Take a glance at the walk-rich career numbers of Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis, and you might assume that Moneyball, the book by Michael Lewis that by now has become almost a cliché, is responsible for his patient approach.
Ellis read the book. But his ability to get on base predated the book's publication.
"My approach, and the way I've always hit, Moneyball re-affirmed what I was already doing," Ellis said, chatting by his locker at Citi Field last Thursday. "And that there is a place in the game for a hitter like me, who's patient."
Patience, for Ellis, would turn out to be a useful attribute beyond just the batters' box. It took baseball nearly a decade to recognize his worth.
But the Dodgers, who made Ellis their starting catcher in 2012 and were amply rewarded, have caught on. And Ellis' fast start in 2013, which actually outpaces even his stellar 2012, suggests that oddly, at age 32, when most players are in decline, Ellis is entering his prime.
It would be inaccurate to say that the scouts, professional prospect observers or even the Los Angeles Dodgers organization itself underrated A.J. Ellis. That implies that any of them spent time rating him in the first place.
Ellis, drafted in the eighteenth round back in 2003 out of Austin Peay University, spent much of the rest of the decade serving as a backup catcher in the minor leagues.
He served as Russell Martin's understudy in Single-A Vero Beach in 2004, playing just 40 games. Martin moved on in 2005; Ellis stayed in Vero, serving as backup to long-forgotten backstop Edwin Bellorin. And so his minor league career continued, with Ellis playing more than 90 games only once in any season, not due to injuries, but because the Dodgers wanted to see other players get more time. The idea that Ellis might develop into a major leaguer himself seemingly never occurred to them.
Nor did people outside the organization recognize what the Dodgers had in Ellis. John Sickels publishes an exhaustively detailed book of prospects each year; Ellis never made the cut. Baseball America ranked Dodger prospects by position; in 2008, Ellis placed fifth on the organizational depth chart. The third-ranked catcher, Kenley Jansen, has since become a pitcher.
The lack of game experience, along with the learning it allowed Ellis to collect by observing, actually seems to have worked to Ellis' advantage, allowing him to play like a far younger catcher.
"Actually, I feel fresh," the blond, youthful-looking Ellis said of his physical conditioning. "I had a lot of years where I didn't catch much. I spent a lot of years watching the game, learning the game, catching bullpens, talking to pitchers. So I was able to enhance my communication skills, my ability to manage a game, without having wear and tear on my body."
The sprightliness with which Ellis bounds around the clubhouse contrasts greatly with the usual labored movements of the men whose careers consist of donning the tools of ignorance. Or as Dodgers reliever Stephen Fife put it, "You can kind of tell. A.J. doesn't look 32, 31, whatever he is. He has that 26-, 27-year-old look. And it seems like his body responds better than -- most catchers that are 32 are pretty broken down. I played with Josh Bard last year. I think he's 34, 35, and he looked like he was 45."
Bard, for the record, is 35. He played 526 minor league games, and 586 major league games. Ellis, at 32, has played in 543 minor league games, and 239 major league games through Friday, nearly 30 percent fewer games.
Even so, the well-preserved Ellis might never have received his chance to prove he can play at the highest level were it not for a desperate situation in Los Angeles. Russell Martin left for the Yankees, and replacements Rod Barajas and Dioner Navarro failed to reach base consistently.
Accordingly, Ellis got his chance at age 31 in 2012, years after most players are labeled organizational soldiers and doomed to a life of minor league travel or outright release. He earned raves from the pitching staff while posting an OPS+ of 118, which is especially good for a catcher. And through April 28, his 2013 began even better, with an OPS+ of 128. Not bad for the part of his game Ellis calls his "rest time".
"So much of this game is based on timing and opportunity," Fife said. "I've been around long enough to tell you a ton of cases. There's been times where guys are going real good, and it's their turn, but there's no opportunity available. And I think that's a lot of the game."
Moneyball, at heart, was not a book about walks. It was a book about recognizing market inefficiencies, and grabbing talent that was available as a result.
The career of A.J. Ellis, it would seem, argues against a pair of near-universal baseball practices: first, assuming that once a player reaches his mid-twenties, he's finished developing, so giving opportunities to prospects in the system for much longer than that is a waste of resources. And also, that once a player passes the age of 30, decline will almost inevitably begin.
Ellis, instead, doesn't think he could have played as well when in what are supposed to be a player's prime years.
"I think, physically, I probably did," Ellis said of his ability to play this well at 25. "But I didn't have the mental confidence, or the knowledge of the skills I needed. I play a very technical game, where I try to be very precise with my skills, my at-bats. My swing mechanics need to be very spot-on, and I didn't have very good mechanics as a hitter when I was coming up."
Ellis credits former Dodgers hitting coach Jeff Pentland for making him the hitter he is today.
"I basically gave him the car keys to my swing and said, 'Remake me.' And he did... he basically saved my baseball career."
That happened in 2010, when Ellis was 30. And now the Dodgers have a frontline player at a position of scarce talent.
So are prospects over 30 the new market inefficiency? And is getting developing players more in-game experience, long a staple of development systems, a mistake? Probably not on both counts, according to Ellis.
"Everybody's a little different," Ellis said. "Everybody's plan is so personal on the development track. I had already caught my whole college career, so for me, it was about working on my skills, and I could do that without being in the games, per se. But for somebody drafted out of high school, or getting converted [from another position], that's really the only way to get that experience, and to get better, is to get in the game, and to make mistakes. You can't really get better until you make mistakes."
It appears, then, that A.J. Ellis isn't emblematic of a systemic failure in baseball. He's an outlier. And on a Dodgers team with so many high-priced players, Ellis, making just $2 million, isn't taking a back seat to higher-profile players any longer.
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Howard Megdal is Writer-at-Large for Capital New York, covers the Mets and Knicks for The Journal News, and is the author of "The Baseball Talmud," "Taking the Field" and "Wilpon's Folly."