.270/.373/.414 505pa 13hr 4.1 fWAR A++
2012 in brief: Minor league lifer turned real life folk hero contributed a breakout season as one of the more valuable catchers in baseball.
2013 status: Probably will be arbitration eligible for the first time as a “Super Two”; expected to start 2013 as the primary backstop, lest a horde of angry internet commenters barricade themselves inside Dodger Stadium.
I’d like to say that we knew. I’d like to say that we were 100% sure that in his first chance at being an everyday player in the bigs after years of incredible OBP marks in the minors, A.J. Ellis would take advantage of the opportunity, justify our confidence in him and prove that he probably should have been up two years ago.
I’d like to say that we knew, but I can’t. We didn’t. No one knew if Ellis’ near-total lack of power (just six homers over his last four minor-league seasons, despite playing in Las Vegas & Albuquerque) would prove to be his downfall, as big league pitchers unafraid of him might simply pound the zone and force him to beat them. The Dodgers certainly didn’t know; they tried to bring back the atrocious Rod Barajas until they were outbid by Pittsburgh, and remember when that was a thing that could happen? While we’ve all had our issues with Dodger management over the years, there had to be at least a small part of you that thought they must have known something that we didn’t for keeping Ellis down so long, and it wasn’t at all unreasonable when questions started popping up about whether the Dodger catching situation would be among the worst in baseball. After all, if Ellis failed, the backup plan was… Matt Treanor? Tim Federowicz? I think it’s sometimes forgotten just how important it was that Ellis work out.
Well, we know now: in a year marked by billion-dollar sales and franchise-changing trades, there might be nothing that I remember 2012 for more than the wonderful breakout of A.J. Ellis. The numbers speak for themselves, of course; his .373 OBP was tied for 18th-best in MLB, and if you believe that the primary job of a hitter is simply to not make outs, think about what that means for a second. He was durable, joining with Treanor to be the only Dodger hitters to stay on the active roster all season, and ended up catching the fourth-most innings in baseball – despite playing on a sore left knee that, according to his wife and this photo, required surgery for a torn meniscus on Friday.
That OBP, by the way, was the 13th-best by a catcher in Dodger history, behind only seven seasons from two legends (Mike Piazza  & Roy Campanella ), two years by Russell Martin, and a season apiece from Mike Scioscia, Paul Lo Duca, & Babe Phelps. Hey, remember when we were bemoaning the fact that Dioner Navarro was going to get handed a job ahead of Ellis? Yeah, me neither.
But we always expected that Ellis would get on base; what was surprising was the power he brought. His 13 homers not only were third on the club, they were just six fewer than he’d hit in more than 2100 minor league plate appearance dating back to 2003. If anyone has a good explanation for how exactly that happened, the floor is open. That power made Ellis something of a surprising run producer (third on the team in RBI, if you believe in that sort of thing), and it gave pitchers something to think about when challenging him. In the field, he was a plus as well, with pitchers raving about his game-calling skills and one study ranking him as the seventh-best defensive catcher. (Though I would note that he seemed to have trouble at times catching short-hop throws from the outfield.)
Ellis got things off to a good start by driving in a run on Opening Day (on a bases-loaded walk, natch) and then homered in the third game of the season. As the team got off to a hot start in April, so did Ellis, who hit .291/.443/.400 for the month. We worried that the team couldn’t sustain that run, and they couldn’t. We worried a bit about Ellis too, but he blew up in May, putting up a great line of .333/.419/.556 with four homers. Yet more than just the stats were the moments, and I’m not just talking about he and Clayton Kershaw putting out the fantastic “Between Two Palm Trees” video series. On May 18, Ellis provided the walkoff win against the Cardinals, but it wasn’t just any walkoff; as we said at the time, “A.J. Ellis Walks Off In Most A.J. Ellis Way Possible“:
And then there’s A.J. Ellis. Good lord, there’s always A.J. Ellis. In the ninth against Fernando Salas, the Dodgers put men on the corners after an Elian Herrera walk and Kennedy’s fourth (!) hit of the night. Andre Ethier struck out, and the Cardinals chose to put Loney on intentionally to face Ellis, who had already driven in Loney with a single earlier in the game. They chose… let’s say, poorly. Not against Ellis, not this year, not when he’s on his way to Kansas City. Ellis watched ball four go by, and the Dodgers, improbably, incredibly, unbelievably, take the first game of a big series against St. Louis.
That was fun, but eight days later Ellis decided to walk off for real with a homer, on May 26 against Houston:
After the game, Ellis noted…
“This is the greatest moment of my personal baseball career,” Ellis said. “It’s really humbling, just to be a part of where this team is headed right now. It feels real special.”
…and if that doesn’t warm your heart for a guy like that, I don’t know what does.
Of course, none of this could have been possible without the wonderful contributions of Houston manager Brad Mills. Has the legend of A.J. Ellis really not reached Houston yet? With one on and one out in the ninth, Mills chose to intentionally walk James Loney rather than bring in lefty Fernando Abad. Granted, Loney did have several solid hits on the evening, but having him face a lefty essentially makes him an instant out, since at the time the only bench player remaining for the Dodgers was backup catcher Matt Treanor.
Mills opted to put Loney on and have righty Wilton Lopez face Ellis. Ellis made him pay. All is right in the world.
