The following story appears in the fifth edition of “Tomahawk Talk,” the official gameday publication of the Gwinnett Braves. Pick up a FREE copy at Coolray Field from August 12-September 3.
Chris Ellis opened the season by winning six of his first eight starts for Double-A Mississippi and earning the M-Braves’ Pitcher of the Month Award for April. After two more victories in three June starts, the right-hander was tabbed to start the Southern League All-Star Game at Mississippi’s Trustmark Park, a reward for an 8-2 record and a sterling 2.75 ERA.
But instead of toeing the rubber in the midsummer showcase, Ellis was promoted to Triple-A Gwinnett on June 16, continuing his rapid ascent towards the Major Leagues.
“It would have been really cool to have pitched in that game,” Ellis said. “It was an honor to be named to that team and to be called on to start the game, considering how many good players there are in that league, but it was even better to get called up to Triple-A instead.”
Two days after the call-up, he started for Gwinnett at Scranton/Wilkes-Barre and pitched about as long as he would have in the All-Star Game, though for a far different reason. He allowed five runs on five hits while walking two and hitting a batter in just two thirds of an inning.
“That first start was really rough, so a lot of the older guys on the team, (catcher) Blake Lalli especially, talked to me and settled me down after that start,” Ellis said. “I learned very quickly how much different Triple-A is than Double-A.”
Following his shaky Triple-A debut, Ellis said he’s starting to find some consistency after each start for the G-Braves, building from one day to the next as he continues to work his way towards the ultimate goal: pitching in the Majors.
“He belongs here, he was promoted here for a reason and so you just approach it that way,” Gwinnett pitching coach Mike Alvarez said. “That debut was tough, but those things do happen, even though you don’t want them to, but they do. It was something that he was going to have to overcome at some point, it just happened to be in the first outing.”
Through July 31, Ellis had made 22 starts combined between the two levels. He said he hasn’t had any physical setbacks or problems with his body, which has helped him reach the top level of Minor League Baseball in just his third professional season.
The former Ole Miss product saw his star rise during a stellar junior season in 2014, when he went 10-3 with a 2.55 ERA to help the Rebels reach the College World Series for the first time in 42 years. The Los Angeles Angels were impressed with his performance and selected Ellis with the 88th overall pick in the June draft.
In his lone full season in the Angels’ system last year, Ellis went 11-9 with a 3.90 ERA in 26 starts between Advanced-A Inland Empire and Double-A Arkansas. He entered 2015 ranked as Los Angeles’ No. 5 prospect according to MLB.com and justified the ranking by leading the Angels’ system in wins and finishing fourth in strikeouts (132) and eighth in ERA.
But following the season, Ellis found himself packing his bags. He was traded to Atlanta along with left-handed pitching prospect Sean Newcomb and Major League shortstop Erick Aybar in exchange for shortstop Andrelton Simmons and minor league catcher Jose Briceno.
“It was weird because the Angels drafted me and a year later I get traded,” Ellis said. “It was one of those things where you finally get comfortable and then it’s like, ‘ok see you guys.’ At first I was nervous, like ‘who did I get traded to?’ and I find out it’s the Braves. It couldn’t have worked out any better for me. It’s a great organization and I’ve made a lot of friends already, so it has been a blessing.”
After joining the Braves, the team he said he rooted for while growing up in Alabama, Ellis was assigned to Double-A Mississippi to open the 2016 season. Playing at Trustmark Park in Pearl, MS allowed him to pitch less than three hours away from the Ole Miss campus in Oxford, MS.
“It was cool to be able to pitch in my ‘home’ ballpark with some Ole Miss fans in the stands,” he said. “It was a lot different compared to Arkansas and California where I was last year. I enjoyed having that feeling of being home in a way.”
Comfort is one thing, but command of your craft is something different altogether, and Ellis has worked to find consistency with his control this season. He walked 30 batters through his first 35.2 innings with Gwinnett after issuing only 35 free-passes in 78.2 innings at Mississippi.
“Until I can find that consistent command, I’m going to walk some guys. Right now, it is more about walking those guys in better situations, where it’s not going to hurt you nearly as much, or at all,” he said.
Alvarez, who joined the G-Braves as the club’s Pitching Coach on May 19, has seen Ellis improve over his short Triple-A career, but knows that the 23-year-old’s mental approach still has room for growth.
“He has taken some small steps since his first start for us, but they’ve been in the right direction. I still think he needs to find himself. He’s not quite there yet,” Alvarez said. “He shows you flashes of four Major League pitches and it’s just a matter of consistency. It starts with the fastball. He needs to know and be reminded that he’s a good pitcher.”
After entering the season ranked as the Braves’ No. 14 prospect by MLB.com, Ellis finds himself at No. 16 in the updated midseason rankings as Atlanta continues to acquire more young talent via trades, international signings and the June draft. Regardless of where he’s listed in the prospect rankings, Ellis knows not to let future projections overwhelm him.
“It’s always in the back of your head, knowing you’re a step up, so you put a little bit of pressure on yourself to do well,” he said. “I guess all I can do is go out there and pitch consistently well over a period of time and hopefully get a shot to be promoted, but you have to focus on where you are today and for your next start. You can’t be focusing on what lies ahead. That can be a recipe for disaster if you’re thinking ahead too much. I’m here in Gwinnett and I’m making the best of being here.”
Ellis produced his best start with the G-Braves to date on July 26 at Coolray Field, holding Indianapolis to just one hit over 5.0 innings and striking out seven in Gwinnett’s 11-2 win.
The solid outing was a step in the right direction for Ellis, who now looks to pitch deeper into games. At the Double-A level, he tossed six-or-more innings in 10 of 13 starts for the M-Braves.
Alvarez believes that if Ellis continues to put in the work, he’ll be still going strong in the sixth, seventh and eighth innings.
“He’s going in the right direction and I don’t foresee anything different the rest of the way. We’ll see that guy that can put together 7.0 innings consistently,” he said.