Jacoby Ellsbury has proven to be pretty good at digging himself out of a hole. Last season, he led the majors with a .319 batting average after going down no balls and two strikes.
Now, he's in the equivalent of an 0-and-2 hole with many frustrated Red Sox fans, media and teammates who feel he dawdled in his return (for the second time) from five fractured ribs.
Ellsbury, who had been on the disabled list since May 28, finally made his way back to Fenway last night against the Cleveland Indians, playing his 10th game of the season in the Sox' 108th. He went 0 for 5, but got a warm welcome back from the Fenway faithful, although there were a smattering of boos mixed in.
Before the game, Ellsbury once again tried to dispel the notion that he's unwilling to labor through pain. It's an E-8 that Ellsbury keeps making over and over on the comeback trail. By now, his uber-agent Scott Boras or someone close to him should have figured out and counseled Ellsbury that the more he talks the more he fosters doubt and disdain about his toughness, or lack thereof.
There is nothing Ellsbury can say, relay or explain that is going to change the belief of his detractors that he malingered the last couple of months with the rib injury. That might be unfortunate and unfair, but it's fact. Neither his rambling, 11-minute soliloquy in Toronto last month nor his comments last night about cutting off his own cast to play football are going to change the public perception. Quite the opposite actually, as they open Ellsbury up to ridicule.
Ellsbury's best public relations play is to simply zip it and play. Let his talent do the talking. The only way Ellsbury can change the narrative of his lost season is by reminding everyone exactly why they were so upset by his absence in the first place -- because he is a dynamic, difference-making force on the base paths and in the outfield.
If he does that, the topic of conversation will change from his toughness to just how much the Sox missed his presence in the lineup. Eventually the injury imbroglio will fade away, although the long-term effect on his relationship with the organization, particularly the medical staff, remains to be seen.
There is a segment of the Red Sox-supporting population that believes Ellsbury is overrated. That he is a pink hat pacifier. All flash and dash and no substance. That sentiment is totally discounting the impact he has had since he came up in 2007. The Sox have made the playoffs every season Ellsbury has played.
Last season, he became the first American League player since Kenny Lofton in 1996 to steal 70 bases and bat .300. Sabermetrics frowns on both of those stats, rendering them vacuous or meaningless. In another era of baseball, Ellsbury's average and speed would not be so easily dismissed because his .OPS is not over .800.
There is one stat that stands the test of time. Runs scored. It's the point of the game. It's also something Ellsbury is proficient at when he's in the lineup.
Coming into this season, Ellsbury was ranked tied for 21st among active players in runs scored the last two seasons with 192 from 2008-09. That doesn't sound that impressive, but just ahead of him were Adrian Gonzalez (193) and Derek Jeter (195). He was tied with Joe Mauer and just ahead of Ichiro Suzuki. That's pretty good company.
Ellsbury has earned his share of criticism, but also gotten a bit of a raw deal on the rib injury, his exile in Arizona and his rehab. When Ellsbury was originally hurt on April 11 in Kansas City, it took him 41 days to return to play. He played in three games and then ended up back on the DL on May 28, before starting comeback No. 2 last night.
When Jeremy Hermida got the same Dick Butkus treatment from third baseman Adrian Beltre on June 4, he tried to play through the injury, taking the field on June 9. He ended up on the disabled list and wasn't reactivated until July 22, a span of 43 days. The initial recovery times for Ellsbury and Hermida are almost identical.
Hermida returned, went 2 for 20, and was promptly designated for assignment for the Sox. So, you can't say this is an injury that doesn't affect a ball player's ability to perform, particularly at the plate. That's why Ellsbury wanted another game in Pawtucket on Tuesday.
It was rather ironic that the argument made for Ellsbury foregoing the final rehab game was that his glove was desperately needed in center field, the position which was usurped from him by the Sox in the off-season. What happened to Ultimate Zone Ratings, and the idea that Ellsbury was a defensively deficient center fielder?
That being said, Ellsbury did himself no favors by staying in Rhode Island instead of riding to the rescue, especially when catcher Victor Martinez came back from a broken thumb without any rehab stint at all, and Dustin Pedroia, who would take-out slide his own mother to break up a double play, is chomping at the bit to take the field.
Ellsbury will never be able to explain that away, and quotes like this only continue to deepen the hole.
“I know how my body feels,’’ Ellsbury told reporters before last night's game. "I’ve played hurt in the past. I’ve played other sports, I’ve played football, cut off my own cast to play in the game, broke my collarbone playing basketball."
All he can do to turn the tide of public sentiment is play, play well and help the listing SS Red Sox stay afloat in the playoff race.
That's his best argument of all, and the only one everyone will listen to.
...That's what the Patriots have when it comes to picks in the 2013 NFL Draft, which starts Thursday. After all those years of stockpiling picks the way a survivalist does non-perishables the Patriots have just five picks in this year's draft, thanks to Band-aid trades for Albert Haynesworth, Chad Ochocinco and Aqib Talib. Five picks would be the fewest draft picks in franchise history. (Part of that is attributable to the trimming of the draft to just seven rounds in 1994). Further complicating matters is that two of the Patriots' greatest needs are at wide receiver and cornerback, positions where they have sustained draft droughts. With that in mind, I'm convinced the Patriots are going trade back out of the first round of a quanity-over-quality draft where you're just as likely to pick a Pro Bowl player in the second and third round as you are in the first round.