When UCLA catcher Paul Ellis was a senior at San Ramon Valley High School he was not drafted by a major league team, probably because it was thought he didn’t have a strong throwing arm.
He has now--along with a few other things that should assure him of a big league career.
“There aren’t a lot of catchers who can catch,” said UCLA Coach Gary Adams. “Paul can catch and throw, and when you’ve got someone who can catch and throw, is a hitter and hits left-handed, you’ve got yourself quite a commodity right there.”
Adams said that Ellis wasn’t drafted “out of high school because professional scouts didn’t feel his arm was strong enough.” He added that the junior catcher’s arm has become strong because of “maturity and practice. He always had a quick release, he gets rid of the ball fast and is tough to steal on.”
Ellis has also been tough on college pitchers this season. As of last week, he had 14 home runs and 41 runs batted in for 28 games. He has led the nation for NCAA Division IA. That’s quite a switch.
As a regular last year, though he missed most of the Bruins’ last 13 games because of a shoulder injury, he still managed to start 32 games but finished the year with only 23 RBIs. And before this season, he had hit just five homers in two years at UCLA.
How does Ellis, who hit .281 in his first two years at UCLA and is batting .347 this year, explain his turnaround in hitting? He doesn’t--at least not very well.
“I’m not doing anything real different mechanically, but I am being a little bit more aggressive at the plate,” he said.
He said that he has also received some help on batting from retired Pepperdine Coach Dave Gorrie and from UCLA assistant Vince Beringhele, a former Bruin center fielder who was a good hitter in college.
It hasn’t hurt him either that he has been batting in the fourth or fifth spot of the order behind Chris Pritchett. The sophomore first baseman from Merced is batting a team-high .376 with eight homers and 30 RBIs. Opponents have had a difficult time pitching around both Pritchett and Ellis.
Ellis said that UCLA pitching Coach Tip Lefebvre, brother of Seattle Mariners’ Manager Jim Lefebvre, has helped him improve his mechanics as a catcher, including his throwing.
But he also thinks that his throwing has improved since he injured his right shoulder when a runner ran into him at home plate last year. He said his arm became stronger and more accurate because of exercises prescribed by Dr. Frank Jobe.
Because he has become a power hitter, opposing pitchers have begun to give him the kind of respect they do to batters that they fear: They are walking him (often intentionally), pitching him away and paying him the ultimate compliment of throwing at him.
In 10 games before last Saturday, Ellis drew 10 walks, six of them intentional.
He has been hit by pitches three times, once in the meaty part of his right arm and twice in the foot.
His batting average has dropped about 20 points because, he said, “I am starting to hit their pitches instead of mine. I am getting a little frustrated.”
Not as frustrated perhaps as Coach Adams, whose team is only 4-7 (19-9 overall) in the tough Pacific 10 Conference and is suffering through a rash of injuries to what had otherwise been a strong pitching staff.
“It started out to be one of our best pitching staffs,” Adams said, “but I’ve got more guys hurt than I’ve got healthy right now.”
Among the injured hurlers are sophomore Tony Darden, junior Mike Fyhrie , freshman Pete Janicki, sophomore Adam Schulhofer, freshman Kurt Schwengel and senior John Sutherland.
Fyhrie and Sutherland, two of UCLA’s best starters, are scheduled to have surgery next week--Fyhrie on his elbow and Sutherland for a torn rotator cuff--and may not return in time to pitch any more this season.
So if Ellis doesn’t see any good pitches the rest of the way , and, if Coach Adams can’t use a lot of his good pitchers, will UCLA possibly earn a berth in the NCAA playoffs?
Adams and Ellis both think so.
Although the Bruins are struggling in conference play, Adams said that UCLA has beaten “a lot of tough teams” outside the conference, including Illinois, Cal State Long Beach, Cal State Fullerton, Loyola Marymount, Pepperdine, UC Irvine and Hawaii.
“If we can finish third or fourth (in the Pac-10), with the record we would have against good teams, we can be selected” for the NCAA playoffs, Adams said.
Ellis said: “We still have a chance. Things don’t look as good as they did at the beginning of the year. But some of our young guys are improving. They’re getting better with every game.”
If UCLA does not make the NCAA this year, it will probably be Ellis’ last crack at a national collegiate championship. He hopes to sign with a major league team after he completes his junior year.
Does he have a good chance to make it in the big leagues? Adams and Ellis both think so.
Adams said that the 6-foot 2-inch, 195-pound catcher’s prospects “are just as bright as” those of former UCLA catchers Don Slaught, Billy Haselman and Todd Zeile. Slaught is with the Pittsburgh Pirates after tours with the Texas Rangers and New York Yankees. Haselman is expected to play for Texas this year. Zeile is with the St. Louis Cardinals and is considered a strong candidate to garner some rookie honors this year.
Ellis also likes his prospects, but he says he doesn’t want “to spend my life in the minors. If I’m 25 or 26 and still in the (rookie leagues), I would probably get out of baseball because the writing is on the wall.
“But if you’re moving up every year, you have a chance.”
Ellis has used wooden bats, the kind employed in the major leagues, in practice and in tournaments, and he thinks he can make the transition from the aluminum bats of college baseball to wood.
He said that a wooden bat “doesn’t have as big a sweet spot as an aluminum bat and you have more bat speed with aluminum. I’ll find out whether I’m a good hitter or not.
“But if you hit (the ball) right with a wooden bat, it will go as far as it will with aluminum.”
Adams said that Ellis “can make the transition. Strong kids can do that, and he has the strength.”
Ellis thinks he has the patience to put in the next few years trying to become a major leaguer and plans to give it everything he has.
“I like baseball a lot,” he said. “It’s you against the other guy and seeing how you do. But there’s also the team part of it, and being out there with all your friends.”
Of course it’s also being out there with all your enemies--especially the pitchers who think your batting helmet has a bull’s-eye painted on it.