Ellis credits perspective for breakout
Embracing 'identity,' catcher defying odds with big season
LOS ANGELES -- Ask Clayton Kershaw how A.J. Ellis went from fringe insurance policy to All-Star catching candidate, and he can't wait to remind you of a Spring Training interview he gave in February.
Here's what Kershaw said then: "His hitting is underrated. I wouldn't be surprised if he hits .280. He might not hit 30 homers, but what catchers do?"
Here's what Kershaw says now: "What did I say at the beginning of the year?"
Kershaw and Ellis are best friends, but disqualify the defending National League Cy Young Award winner's bias at your peril.
Here's what Ellis said this spring when asked if he was ready for prime time: "The Dodgers want to know that, and part of me wants to know what I can do. I've never really had the chance. I played the last month of 2010 and feel I did a good job, but there is a rhythm to playing every day, a consistency that I've enjoyed in the Minor Leagues.
"I like to believe I'm honest with myself. I feel I can do it, I'm confident I can do it. But do I know? I won't know until the games start."
OK, the games have started, and Ellis is rewriting the scouting report that labeled him a catch-and-throw backup with a questionable bat. Playing almost every day, he's hitting .327 with a .513 slugging percentage (four homers) and a .446 on-base percentage (human walk machine).
Ellis is the primary receiver of a pitching staff ranked second in the Major Leagues in ERA. He's throwing out potential basestealers at a 44 percent clip, second in the league. If www.aj2kc.com is any indication, he's a cult hero with a fan-generated campaign to see him catch Kershaw at this year's All-Star Game in Kansas City.
So, how in the world did this happen?
It's been a long and bumpy road for the 31-year-old Ellis, drafted out of Austin Peay University in the 18th round of the same 2003 First-Year Player Draft that produced fellow Dodgers All-Stars Chad Billingsley and Matt Kemp.
In his second professional game, Ellis broke the hamate bone in a wrist and was done for the year. He rehabbed in Vero Beach, Fla., and gained 40 pounds.
"The Dodgertown buffet was dangerous," Ellis said. "I went to Instructional League and Jon Debus, the catching instructor, came up to me and said if I was serious about this game, I would lose a bunch of weight. I was 260 at the time and came in the next spring at 218."
Ellis spent two seasons at Class A Vero Beach, some of it backing up Russell Martin while playing for Scott Little, "who taught me to compete," Ellis said. Then he spent two seasons at Double-A Jacksonville and played for John Shoemaker, "who taught me to be a pro, to respect the game and prepare to do your job," Ellis said.
After the 2006 season, Ellis hit .346 in the Arizona Fall League and "for the first time, I kind of thought to myself that I could play in the Major Leagues," he said.
"To that point, my plan was to play for a year or two and build up my resume to get a good coaching job. I had no Major League expectations because I knew how daunting a task it is. But that changed that fall."
That brought Ellis to what he called "the pivotal point" of his career, his first big league Spring Training in 2007, which went well, then a return to Jacksonville to share time behind the plate with Brad Cresse, which didn't.
By the end of May, in a game at Knoxville, Ellis looked up at the scoreboard and saw next to his name: .164.
"I was just pressing," Ellis said. "I swung the bat well in camp, and I thought the game was going to come easy for me."
Shoemaker called Ellis into his office, ordered a mental break and forbid Ellis from picking up a bat for two days.
"At the end of the second day, I re-found my joy for baseball," said Ellis. "For two months, I was stressed out on the job and my wife told me how bad I was as a husband. I was mean, grumpy and only cared about myself. That whole episode reminded me why I love baseball."
Field coordinator P.J. Carey advised Ellis to "shrink" his focus, taking the game one pitch at a time.
"The first game back, I went 2-for-3 and the end of the year I finished at .270, which meant I raised my average 100 points," Ellis said. "More than that, I was a better teammate and a much better husband, too."
For the next four years, Ellis shuttled between Triple-A and Los Angeles. The Dodgers acquired five veteran catchers (Danny Ardoin, Brad Ausmus, Rod Barajas, Gary Bennett and Dioner Navarro) in that time, all of whom leaped over Ellis on the depth chart. Then last summer, in another vote of no-confidence, the club acquired Boston prospect Tim Federowicz, whom management immediately tabbed as the catcher of the future.
Ellis didn't flinch.
"In Triple-A, I played for [Lorenzo Bundy], and that's where I learned about dealing with the bitterness," Ellis said. "Everybody's got a woe-is-me story. I remember sitting on the couch in the clubhouse, watching a game on TV, and no matter who was batting or on the mound, somebody had something bad to say about the guy -- 'He's no good,' stuff like that -- and my wife said the wives were doing the same thing in the stands. Everybody was tearing down somebody.
"I told myself if I became like that, it was time to stop, and that was huge for me. I was really frustrated, but I had to focus on the team and my family and make the negativity go away. So if you get sent down, you can be disappointed for 24 hours, but after that, find a reason for being there.
"Maybe my job is to help a pitcher get to the big leagues for the first time. [Catching coordinator] Travis Barbary preached to me that as catchers, we're servants to the pitching staff, and to others. Be there for others, and you'll reap the benefits."
Although he's never played a full season in the Major Leagues, Ellis speaks with the wisdom of a veteran.
"We talked in the spring about, 'Who I am is good enough,'" Ellis said. "This is my identity. Too many young guys try too hard to please others and do more than their ability allows. They are too performance-based. How they play determines their attitude. This year, I'm trying to maintain my identity, not change and not get too excited or too bummed out.
"I was just telling Dee [Gordon] in the cage, 'Your attitude and your character are the two things you can always control. Try to do that -- stay positive and keep your character strong.'"
Finally over the winter, the planets aligned for Ellis. The Dodgers were out of money, he was out of options, and the catcher's job was his to lose ... but he didn't.
"God is good," Ellis said, "and I'm blessed."
Ken Gurnick is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.