By the time he homered in Colorado on June 3, Ellis was sporting a season line of .315/.430/.503, and the legend was in full swing. Justin D created his wonderful “A.J. Ellis Facts” Tumblr, Eephus was creating Ellis t-shirts, and we were inspired to kick off a completely unironic All-Star campaign. He slumped somewhat in June as the rest of the team fell apart around him, though he did manage to keep up a .380 OBP that month, and while he never really had a chance in the All-Star balloting in a league that had great production from catchers like Buster Posey, Yadier Molina, Carlos Ruiz, and others, the fact that he took the time to acknowledge the efforts of those here in pushing #AJ2KC made it all worth it:
— AJ Ellis (@AJEllis17) July 1, 2012
That July 3 game ended up being the high point of the season, as he hit .246/.343/.368 from that point foward, but he managed to come back for a nice August (.291/.359/.481), beginning with a night that transcended baseball on August 3. For the first time in his career, Ellis went deep twice, in a 6-1 victory over the Cubs. You’d think that’d have been the big story of the night. You’d be wrong; apologies for the long excerpt here, but I can’t help myself:
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that he’s never hit multiple home runs in a game at any level of professional baseball.
Never, that is, until Vin Scully deemed it to be so.
During the sixth inning, Scully went on a fun tangent about Twitter, helpfully transcribed here by “ThtsaPaddlin”:
“You know this year, more than many years, I have a great deal of gratitude for the all the folks listening on radio and watching on television. Pitch in for a strike, 1 and 1. For instance, earlier this year I learned about a soul patch — that little bit of beard. 1 ball, one strike. That’s a strike. 1 and 2. Then of course, the great discovery. Troy Tulowitzki‘s hairdo: A mullet! Boy, that, that really put me in line. So now I know about a soul patch and a mullet. And then the other night, talked about a-a ‘tweet,’ only I called it a ‘twit,’ but I-I-I thought it was a ‘twit,’ since it’s Twitter. A drive to the gap in left-center. There’s nobody there. It will drop for a base hit, and holding with the single is Ellis. So anyway, I’m really up to date now on Twitter. But I do think for all of you folks who are tweeting out there, you gotta get something TRENDING. WHOOOOA. So maybe we ought to get something trending about AJ Ellis. And if you do that, you know what? I’m cool. I’m really cool.”
Vin Scully doesn’t even have a Twitter account, and it took all of about ten minutes for him to get Ellis (and himself) trending across both Los Angeles and the United States as a whole.
“They’re trending, twittering, tweeting AJ Ellis all over the US & to be honest they told me to say that. Ah, he’s a nice boy.”
…and then Ellis came to the plate in the bottom of the seventh:
“Manny Corpas, a veteran reliever, will now become the fourth pitcher for Chicago, facing A.J. Ellis of Twitter fame.
Manny Corpas has certainly been around. Corpas inherited fourteen runners this year; four have scored.
Manny is from Panama City in Panama. He’ll be thirty, December the third. Big man, six-three, lean, about one seventy-five and a slider hit to right center and deep. On his horse and watching it go over the wall is DeJesus!
A.J. Ellis! He’s really got something trending!”
Vin Scully and A.J. Ellis are basically two of my favorite people on the planet, so to watch the two of them create a story in tandem like that… well, it doesn’t get much better. Ellis finished off the month with his first grand slam in a 10-8 win over Colorado, and it wasn’t long after that we started really looking into the historical proportions of wasting Ellis’ talents in the eighth spot in the lineup, a mistake we’d been grumbling about for basically the entire season.
Ellis slumped badly in September, hitting only .218/.315/.346 with an 0-for-30 skid as it appeared the demands of his first full season had begun to wear on him (or perhaps it was the knee, an injury we only recently learned of), but he bounced back along with the rest of the team over the final week, hitting .370/.469/.704 with two homers over the final eight games. His 13th and final homer of the season came in a must-win matchup in Game #161, but it led to one of the most memorably disappointing managerial moves of the season:
After Zito hit Andre Ethier with a pitch to lead off the frame and was relieved by Guillermo Mota, A.J. Ellis followed with one of the most impressive at-bats of the season, a nine-pitch affair that ended with a blast over the wall that fell just out of the reach of center fielder Pagan to bring the Dodgers within one. Dodger Stadium wasn’t full, but it sure sounded like it at that point. Just when you think the legend of A.J. Ellis can’t get any larger… well, there you go.
After a quiet eighth, there was hope in the ninth… briefly. Ethier, somewhat miraculously, singled up the middle against lefty Jeremy Affeldt. A runner! The move seemed clear: bring Gordon off the bench, let A.J. Ellis try to repeat his magic or possibly hit one into the gap that Gordon might be able to score on. If Ellis failed, then let Gordon try to steal ahead of Herrera (or his pinch-hitter, Abreu.)
No. Of course not. Mattingly sent in the bunt signal without sending in Gordon, and while it’d have been nice if Ellis could have made it work, it almost didn’t matter. What was the end game there? Twice-DFA’d Bobby Abreu with your season on the line? Elian Herrera? You’re taking the bat out of the hands of one of your best hitters for… what, exactly? Moving Ethier up 90 feet that Gordon probably could have (and eventually did) steal anyway? It’s stunning. Ellis struck out after failing to bunt twice, Abreu flew out, and Mark Ellis failed to redeem himself.
To be completely honest, I would love to know what was going through Ellis’ mind when he saw that bunt sign from Mattingly. As the solid team player we’ve constantly heard that he is, I’m sure that he never considered ignoring the sign for even a split second, but still; we know that Ellis reads the blogs and checks out advanced stats, so you have to wonder if he saw that and died just a little on the inside. You know, like the rest of us, except without the continued screaming about it.
Anyway, that’s more of a Mattingly issue than an Ellis issue. That failed bunt ended up being Ellis’ final plate appearance of the season, and what a season indeed. Here we are, over 2300 words into this review, and I still feel like I’ve barely done it justice. What a story, what a player, what a year. I can’t wait to see how he follows it up in 2013.
Next up! Matt Treanor exists for some reason!