You don’t know what you have until it’s gone.
When the Phillies traded Carlos Ruiz to the Dodgers last August, we all shed a tear, said our goodbyes, and barely cared who was coming back to the Phils in exchange. We were all collectively bumming that we had to say another goodbye, this time for our beloved Chooch.
If only we had known the magic that his replacement, A.J. Ellis, was about to provide. And if only we had known we’d only have him for a month.
A lot was made about Ellis’ departure from Los Angeles at the time. After all, he and Kershaw were boys. They pitched together. They prepared together. They ate ice cream together. They cried together in the locker room once the deal was announced. There was some big hurtin’ goin’ on in Big Blue land when the trade was made, and we had to wonder why the Dodgers would move a player who had such a close, personal relationship with the best starting pitcher in baseball. All for one month of a not-in-his-prime Carlos Ruiz.
General manager Matt Klentak knew what he was doing, though. The Phils wanted Ellis to replace Chooch’s leadership qualities and the potential influence he’d have on a young rotation, even if just for a month.
And, he wanted him to be the clutchiest clutch player that ever clutched.
He only played in 11 games for the Phillies last year and came to the plate a mere 35 times. But Ellis crammed more into those 35 plate appearances than anyone could have reasonably expected, with a slash line of .313/.371/.500, three doubles and a homer.
But it was more than just the raw numbers. It was the timing and importance of those knocks that made Ellis’ time here unique.
As I mentioned on the Felske Files podcast Episode 83 last week, Ellis finished 5th on the Phillies in Wins Probability Added (WPA) last year. Fangraphs defines WPA as the change in Win Expectancy from one plate appearance to the next and credits or debits the player based on how much their action increased their team’s odds of winning. Most sabermetric statistics are context neutral — they do not consider the situation of a particular event or how some plays are more crucial to a win than others. While wOBA rates all home runs as equal, we know intuitively that a home run in the third inning of a blowout is less important to that win than a home run in the bottom of the ninth inning of a close game. WPA captures this difference.
For example, if a player hits a three-run homer in the top of the 9th inning, that team’s win expectancy may jump from 45% to 95%. That player would then be credited with the difference in that win probability, 0.50. That’s WPA.
Here is how the Phils’ hitters ranked in this stat last year.
Phillies WPA Leaders
The first four players on this list make a lot of sense, as they racked up a bunch of plate appearances last year. Franco came to the plate 630 times, Rupp 419, Herrera 656 and Howard 362.
But there at No. 5 sits Ellis, with a measly 35 PAs to his credit, at 0.61 WPA. And he got there thanks mainly to four monstrously huge hits.
August 28th vs. NY Mets
Ellis got the start and came to the plate with the bases loaded in the top of the 7th and the score tied at 1-1 against the team’s most hated divisional foes. At the time he came up the Phillies had a 76.7% chance of winning. Ellis then roped a two-run double to give the Phils a 3-1 lead.
The Phils’ chances of winning jumped to 92.3% after that hit, and it was good enough to seal a Phillies 5-1 victory.
September 2nd vs. Atlanta Braves
Ellis got the start once again, this time against the Braves, and came to the plate in the bottom of the 2nd, up 1-0, with runners on second and third and no outs.
That three-run blast put the Phils up 4-0 and increased their odds of winning from 78.2% to 88.7%. Unfortunately, that was a soft 88.7% as Jeremy Hellickson and Jeanmar Gomez coughed up the big lead and the Phils fell 8-4.
September 17th vs. Miami Marlins
Fifteen days later, Captain Clutch came up again, this time in the bottom of the 1st against the Marlins. With the Phils up 2-0, Ellis had the sacks juiced with two outs as he stepped to the plate. The Phils were already 75.6% to win the game. Ellis made those odds even longer for Miami.
His bases-clearing double made it 5-0 in the first, pushing the Phils’ odds of winning to 91.1%. This time, Hellickson and the dreadful September bullpen didn’t blow the lead as the Phils shut out the Fish 8-0.
September 22nd vs. NY Mets
Finally, on September 22, in what was likely the craziest and most entertaining game of the season, the Phils and Mets squared off in an 11-inning classic. MLB.com rated it the No. 4 game of the season, including a postseason that saw the Cubs and Indians play 11 innings in Game 7 of the World Series.
The Mets jumped out to a 2-0 in the 2nd, and the Phils scratched a run out in the 3rd to make it 2-1. They then took a 3-2 lead in the 5th on a Rupp dinger. The see-saw continued as Yoenis Cespedes tied the game at 3 in the bottom of the 5th, and he then gave them a 4-3 lead in the 7th. Maikel Franco followed in the top of the 8th with a huge three-run homer, making it 6-4 Phils, but the Mets weren’t done, tying it up at 6-6 in the bottom of the 9th on a Jose Reyes two-run shot off Gomez.
So, up stepped Ellis in the top of the 11th, game tied at 6, with runners on 1st and 3rd and 2 outs. The Phillies had a 50.7% chance of winning the game at this point. In other words, it was a toss-up.
That was until the Magic Man did his thing one more time.
His RBI knock gave the Phils a 7-6 lead, pushing their odds of winning all the way up to 86.0%, an increase of WPA of 0.353. Franco tacked on a bases loaded walk two batters later to make it 8-6.
And the villagers rejoiced! The Phillies had beaten the Mets in a huge game dripping with playoff implications for New York! The Phils had played spoiler against their hated inter-division rivals!
Oh wait, that September bullpen. Cripes!
The Mets ended up scoring three runs in the bottom of the 11th on a walk-off jack by Asdrubal Cabrera off Edubray Ramos to win the thriller 9-8.
OK, we’ll give the Mets and their fans this one. After all, 2007 and 2008, right?
Anyway, don’t let Cabrera’s heroics distract you from the real story here. Perhaps the most incredible part of the Phillies 2016 season that no one will ever talk about were four plate appearances by a back-up catcher who had only been with the team for a handful of weeks and who no one will remember was even a part of this franchise 10 years from now.
Ellis single-handedly accounted for the 5th-most WPA of anyone else on the roster in 2016 thanks to those four clutch hits, although I’m not sure if that says more about Ellis or the rest of the Phils’ lackluster offense.
It was thought perhaps the team and Ellis would get back together and bring more mystery and majesty to the Phils in 2017, but Ellis instead signed a free agent contract with the Miami Marlins earlier this off-season.
At least we’ll have that one, magical month of A.J. Ellis onto which to hold.