There figure to be a lot of times next season when the Miami Marlins will announce the lineup for their upcoming game and you won’t be sure what year it is. The team’s four most common batting orders from 2016—as tracked by Baseball-Reference.com—were full of players who are all slated to return and contribute.
J.T. Realmuto was one of the mainstays, earning the lion’s share of starts at catcher. But the demands of the position will require him to rest periodically, and on those occasions, you’ll know it’s 2017. Rather than re-signing Jeff Mathis to be Realmuto’s backup, the Marlins struck a deal with A.J. Ellis. For $2.5 million, they are adding a fresh veteran voice who doubles as one of the game’s most unique players.
Ellis was initially not too confident about making it to pro ball, much less advancing through the ranks and becoming an established major leaguer. As he explained it to Bill Plaschke of The Los Angeles Times, there was minimal contact with teams leading up to the 2003 amateur draft. Even when the Los Angeles Dodgers selected him in the 18th round out of Austin Peay State University, “I looked at it like, this is my baseball graduate school. I would learn about the game, network with people, and then go back to college and coach somewhere.”
To be precise, he was the 541st overall pick in that draft. Only two other players taken in that spot—Brandon Medders (1999) and Chris Bando (1977)—have ever appeared in The Show, and neither were as productive as Ellis has been.
Ellis didn’t see any MLB action until September 2008, the end of his age-27 season. Immediately, he got started on a pair of memorable streaks:
- It took parts of four seasons (57 total games) for his first home run. No active catchers have begun their careers with a longer drought.
- Spread across nine seasons, he appeared in 536 straight games without recording a stolen base. Over the past century, that Ellis streak is the third-longest by any Dodger.
While his offensive limitations are obvious, Ellis compensates for some of them with top-notch plate discipline. Since 2011, he owns a 36.9 percent swing percentage. That makes him the most selective hitter in the league among those with at least 1,000 plate appearances over those six seasons, according to FanGraphs. That kind of approach is sorely needed by the Marlins, considering they drew the second-fewest walks in the National League last season.
Regardless of how much longer he plays or whom he plays for, Ellis will likely be best remembered for the way he meshed with Clayton Kershaw. In 118 games spent as a battery, their results were absolutely filthy: a 1.97 ERA, .529 OPS against and 5.29 K/BB. Ellis started behind the plate for the three highest Game Scores of Kershaw’s career and nearly every outing of his 2013 and 2014 NL Cy Young award-winning campaigns.
As was extensively reported at the time, Kershaw was none too pleased with the August trade that sent his buddy from L.A. to the Philadelphia Phillies.
Assuming Realmuto is healthy and productive, the tangible impact that Ellis has on the 2017 Marlins should be fairly limited. But if the 35-year-old can spread some wisdom on the back fields in Spring Training and guide “Ellis Family Favorite” Dee Gordon to a bounce-back season, he’ll prove to be a savvy investment.