The swing that may have saved A.J. Ellis' career

SAN FRANCISCO – It didn't take much, just the feel of a strong left hand and a baseball hitting the barrel of his bat for A.J. Ellis to see his future in a radically different light.

The Los Angeles Dodgers catcher, the longest-tenured player in the organization, admits now he was beginning to have doubts about how much longer he would be able to hold on to a major league uniform when he got off to an awful start through the first two months. Yasmani Grandal had not only displaced him as the team’s primary catcher, but his hot bat had relegated Ellis to spot duty and, when he played, he rarely could manage a base hit.

Through the first week of June, Ellis was batting .138 with a .403 OPS.

“You get to a point as a player where you’re not only thinking other people are saying you can’t do it any more, but even to yourself you’re thinking, ‘I don’t know if I can do it any more. I’m getting a little bit older, this is a new part of my career. Maybe this isn’t for me,’ “ Ellis said.

Then came the fateful swing.

It was during early batting practice at Dodger Stadium against a mechanical pitching machine. Ellis, who tends to be a relentless tinkerer when he is struggling, had a million thoughts swimming in his head before that. Then, he said, “something just grabbed.”

“It felt perfect,” Ellis said. “It reminded me of when I first got to the big leagues in 2012, when I really stayed through the baseball.”

The breakthrough involved Ellis’ left hand. Rather than break his wrist during his swing, which tended to force him to “roll over” on pitches and hit harmless ground balls to the left side of the infield, he was hitting the ball with greater loft and driving balls to the outfield. He decided he would keep all his focus on keeping his left hand firm.

It was days before he got his next start, in San Diego against pitcher Odrisamer Despaigne. In his second at-bat, Despaigne tried to jam him with a fastball inside. Ellis lined it to left field to drive in a run. The next time up, Despaigne went to a similar location and he lined it into center field.

“I remember running to first base thinking, ‘That’s it. That’s the swing,” Ellis said. “Since then, I don’t think about my legs, I don’t think about my hands, I don’t think about my head. I just think about my left hand, staying strong.”

Since that day, Ellis has not only come up with occasional hits when he is in the lineup, but his hot bat has changed the dynamic of the catching position going into the postseason. Grandal has been dealing with occasional left shoulder pain and has seen his production decline precipitously. He is batting .172 since playing in the All-Star game.

Since that June game, Ellis is batting .277 with a .911 OPS and has hit all seven of his home runs, including a key shot against Madison Bumgarner on Tuesday, the night the Dodgers clinched. He is also a .386 hitter with eight extra-base hits in 14 postseason games.

There is at least a reasonable chance that Ellis will get the start in Game 1 of the Dodgers’ divisional series against the New York Mets, catching Clayton Kershaw.

His surge at the plate also has changed Ellis' view of his future. In June, he was thinking 2015 would be his final season. When asked what he could be doing in five years on Thursday morning, Ellis, 34, said, “Maybe still playing.”

He also is aware it might have to be with another organization. The Dodgers’ front office is committed to Grandal, 26, as the primary catcher because of his pitch-framing ability and his offensive upside. Ellis, who is making $4.25 million, will be eligible for salary arbitration for the third time and the team has a cheaper alternative for its backup catcher in Austin Barnes, a well-regarded prospect.

For the second off-season in a row, Ellis will be sweating out the date when teams have to decide whether to tender contracts to their arbitration-eligible players. Drafted by the Dodgers in the 18th round of the 2003 draft, he said he would “desperately” love to continue to be a Dodger, but he understands the realities of the business he is in. He thinks he could help a lot of teams as a backup catcher. The fact he was a backup catcher even in the minor leagues to Russell Martin has saved his body some wear and tear.

“I think I’ve proven to everybody there’s a lot of baseball left in my career,” Ellis said. “I think I’ve found a niche as a guy who can come in on a championship-caliber team and help pitching staffs, play two, three or four times a week and help a team win games.”

Major league careers tend to end abruptly. Before Thursday’s game, San Francisco reliever Jeremy Affeldt held a news conference to discuss his decision to retire after the season. Tim Hudson, who started for the Giants, already had announced that Thursday would be his final major league game.

Ellis, who has three young children, said he told himself after he was drafted that he would play until “someone takes the jersey off me.”

“My wife already labeled me,” Ellis said. “She said, ‘We both know you’re going to be a baseball lifer.’ “