GLENDALE, Ariz. (AP) — The catcher in charge of the Los Angeles Dodgers’ vaunted pitching staff spent part of his offseason learning how to squat.
Don’t worry, Dodgers fans. A.J. Ellis still remembers how to play ball after his first full big-league season.
But after a slow, winding path through the minors led him to one of the majors’ highest-profile catching jobs this spring, Ellis always wants to improve. So he worked on the mechanics of squatting, standing and even sitting in a chair back home in Milwaukee during his recovery from offseason knee surgery, determined to reduce wear and tear with help from a therapist who used video to demonstrate his mistakes.
“Just trying to make these legs last as long as I can,” Ellis said after the Dodgers worked out indoors on a rainy Wednesday at their spring training complex.
“Basically, every time I went down before, I was putting stress on my meniscus,” he said. “I didn’t even know about it, so now I’m just letting my knees stay in line with my toes at all times. Once the games start, I’ll take it out of my brain, but I try to be conscious of it.”
Ellis has built an unlikely career on detailed work and perseverance, outlasting bigger names and hotter prospects over the past decade to become Los Angeles’ starting catcher. Although his $2 million salary is less than 1 percent of the Dodgers’ lavish payroll, he should have the ball in his hands more than anybody on the roster as the receiver for the high-priced rotation headlined by Clayton Kershaw, Zack Greinke and Josh Beckett.
“I don’t want to make it about me, as far as hard work paying off,” Ellis said. “There was a plan for me, and the timing for me was to be here for this. I wanted to rush it. I wanted to be up here years ago, and the organization thought differently. I’m thankful that they had a plan for me as well. This is it. I was supposed to be here now with this team, with this pitching staff.”
Until last year, Ellis was always a depth catcher — a safety net, or a backup plan. Now, the Dodgers are so confident in Ellis that they haven’t chosen a clear backup for him.
Ellis, who turns 32 shortly after opening day, knows he could be considered a surprising heir to the job once occupied by the likes of Mike Piazza, Roy Campanella, Johnny Roseboro, Mike Scioscia and Steve Yeager. He was an 18th-round pick who never figured among the Dodgers’ top prospects at any point in his rise.
“You don’t sell guys like A.J. short,” Dodgers manager Don Mattingly said. “Guys that are willing to work and work and slowly, continually get better, you don’t want to sell that guy short, because we don’t know where the ceiling is. A.J. showed us that he was willing to go to great lengths to be a big-league catcher.”
After spending four seasons going between Triple-A and the big league club, Ellis finally broke through last year. Even after a late-season swoon possibly related to his injury, he batted .270 with 13 homers, 52 RBIs and a team-best 65 walks to go with stellar defense, throwing out 38 percent of attempted base-stealers.
“Offensively, he didn’t show a lot through the minor leagues,” Mattingly said. “There wasn’t a lot of power there. He was always a good on-base guy, but his forte was the pitchers. He was good with them. Good blocking, calling the game, all that type of thing. So he hasn’t gotten away from that, but all along he’s just kept working, and he’s all of a sudden now a little bit better offensive player.”
Ellis’ improved offense finally made him a keeper for the Dodgers, but Mattingly remembers the catcher’s disappointment over a 2011 demotion as a sign of his resilience.
“He was like, `You’re making a bad decision,”‘ Mattingly said.
Ellis realizes his job requires him to be worried about more than his own hitting and defense. He’s among the veteran leaders working on building team chemistry for the Dodgers, whose high-priced new arrivals must blend in with the veterans amid enormous expectations.
The Dodgers don’t need to look far to see what not to do, either: Ellis cited the Los Angeles Lakers and Southern California’s football team as downtown examples of star-studded teams that couldn’t mesh.
“It’s a good case study for us to know it’s going to be a collective effort,” Ellis said. “It’s not going to be the individual greatness of the players, because we do have that. If we’re all just sitting back and all we’re thinking about is our individual seasons and how great we can play this year, we’re going to end up in the exact same position we were last year.”
Ellis’ squatting has improved, but he didn’t just spend the offseason working on his knee mechanics, either: His wife, Cindy, delivered their third child in the passenger seat of their car on a freeway en route to the hospital in Milwaukee. With his family doing fine, Ellis is staying on course for another solid season.
“To stay healthy is my No. 1 goal, and to hopefully anchor, as a catcher, the best pitching staff in baseball,” Ellis said.
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