Dodgers' Ellis a trusted, dependable backstop
LOS ANGELES -- In front of every successful pitcher crouches a good catcher, a man brimming with wisdom, vision, perspective and the sensitive understanding of human nature normally found in a trained psychologist.
For Clayton Kershaw, that gentleman, for the lion's share of his remarkable career, has been A.J. Ellis.
Unlike Kershaw, who was seemingly destined for greatness from his first steps down home in Texas, Ellis had few projections of a Major League career.
Wearing a Dodgers uniform and preparing for another postseason -- engaging the Mets in the National League Division Series starting Friday night (Game 1, 9:30 p.m. ET, TBS) -- once was beyond the scope of his imagination.
Carrying a .386/.481/.682 slash line across three postseason series and 14 games never could have infiltrated his wildest dreams. But it has happened. The Braves and Cardinals can testify.
Ellis and Kershaw, the Dodgers' Game 1 starter against Jacob deGrom, are a team within a team. Ellis has handled 107 of Kershaw's regular-season starts, more than twice as many innings as any other catcher.
The three-time National League Cy Young Award winner and 2014 NL Most Valuable Player Award winner, Kershaw has a 2.04 ERA working with Ellis, holding batters to a .198 average while striking out 825 hitters in 747 innings.
"With Clayton," Ellis, 34, said, "he's so mature he acts about three years older than he is. I act three years younger than I am, so we meet in the middle.
"He's kind of like a character actor, going into character every fifth day when he's Clayton, starting pitcher -- not the goofy, fun, energetic teammate he is the other four days. Clayton knows how he wants to approach a game, coming after hitters. It's up to me to follow the plan, but make tiny adjustments as we go along."
While he makes no secret of his bond with Ellis, Kershaw also has flourished with Yasmani Grandal, the winter acquisition from the Padres. Kershaw has a 1.62 ERA in 12 games with Grandal.
Ellis, Grandal's backup most of the season, took advantage of increased playing time to hit .255 in the second half with a .459 slugging percentage, producing five homers and 15 RBIs in 28 starts.
Kershaw's NL West-clinching masterwork against the Giants on Sept. 29 in San Francisco -- a one-hit, one-walk shutout with 13 strikeouts -- came in concert with Ellis, who homered off Madison Bumgarner and had an RBI single in the 8-0 rout.
Another game -- on Sept. 19, 2013, in Arizona -- holds a special place in Ellis' heart.
"I'd been scuffling [0-for-16] and had a day off. I came back and had three hits and hit a go-ahead homer in the top of the eighth inning off Josh Collmenter. We ended up clinching the division.
"It was my second year as a starter and first time going to the playoffs as a starter. I was feeling like a big part of it, celebrating with my teammates that night. We hadn't been to the playoffs since 2009."
Since his limited (four games) MLB debut in 2008, Ellis' 3.31 catcher's ERA is the best in the game. Only Yadier Molina (3.18) has a better mark than Ellis' 3.22 since Ellis became a regular in 2012, batting .270 with a .373 on-base percentage in 133 games.
Ellis, a favorite of the media for his open, honest nature, is effusive in praise of those who helped shape him.
He values lessons learned from Russell Martin and Brad Ausmus when they were ahead of him on the depth chart, and he has a special bond with former Dodgers star Steve "Boomer" Yeager, the coach in charge of the club's catchers.
"Boomer has been awesome for me in my career," Ellis said. "He lightens things up, and his energy is always positive, infectious. He has a wealth of knowledge of the catching position. He's going to stay on top of you, but he'll defend you to the death. Nobody's going to mess with his guys."
No player in the game has a deeper appreciation of his place in the game than Ellis as he reflects on his humble beginnings.
An 18th-round pick, No. 541 overall, in the 2003 Draft out of Austin Peay State University in Clarksville, Tenn., Ellis signed and played three games at South Georgia before fracturing his left hand. He moved on to Vero Beach, Jacksonville, Las Vegas and Albuquerque before landing in "The Show."
"I had zero Major League aspirations," he said. "I had enough self-awareness that I realized how hard it was to be a Major League player. My plan was to be a college baseball coach.
"I looked at it as going into baseball graduate school when I signed, to meet as many amazing baseball people as I could. I figured I'd play until it hit a stall. I think that worked in my favor. I never put any pressure on myself."
All things in time. Another postseason has arrived, inviting inevitable pressures.