A.J. Ellis has been the Dodgers' starting catcher for the past three seasons, but that could change after the winter trade that brought Yasmani Grandal from the San Diego Padres. Still, Ellis, 33, will be one of the team leaders and, as usual, a key resource for reigning MVP Clayton Kershaw. We caught up with Ellis to discuss the state of his career and the feel at Dodgers' camp a couple of weeks into the spring.
Q: Pitch framing is one of the hot areas in analytics right now and one that new president of baseball operations Andrew Friedman obviously values. I know it’s a point of emphasis this spring. Are you working on improving in that area?
A: I’ve had to. It’s one of the emerging areas in our game. There’s a border all around the zone and there’s a gray area. It’s about who turns that gray area into strikes vs. who turns that gray area into balls. Umpires are given a four-inch buffer around the plate. Umpires only get penalized for clear-cut strikes that are called balls. With that, they’re going to look at how you present the ball.
Q: The team traded Yasmani Grandal, who is well-known for his pitch-framing skills, and many people think he will end up catching more games than you this season. When you arrived at camp, you told reporters it’s not important whether you are the starting catcher, but whether you’re a World Series-winning catcher. Was that comment premeditated or spontaneous?
A: I started thinking about that after Game 4 of the NLCS last year. There was a lot of doubt and a lot of anxiety about whether I was going to be a Dodger again, with the way the season went. My entire career I’ve wanted to win a world championship. I feel like that will determine whether my career is a success or not. Did I reach the pinnacle of what it takes to be a team player and win a team championship? And, obviously, I want to do it with these guys, who I’ve come up with and been a part of. At that point last year, it was not about, ‘Man, I hope I come back so I can be the starter and I can play X number of games and I can redeem this last season or make this much money.’ No, I want to win a World Series and the window could start to be closing on that for me here with the Dodgers. I’m going to do everything I can to keep that pried open.
Q: You altered your off-season workouts?
A: The main thing is I hit the ground running right when the season ended. After we lost to the Cardinals, I said I was going to take the rest of the week and through the weekend and then that following Monday, I was going to start training. Most of us take six weeks off, prescribed by our strength coaches, to let your body recharge after the long season. My thing was I had my six weeks off already when I hurt my knee and couldn’t do anything and hurt my ankle and couldn’t do anything. I think that was a good decision for me. I was able to build a nice base with my legs, especially. I remember being in Milwaukee near the end of last year and Mark McGwire pulled me aside and said, ‘I want to talk to you about your hitting.’ I’m getting ready for him to talk to me about my hands or my load or my balance and Mark’s like, ‘Your legs are just not strong enough. You need to work on your leg strength.’ To hear him say that, a light bulb went off. I’d been kind of thinking the same thing, but hadn’t been honest enough with myself to say it. I think that definitely had an effect on my results in the postseason. The feeling I had offensively and defensively, I didn’t want to lose that by taking six weeks off. I feel as healthy as I have prior to 2012, my first year as a starting catcher.
Q: You’ve gotten a chance to catch some of the Dodgers top prospects in camp. Anybody jump out to you?
A: Obviously, [Julio] Urias. Getting to catch him and see what everyone’s talking about. To be 18 years old. It’s not just about the quality of pitches he has, but the quality of makeup and character he has on the mound. That’s something that struck me right away, the pace at which he worked, how intentional he was when he was making adjustments on the mound. There’s a lot of polish on him and that’s really rare to see in an 18 year old. You see young guys in their first big-league spring training really excited, really amped-up. You’ve got a big-league pitching coach right next to you, you’ve got a big-league catcher 60 feet away. ‘I’m going to make the club today.’ There wasn’t that at all. He’s got a really good routine, good habits. The other guy I caught the other day with Chris Anderson. He reminds me a lot of Chris Withrow, just the power stuff and the ability to really spin the baseball, curveball and slider and a really good changeup. He’s a guy who’s really exciting to catch. Those two guys jumped out to me. They lived up to their billing.
Q: Clayton [Kershaw] won the first MVP by a National League pitcher in 46 years last season. Does that set the bar too high and put pressure on him and how do you see him handling it?
A: Clayton’s all about the process. It’s about limiting it to that five-day window. He never really gets out of that and gets caught up in the long-term, what he’s done or what he’s done in his career. He lives in that five-day window. Like today, he’s going to start and tomorrow he’s going to come to the park and really work on his next-day life, where he’s going to train and work out his body to kind of recover from starting. He’s going to throw his bullpen session the day after that where he really works on things he needs to focus on coming from his last start going forward. Then, he’s going to watch a lot of video the next couple days on his upcoming opponent while doing his strengthening and conditioning throughout that process as well. He really lives inside those five days. I think that’s what makes him so special. He doesn’t get caught up in, ‘Man, I’m having a great month. Let me keep doing what I did when I faced them six weeks ago.’ No, he really stays inside that. It’s really about those 34 starts with that five-day stretch. The rest of us ball players get too caught up in the big picture. It’s like, ‘Man, I’m only hitting .220 right now. What’s going on? I’ve got to go six for my next three to catch up and it’s impossible. That’s what drives him is to be the best he can be in those five days.
Q: When Friedman and general manager Farhan Zaidi made moves this winter, they talked about ‘functionality,’ and have been explicit that they wanted to improve the team’s cohesiveness. Comparing the feel in spring training on the clubhouse and the field, how has it been different from last year?
A: It’s felt very professional. That’s the word I would use to describe it. If you watch the way guys go about their business, do their work and their habits. When you really see that is when you get in these really mundane team fundamental drills, like bunt plays and first-and-thirds and cuts and relays, things as baseball players you’ve been doing in spring training for the last 15 years. You just see professionalism and it’s the two guys up the middle who really set the tone for that in Jimmy [Rollins] and Howie [Kendrick]. It’s really reminiscent of Mark Ellis in the way he used to move around and do these drills. I asked Howie about it after the fact and he said, ‘Hey, you do it right once, you don’t have to do it again.’ It’s just that professional pace, the way they move around and direct traffic out there. I think that sets the tone for the rest of the field. Those are the two guys you really look to, shortstop and second base, to really control the game from a defensive standpoint once the pitcher releases the ball.