Things are looking up for Ellsbury
ANAHEIM, Calif. - The Red Sox shied away from calling the change a demotion, emphasizing instead they wanted to get their top on-base guys higher in the order. Jacoby Ellsbury was dropped from leadoff to the No. 7 spot. Dustin Pedroia was put in the top spot but it didn’t last. J.D. Drew took a turn at the top, but that didn’t last. And though Ellsbury said he didn’t do anything differently, didn’t try to increase his patience or his walks, that was exactly what happened by the time he found himself back in the leadoff spot.
And though he hasn’t seen a whole lot more pitches per plate appearance, all of his statistics have improved in the second half of the season, as a still-young player continues to mature.
“It’s kind of weird,’’ Ellsbury said. “The more aggressive I am, the more pitches I see. When you’re trying to walk, you’re trying to take pitches, they know that, they can sense it, and they just throw balls right down the middle. So people want me to be more patient - actually no one wants me to be more patient in the Red Sox organization - but they just told me to be aggressive. As a result of that, I seem to be getting more walks.’’
While his numbers aren’t overwhelmingly better, Ellsbury has drawn more walks in the second half of the season. He walked once every 15.9 plate appearances in the first half of the season, then every 12.5 plate appearance in the second half. He saw 3.75 pitches per plate appearance over the first half, lowest among qualifying Red Sox, and 51st in the American League. In the second half, that improved to 3.90, 40th in AL, and still lowest on Sox.
He finished the season 14th among leadoff batters with at least 100 games at the top of the order in on-base percentage. But his teammates saw him getting better. They saw how often he sparked the offense.
“I think Jacoby’s really molded into a solid leadoff hitter,’’ said Mike Lowell, focusing immediately on Ellsbury when asked about the lineup’s improvement from last season. “You know, not just the base stealing and all that, but picking his pitches, I’m talking to swing at, not to steal. I think he’s a much more potent threat and I think that’s very important at the top of the lineup. He can set the tone for us.’’
By the end of last season, and during spring training, Ellsbury was spending time trying to close a hole in his swing that pitchers had begun to exploit. They were getting him out with inside fastballs, which led to his crash down the stretch, and his demotion in the playoffs last year. But the job was his in spring training, the confidence demonstrated by the offseason trade of Coco Crisp - confidence that Ellsbury could fix his flaws and develop into the kind of talent many predicted.
“I got here, it was only two months last year, but I think he was still a little raw,’’ Jason Bay said. “He had that speed, he could play defense, he could do all those things.
“I think this year, people use the term ‘got it.’ He sees a lot of pitches, he’s very comfortable hitting with two strikes. He doesn’t strike out that much. He puts a lot of pressure on people, and that’s the M.O. of the Boston Red Sox.
“Not so much taking pitches just to take them, but working counts and on-base percentage. To his credit, the beginning of the season probably didn’t go [as he had planned]. He wasn’t doing bad, but I think maybe they wanted to see some more of that patience, then they dropped him down and he didn’t say a word to anybody in the 7-hole. Went ahead, started doing what they asked, went back to leadoff, and was, in my opinion, one of if not the best leadoff hitter in baseball.’’
He seems to always be on base, though his .355 OBP (.363 in the second half) belies that theory, though he did raise his level in September, with a .388 OBP. And if he’s on first, it’s not long before he’s on second base. Ellsbury stole 70 bases this season, setting the Red Sox season record, and generally creating havoc on the base paths.
He continues to work on his skills as a leadoff hitter. He still doesn’t see as many pitches as most, but what he’s doing is working.
“That’s always the hitter I’ve been,’’ Ellsbury said. “I’ve always been an aggressive hitter. That’s seemed to work for me. Then I kind of got in the mode where I was trying to walk and stuff like that, trying to take pitches. But as a result of that they just threw me more fastballs, so it was kind of a negative. You think that being more patient, for me, I’d draw more walks, [but it had the] opposite effect.’’
That was at the start of the season, when Ellsbury said, “I was just really trying to be really selective. But hitting’s tough enough. You want to go up there and just try to square up the ball, try to hit something hard. If you can do that as a hitter, you’re going to be successful.’’
“He’s not afraid to get deep in the count, which is probably the biggest thing,’’ manager Terry Francona said. “Swinging at strikes. He’s probably got more walks, because he’s not afraid to hit deep in the count. He’s gotten a pitch he can pull, and he’s pulled it hard. He’s hitting balls to left field.
“It’s pretty much played out like we hoped. We hit him down in the order early and said all along, we thought we were a better team when he leads off. Let him sit down there and not hide for a while, but let him sit down at the bottom of the order, get his at-bats, and then when he’s ready, put him there at leadoff and let him go.’’
Amalie Benjamin can be reached at email@example.com.