With a 4.1 fWAR season and a .270/.373/.414 triple-slash, Los Angeles Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis was arguably the most unlikely of breakout stories in the major leagues in 2012.
This was a player who was long blocked by Russell Martin and who never had the kind of accolades that suggested he had the kind of upside comparable to players like Matt Wieters and Carlos Santana. He was a good hitter with patience, sure, but with 13 homers, Ellis added a dimension to his game that had never been there before–and he did it at 31 years old.
Without the homers, Ellis would be a slightly above-average backstop with neutral defense and a good bat. With them, he’s a great one. The Dodgers, who only have prospect Tim Federowicz behind Ellis going into 2013, will be looking for him to replicate the kind of success that he showed last season.
He will have his work cut out for him. First and foremost, there’s the question about how he’ll respond from the arthroscopic knee surgery he had the off-season. The catcher has said that he’s fully recovered and back to doing day-to-day drills, but it’s only February, and whether lingering effects will flare up as the season goes on remains to be seen.
Then there’s his bat and the power he showed in 2012. The majority of Ellis’ power came through in his two best months, with four homers coming in a .975 OPS May and three others in a .840 August. Outside of those months, though, Ellis was an inconsistent hitter, slumping badly in the middle months of June and July and then towards the end of season. One trend he showed that may be an issue going forward is a significant lefty-righty split, with a .113 OPS differential between the two.
That’s not something that he had shown to that extent in his previous years, even if the sample sizes then were rather small. If that split becomes even more significant in 2013, Ellis’s effectiveness will be affected as the team may choose not to start him against southpaws, whom he hit just .224 against.
On the plus side, there’s not much in his batting profile to suggest that the power he showed won’t stick. He still hits just about the same ratio of grounders to fly balls, but a spike in the line-drive rate from 15.9 percent to 22.9 percent in 2012 suggests that he was squaring up the ball better and is congruent to his similar HR/FB rate from 8.3 percent to 12.5 percent. His seven just-enough home runs from last year means that the Dodgers might not necessarily see a home run total of 13 next season, but the doubles should still keep coming.
While there are things that will remain to be seen in Spring Training like his health, Ellis’ outlook to put up similar numbers remains positive. He might be a player that’s more about his base than his ceiling, and his base numbers should be good enough that it won’t hurt the Dodgers.