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2016 Phillies Exit Interview: A.J. Ellis

The veteran catcher who came back in the Carlos Ruiz trade might leave a legacy much bigger than his five weeks with the 2016 Phils

Bill Streicher-USA TODAY Sports

When the Phillies sent franchise icon Carlos Ruiz to the Dodgers in an August waiver period trade, the focus rightly was on the squat Panamanian backstop who caught four no-hitters, delivered countless big hits in the postseason and co-starred by proxy in an epic commercial with Roy Halladay. To the extent the primary return—another veteran catcher named A.J. Ellis—was noticed at all, the reaction was mostly bafflement as to why the Phillies, with Cameron Rupp established behind the plate and two strong prospects in the high minors, took a catcher back in the deal.

The 35 year-old Ellis hit well in his 11-game cameo with the Phils. In 35 plate appearances, he slashed .313/.371/.500 with a home run and a stolen base (half his career total, which earlier in 2016 had risen from 0 to 1). But I think it’s safe to say those numbers, while welcome, were the least consequential part of Ellis’s tenure with the Phillies.

The Dodgers traded Ellis after a 13 year stretch in the organization that began when the club drafted the 22 year old in the 18th round of the 2003 draft. Despite that late start to his professional career, he didn’t reach the big leagues until September 2008, wasn’t up to stay until 2010, and didn’t win a starting job until 2012.

But this grinder from central casting became best friends with and personal catcher for Clayton Kershaw, who also debuted in 2008—at age 20—and was a Cy Young Award winner three years later. A Deadspin article at the time of the trade captures the tone of their relationship, and suggests Ellis’s true value to the Dodgers:

Ellis is hitting .194/.285/.252 over 53 games this season, but anyone familiar with the Dodgers’ clubhouse (and its many, many quirks) knows Ellis was on the roster not for offense, but for sentimentality and unquantifiable pitcher-whispering, both mostly having to do with keeping Kershaw, the all-time great and three-time Cy Young Award-winning lefty, happy.

The same piece notes that Ellis was "‘absolutely devastated’ to know he would never catch Kershaw again" and calls the lefty ace "‘shocked’ by the trade." Press reaction in LA and beyond predictably divided between quantitative types who praised the move as a clear offensive upgrade for the Dodgers, and traditionalists that blasted the heartless number crunchers who run the organization for cutting bait with a beloved clubhouse leader.

The Dodgers presumably could have added Chooch without dealing their own veteran catcher, but Phils GM Matt Klentak described himself to reporters as "adamant" that Ellis come back in any Ruiz deal. The reason pretty clearly was to buy, or at least rent, a perspective that could pay dividends long after Ellis puts on another uniform or even hangs up his cleats.

With the important caveat that correlation isn’t causality, consider the performance of the Phillies’ starting pitchers before and after Ellis came onboard. Ellis made his Phillies debut on Aug. 28 at Citi Field against the Mets, catching Vince Velasquez. In his previous three starts, Velasquez had pitched a total of 16.1 innings, giving up 19 earned runs to spike his ERA from 3.33 to 4.31. Two of those starts had come against the Dodgers. Pitching to Ellis, he held the Mets to one run in five innings, striking out seven and walking one. Velasquez was just as good in his next and final start of the season (with Rupp catching), working seven innings of two-run, five-hit ball against the Braves, striking out eight with no walks.

Ellis’s work with Adam Morgan might have been even more striking. Ellis caught Morgan in his second Phillies start on Aug. 31, and the previously struggling lefty worked 6 2/3 innings of two-run ball in a close loss to the Nationals. Six days later, Ellis caught Morgan’s first win since early May, a six-inning, one-run performance against the Marlins in which he surrendered five hits, walked none and struck out five. In his next start working to Ellis on Sept. 11, Morgan threw six-plus and allowed just two runs in another tough loss to Washington.

Overall, the Phillies starters posted a 3.20 ERA in September. In the seven games Ellis started (including three Jeremy Hellickson outings), the starters put up a collective 2.14 ERA.

Did he help Velasquez slow things down or explain how the Dodgers had tattooed him in August? Was there a word of advice to Morgan about how to better sequence his less than overpowering stuff? Might Ellis have imparted some guidance to Rupp or Jorge Alfaro? The circumstantial evidence is suggestive, but really who knows.

The interesting and encouraging aspect to me is that it shows Klentak’s search for competitive advantage will include non-quantitative edges and consideration of the human element. In that sense, it’s probably more reflective of how the GM is thinking, and more to his credit, than any headline-grabbing trade, Rule 5 pick or eight figure international signing.