AUSTIN — At 10-3, Texas is off to a strong start. A big part of that is the man they send to the plate to begin things for the Texas offense.
Junior outfielder Duke Ellis was written into the lineup as the leadoff hitter to start the year against Louisiana in Lafayette. In that game, he drew three walks and went 1-for-2. That type of stat line has become the norm for Ellis, who in the first thirteen games of the season has gotten on base exactly half of the time he goes to bat.
Though Ellis’ 21 walks leads the nation, his .500 on-base percentage isn’t even one of the top 50 marks in the country this early in the season. His OBP has had a dramatic impact on the Texas offense, especially when leadoff was a question mark.
“Being the leadoff guy, your job is to get on base no matter what your batting average is or anything,” Ellis said Thursday. “This year, I’m seeing the ball really well and I’m swinging at the pitches I want. If it’s not there, then I’m not going to swing.”
Junior shortstop David Hamilton boasts elite speed and served as Texas’ leadoff hitter for much of last year. However, he suffered a season ending Achilles injury before the Longhorns played their first game in 2019. Without Hamilton, leadoff responsibilities went to Ellis.
Ellis was the logical choice for the spot. He batted second for much of last year during his first-team All-Big 12 season. His combination of speed and contact hitting was a good option for Texas to turn to in order to replace Hamilton.
After totaling 58 hits in his first season over 63 games, Ellis is still stuck in single digits with nine hits in 2019.
However, his on-base and walk numbers more than make up for it with his head coach. Leading the nation in walks is a testament to having a patient approach at the plate. In order to get to four balls, Ellis forces opposing pitchers to throw a lot of pitches. Then, after forcing a pitcher to work, he makes them pay attention to him at first base.
“As a leadoff hitter, you’d like to see him hit the ball a little bit more so, but he’s doing his job and that’s getting to first base,” Texas head coach David Pierce said. “He has the ability to turn the single into a double with the stolen base.”
So far this year, Ellis is 4-for-4 on the base paths. In addition to getting on base half the time, he’s added some timely hits.
In the first game of the LSU series, Ellis added an opposite field home run during Texas’ 8-1 victory. In the third game of the LSU series, Ellis’ singled to bring Texas within one run during its late rally, and scored the winning run on junior Austin Todd’s single.
LET’S GO. pic.twitter.com/ReoKzzuSTE
— Texas Baseball (@TexasBaseball) March 2, 2019
“I feel like this year I’m a little bit more aggressive swinging it,” Ellis said. “Last year, I was a little timid swinging it for some reason. JUCO, I didn’t swing as much. This year, I’m actually swinging it and seeing the ball pretty well.”
His effect on the lineup is something his teammates have noticed.
“He’s not only on base all the time, he’s able to steal a base at any count, any time of the game,” sophomore Zach Zubia said. “Having him on base has been awesome. He’s a big run producer for us, and not in the RBI column per se but in the run scored column because he’s on base that much.”
Though the hits haven’t come quite yet for Ellis this year, Pierce believes his outfielder will start to get more hits to drop as the season progresses.
“What I love about it right now is he’s not panicking and trying to force that,” Pierce said. “He’s still seeing pitches and still drawing the walks. He’ll come around. He’s a good hitter with a great eye. He’ll be fine.”