Folk hero and all-around good guy A.J. Ellis is making a hell of an impression in his first season as a starting catcher, as I hardly need to tell you. His .388 OBP is 11th among all hitters in baseball, just above Ryan Braun, and you can consider him top-10 if you choose to ignore Melky Cabrera. Just stop and think about that for a second, would you? The primary goal of a hitter at the plate is to avoid making an out, and 31-year-old first-time starter Ellis is among the absolute best in baseball at doing just that. It’s absolutely incredible.
Now, we always expected solid on-base ability, but his 11 homers have been an unexpected surprise, given that he hit only 19 in parts of nine minor league seasons. If he keeps this level of on-base skill up, it’ll not only top any season that Russell Martin ever had, it’ll put him in the all-time top-ten for Dodger catchers, behind only three seasons apiece from two team legends (Mike Piazza & Roy Campanella) and two otherwise fluky years from Mike Scioscia & Babe Phelps.
In a season where seemingly everyone else has been injured or traded, Ellis has been a constant, teaming with backstop partner Matt Treanor to be one of the only two position players to stick on the roster without being injured or otherwise moved since Opening Day. We’ve been calling for Ellis to see time rather than some of the atrocious competition pushed in front of him like Dioner Navarro & Rod Barajas for at least two years now, and given the opportunity, he’s seized it. No matter how this season ends, I’ll always remember it, at least in part, as the year A.J. Ellis got his chance and took full advantage of it.
As you probably also know, Ellis has been stuck in the bottom of the order for most of the season, mainly the 8th spot, and that’s a fact we’ve been bemoaning all year as inferior options like Dee Gordon & Shane Victorino have eaten up outs in front of the supposed ‘heart of the lineup’. That’s a big problem, because instead of having a guy who is great at getting on base out there for Matt Kemp and friends, you’ve been wasting that skill by having him on base ahead of the pitcher and whatever crappy leadoff man happens to be following him atop the order at any given time. (That’s mostly been Gordon, Victorino, & Tony Gwynn, and it’s been ugly: Dodger leadoff men have been atrocious, with a .598 OPS there, ahead of only Cincinnati for worst in baseball.)
But in the interest of not beating that dead horse into a bloody, writhing pulp, I’ve tried not to call it out that often, aside from usual small mentions in the game thread. While it’s worthy of being noted every damn day, that’s partially because the point has been made and we know that lineup order never really matters as much as we think it does, and partially because we know Don Mattingly isn’t going to do a thing about it.
That’s all still true, but today we have a different way to look at it. Wonderful reader Justin Drummond, the man behind the fantastic “A.J. Ellis Facts” Tumblr, recently pointed out to me that not only is there a way to quantify the impact of a man of Ellis’ talents hitting so low, it’s bordering on historic. Despite his skill not only at getting on base but at staying healthy, Ellis ranks only fourth on the Dodgers in runs scored, somehow being a full 23 behind Kemp, who’s missed a solid chunk of the season with various injuries. Hell, he’s only got three more runs scored than Gordon, and Dee A) was awful when he was here and B) hasn’t been seen in more than two months.
I’ll grant that Ellis is a catcher who doesn’t have a ton of speed, and that certainly doesn’t help, but that’s not really why he’s not crossing the plate. It’s because he’s constantly being stranded out there, in some ways at a rate we haven’t seen in decades. In the history of baseball, there have been thousands of players who have had seasons with as many plate appearances as he does (441) with an on-base percentage (.388) as excellent as his. But among those thousands, only six others – six! – have hit those marks yet scored 40 or fewer runs, where he currently sits:
The first thing you’ll probably notice is that there’s been no season like this in 50 years; the second, that you’ve never heard of any of these guys, perhaps excepting Dixie Walker, best known for being a vehement opponent to welcoming Jackie Robinson into the Brooklyn clubhouse in 1947; the third, as Justin pointed out on Twitter, that four of the guys on that list had absolutely zero home run power to speak of, meaning that they were almost always driven in by their teammates.
That’s not the case for Ellis, who has manufactured 11 of his 40 runs by driving himself in, or Dalrymple, who did the same in 1962, or Gordon, who was driven home only 26 times by his teammates. But even there, the circumstances were different. Gordon, a solid but largely forgotten hitter in the late 1940s and early 50s for the Giants, Pirates, & Braves, spent most of his 1954 on an abysmal 101-loss Pirate team hitting fifth. He got on base, but his subpar teammates behind him on a bad team just couldn’t do anything about it. Eight years later, it was largely the same for Dalrymple, who was stuck hitting in front of shortstops Bobby Wine (.244) & Ruben Amaro (.243).
And Ellis? Well, Ellis hits in front of a weak hitter too, but that’s by managerial choice. He hits in front of Joe Blanton. Or Aaron Harang. Or Chris Capuano. If he gets on base with two outs, it’s basically pointless, other than to “turn the lineup over,” because the pitcher will just inevitably end the inning. (Or be replaced by an almost equally useless member of the bench, who will probably make an out too.) If he gets on with one out, then the pitcher can sacrifice him over, but that’s only if the bunt is successful – and even if it is, that only gets a man in scoring position on for the leadoff hitter, which, as we’ve seen, is usually terrible.
It’s just an appallingly inefficient use of resources, and with the Dodger lineup struggling terribly, it’s not like there isn’t reason to change things. (Believe me, if the Kemp / Adrian Gonzalez / Hanley Ramirez / Andre Ethier core was healthy & hitting like it was supposed to, we wouldn’t be having this conversation right now.) Hell, even if you don’t think it makes strict sense, simply changing things up for the sake of change makes a ton of sense considering how things are going these days.
Fortunately, there’s an easy solution. I’m hardly the world’s biggest Mark Ellis fan, but he’s been reasonably fine since ascending to the top of the order, and I know Mattingly loves him. But Victorino… well, I never expected much from in the first place, yet he’s somehow underwhelmed even that, hitting only .245./314/.329 as a Dodger. He isn’t helping, in just about any offensive way. There’s no need to force him into the top of the lineup just because he’s a “gamer” or whatever gritty BS it is we need to refer to him as. Mark Ellis, #1. A.J. Ellis, #2. Victorino, #7 or #8 or who really cares.
It’s an easy move, Don. If it works, you look like a genius. If it doesn’t, it’s simple enough to change back. The only mistake you can make right now is doing nothing at all. Make it happen, starting tomorrow in Arizona. Please.