and we're obviously playing well. It's a really fun time to be a Dodger."
It's a pretty fun time to be A.J. Ellis too -- just don't expect him to try to be anything other than what's he's been trying to be lately.
He is a grinder and a giver. The pitching staff is still his top priority. His nights are still spent studying tape and forming plans for each pitcher on staff to attack opposing hitters. His days before games are spent running or lifting weights with Lindblom and Clayton Kershaw, his best friends on the team.
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"He works at it," Dodgers pitching coach Rick Honeycutt said. "It's not eyewash; he studies. He's probably in there watching tape as much as I am.
"Obviously he's having a great offensive year too, but I just think his No. 1 priority is still the staff. He takes great pride in that.
"He's turned into a great leader too. People respect him. I know the staff -- the pitching staff, not just the coaching staff -- respects and trusts him. That's saying a lot. The guys know that he's got a reason for calling what he calls. He's got a plan and a reason for it."
None of this is new. Only the success and attention for it are. Ellis is mostly unchanged by it.
"My wife, she definitely keeps me humble, lets me know there's diapers to be changed and kids to be played with," Ellis said.
Still, he seems different this year. His frame is leaner and more chiseled, though Ellis insists that's just from losing eight pounds after having his wisdom teeth pulled this winter.
It's more than that, though. Something ineffable but still meaningful.
"I don't know if it's different," Dodgers outfielder Tony Gwynn Jr. said. "It's just that he's our guy now.
"It's one thing to be a good guy and everybody respects you. It's another thing to be a good guy who everybody respects and you're out there on the field doing it too. A.J. is our catcher, our guy. He's got more ears that are listening."
It has taken a long time to get to this place and find this audience. Maybe longer than it should have. But Ellis got here by trusting, not questioning.
A.J. Ellis abides.
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