I've had the idea to write something about A.J. Ellis floating around in the back of my mind for a while. I didn't do it because I could never figure out a way to make it compelling. I still haven't figured out a way to make it compelling, but I spent a while messing around in corners of Baseball-Reference I hadn't previously visited, and in one of those corners I saw something new about Ellis, so now I'm giving this a go.
Ellis is in the Dodgers' starting lineup Tuesday night, and this is being written before that game gets going. Entering Tuesday, Ellis had come to the plate 198 times on the season. In ten of those plate appearances, Ellis swung at the first pitch.
On its own, free of objective context, that seems crazy. And when placed within objective context, it is indeed crazy. On average, hitters swing at 26 percent of first pitches. So given 198 plate appearances, the average batter would be expected to have swung at about 51 first pitches. Ellis has swung at ten.
This won't surprise you, but that's the lowest rate in the league, below Joe Mauer, Juan Pierre, and Jason Kubel. Nobody posted a rate that low in 2011, or 2010, or 2009, or 2008, and then I stopped checking. Nobody has finished a season with a first-pitch-swing rate as low as Ellis' in a while.
Ellis' first-pitch-swing rate is literally a tenth of Josh Hamilton's. As my favorite illustration, here are Ellis' first-pitch swings in 2012, from start to finish:
Here are Josh Hamilton's first-pitch swings from his most recent five games, not counting Tuesday night. I did not select these games for any reason other than they were the most recent and convenient games.
You see ten swings in Ellis' chart. You see ten swings in Hamilton's chart. If you just cover up the date ranges and pretend like you never saw them, these images would convey a very different idea. As is, over his most recent five games, Josh Hamilton swung at as many first pitches as A.J. Ellis has swung at all season long.
And, obviously, Ellis has been productive, as you've heard. We've seen some guys before who came up, batted patiently, and then got exposed once it was discovered that they couldn't punish baseballs. The player I always think of is Reggie Willits, who posted a .393 OBP between 2006-2007 and a .308 OBP between 2008-2011 after more pitchers realized he wasn't swinging for a reason. But Ellis has slugged six homers and owns a .169 isolated slugging percentage.
One might be right to be skeptical of A.J. Ellis, given that he's 31 and hasn't done much in the majors before, but he's showing similar discipline to that of a later-career Bobby Abreu, and since 2008 Abreu has posted a 116 OPS+. The two have similar rates of swings at balls. The two have similar rates of swings at strikes. The two have similar contact rates, and somewhat similar ground-ball rates. To bring this all back, they have similar first-pitch-swing rates. Player comparisons can be lazy, and A.J. Ellis and Bobby Abreu are very different people, but the deeper you dig into Ellis, the fewer holes you see, relative to what you'd expect.
Ellis is extremely patient, but he understands the strike zone, and he makes it all work for him. You might think that, if Ellis is going to take 95 percent of first pitches, pitchers would and should just come right after him with stuff down the pipe. In fact, I've prepared three .gifs of A.J. Ellis taking first-pitch fastballs down the middle:
Each of those were hittable pitches. Ignoring the fact that I could prepare three .gifs of any hitter taking first-pitch fastballs down the pipe, pitchers haven't adjusted to Ellis yet. He's actually wound up in an 0-and-1 count less often than average. And he's demonstrated an ability to hit from behind in the count when he gets there.
Going back to Little League, I frustrated my dad that I would never swing the bat. Even now. On Mother's Day, he got on me for not swinging at a 3-1 fastball. I'm pretty selective, trying to swing at a certain pitch, so I always ended up with a lot of walks. To me there's no worse feeling than swinging at 0-0, making an out, and wondering "what if." Very rarely will I swing at the first pitch or early in the count.
There will be times that A.J. Ellis lets a hittable pitch go by for a strike. That's just a part of his identity that one needs to accept. Were he more aggressive, there would be times that Ellis would go after pitches he shouldn't have gone after, so there are trade-offs either way. You have to trust that Ellis knows what he's doing, and based on his performance, he knows exactly what he's doing. He's earned the benefit of the doubt. As a career minor leaguer, Ellis was two kinds of patient. He's one kind of patient today, and he and everyone else are ecstatic with the results.