Column: Bringing back catcher A.J. Ellis is received wisdom on Dodgers’ part

Dodgers catcher A.J. Ellis slides into home plate to score during a game against the St. Louis Cardinals in June.
(Jabin Botsford / Los Angeles Times)

Now that Clayton Kershaw has won this third Cy Young, the Dodgers have awarded him somebody even more important.

He has just been given an A.J. Ellis.

In a smart old-school baseball move by the Dodgers’ new analytical bosses, Ellis was tendered a one-year contract Tuesday night, ensuring baseball’s best pitcher will be allowed to continue throwing to his favorite catcher.

No, the Dodgers have no other frontline major league catchers hanging around the batting cage, and yes, Kershaw considers Ellis an extension of his left arm, but this move was not a sure thing. Considering Ellis, 33, batted less than .200 last season and threw out only a quarter of potential base stealers, this was not a transaction that made sense on a spreadsheet, particularly considering the nearly $4 million Ellis will probably earn after they finish the sort of haggling that could end up in arbitration.


But on the mound and in the clubhouse, it was a no-brainer, and the fact that new baseball bosses Andrew Friedman and Farhan Zaidi recognized that so quickly speaks volumes about the balance between numbers and intangibles that they could be willing to strike.

“It was based on the totality of his contributions to the team,” Zaidi, the Dodgers’ new general manager, said of Ellis. “It’s not an intangible, it’s a tangible that he creates.”

Last season Ellis batted just .191, more than a 40-point drop from the previous year with seven fewer homers and 27 fewer RBIs in 107 fewer plate appearances. Defensively, he also went from one of the league’s best throwing catchers into mediocrity, throwing out just 25% of potential base stealers after nailing 44% the previous year. But his career on-base percentage is a healthy .343, and his affecting-the-team’s-win-percentage was through the Dodger Stadium roof.

Ellis, who is seven years older than Kershaw, is his combination mentor and muse. They spend hours together in the clubhouse studying video on laptops, then weave that information into a game plan that allows Kershaw to always appear one pitch ahead of the hitter, strike after strike after strike. When the two men are in rhythm, the targets seemingly never move, the pitches are seemingly never touched, and the games appear to last about 20 minutes. By the end of last season, Ellis had become so intertwined with Kershaw that after their games together, their bodies wrapped in ice and their faces wearing the same aw-shucks grins, they even looked alike.

Ellis was sidelined for parts of the summer with leg injuries, but he still caught 21 of Kershaw’s 26 regular-season starts, during which time Kershaw went 18-2 with a 1.64 ERA. In Kershaw’s five others starts, he was 3-1 with a 3.27 ERA.

“Clayton is an important part of our success, and anything that helps him achieve the high level he has in the last several years is something we certainly are going to be mindful of,” Zaidi said.

Ellis was also more offensively engaged during Kershaw’s starts, batting .275 in those 21 games while hitting .164 the rest of the time.

Ellis was behind the plate for Kershaw’s postseason meltdown, but if the Dodgers had any sort of trustworthy relief, the weary Kershaw wouldn’t have been so exposed. Ellis certainly pulled his weight offensively, as he was also arguably the Dodgers’ best hitter in that division series against St. Louis, batting .538 with a homer and two RBIs.

Ellis is a big-moment catcher and a clear-thinking receiver. He gets it. And it’s not just with Kershaw, but an entire rotation that had the second-best ERA in baseball last season at 3.20. As a tribute to Ellis’ communication skills, check out some of the Dodgers pitchers’ first month with the team, usually a time of awkwardness and uncertainty. In Dan Haren’s first month, he had a 2.03 ERA. In Josh Beckett’s first month, he had 2.45 ERA.

Ellis has also become the quiet conscience of the clubhouse. While he is not an outspoken leader, last season he was not afraid to speak out in meetings against some of the nuttiness that occurred on the field last season. Even if Ellis becomes a platoon player as Dodgers management has suggested, it appears the new bosses know they need more of that. They earlier raised eyebrows this winter by shipping out heat-flinging Jose Dominguez as part of a deal for a 38-year-old Tampa Bay reliever named Joel Peralta, who is mostly known for a resilient arm and an accommodating personality.

“Joel’s significance to the Rays transcended his on-field performance,” Rays General Manager Matt Silverman said in a statement. “He was a clubhouse leader who always sought ways to make the organization better.”

Yeah, the Dodgers could use two or three more of those guys. At least they got rid of the other kind of guy when they allowed Hanley Ramirez to walk to the Boston Red Sox, who foolishly gave a four-year, $88-million deal to a malingerer.

The Dodgers won’t miss Ramirez and his moods, but they do need to figure out who is playing shortstop. While Miguel Rojas is a defensive beauty, his presence would necessitate the acquisition of another strong bat, so maybe Corey Seager gets hurried to the big leagues by early summer. They also need to figure out their outfield logjam, and here’s guessing Andre Ethier will be the one to leave town, although contract-heavy Matt Kemp will certainly be shopped. Of course, they also need another veteran setup reliever like Peralta, or maybe a dozen of them, anything to avoid a repeat of this October.

“We’re not just trying to put together a collection of individuals, we want to put together a team that functions well, that pulls on the rope in the same direction,” Zaidi said.

The new Dodgers bosses have much more work ahead. But an important piece has already been done. The keen mind of A.J. Ellis is coming back, bringing with him the heart of Clayton Kershaw.

Twitter: @billplaschke