Clayton Kershaw cried when A.J. Ellis was traded from the Dodgers to Philly last season.
The three-time Cy Young Award winner’s loss could be the Marlins’ gain.
With a few new faces taking the mound this season in both their starting rotation and bullpen, and with a young catcher on the verge of stardom, the Marlins chose Ellis to fill their vacant backup catcher position.
"We looked at it as a role to be a support guy," Marlins manager Don Mattingly said. "He’s always been a tough out. He sees a lot of pitches. He can hit and run and get bunts down. He does all the things you would like for in a guy that you’ll see once or twice a week. That’s not an easy situation to be in."
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Jeff Mathis’ departure in the offseason left the Marlins without a veteran presence behind the plate that could manage the new additions to its pitching staff while helping J.T. Realmuto continuing his development as he enters his third season as the starting catcher.
Mattingly couldn’t have been happier when the Marlins signed Ellis, one of his former catchers in Los Angeles, to a one-year, $2.5 million deal in December.
The Dodgers valued Ellis, who will turn 36 on April 9th, for the chemistry and leadership he showed for years in their clubhouse. But his declining hitting numbers (.194 average at the time of the trade) prompted the Dodgers to deal him to Philadelphia for fellow veteran Carlos Ruiz, who was also hitting better against lefties in his career (.275) than Ellis (.235).
Although hitting did not play a major role in the Marlins’ courtship of Ellis, his .239 average in nine seasons is better than Mathis’ .197 average in 12 seasons.
"We thought he’d fit our profile for what we’re looking for out of a backup catcher and help J.T. advance to the next level," Mattingly said. "A.J. is a guy that studies and understands our pitchers. He knows where to go to get people out because he does his homework. It’s not a role I’m really worried about as far as offense that much."
Ellis said the chance to play for Mattingly again was the deciding factor in his decision to come to Miami.
"Donnie’s that guy you can count on and that you want to play for and you want to succeed for,” Ellis said. “I always joke about how young ball players probably don’t understand that in the mid-1980s, this guy was the best player in our sport. But he didn’t carry himself that way. He always talked about what he could do for us."
Ellis caught 118 games (116 starts) that Kershaw pitched – more than any other catcher that he’s pitched to in his career. Kershaw compiled a 1.97 ERA in those 829 innings.
The Marlins are hoping Ellis can quickly develop a solid rapport with their new-look pitching staff.
Ellis is already impressed with his new protege.
"I was always impressed with his athleticism and his talent and how easily he took to the position," Ellis said. "With the amount of respect he has in this clubhouse and the way he carries himself with a quiet confidence, this is a guy who is on the verge of becoming a superstar in our sport and a great two-way catcher, and there aren’t many of those left."
With Realmuto getting accustomed to playing first base this spring, Ellis was invited to play for the U.S. in the upcoming World Baseball Classic.
It will give Ellis an opportunity he never thought possible and as well as a chance to play alongside new teammates Christian Yelich and Giancarlo Stanton for the first time.
"People told me it’s a dream come true, but for that to be the case it had to be a dream in the first place," Ellis said. "I’m self-aware enough to think they’d never choose me. So for Joe Torre to call me and tell me they wanted me to come and fill that third catcher role, I was really grateful and thankful to him. I can’t imagine what that’s going to be like to put on that uniform."