A year ago at this time, Jacoby Ellsbury had long since begun his descent. Today, the man with the jets appears to have found his cruising altitude.
And so what the Red Sox have, in a manner of speaking, is baseball’s answer to The Concorde.
"I couldn’t be happier with him," Red Sox batting coach Dave Magadan said last night of Ellsbury, who went 2 for 3 with a double, stolen base, and run scored in the Sox’ 5-2 win over the Oakland Athletics. "Over the last five weeks especially, I think he really feels like he’s a dangerous hitter. It’s in there. He’s got it in him."
Now, on a nightly basis, it is starting to come out.
The Red Sox have landed on their feet again, folks. Last winter, Coco Crisp went to Kansas City for the rubber-armed Ramon Ramirez, thrusting Ellsbury into center field on a full-time basis. Now Crisp is out with a season-ending shoulder injury and Ellsbury is morphing into a consistent (key word there) everyday player, while Ramirez has become a key component in what looks to be the best and deepest bullpen in the major leagues.
The kicker? Crisp is being paid $5.75 million this season and batted just .228 (with a .714 OPS) before the injury. The Royals now hold an $8.8 million option on a player with a considerable rehabilitation in front of him, suggesting that Crisp might very well be a free agent come November and that the Royals gave up Ramirez for someone who wore the Kansas City uniform for a mere 49 games.
By contrast, the future looks brighter than ever for Ellsbury, who has been the most consistent Red Sox performer this year. Since going 5 for 10 over a span of two games from April 20-22, Ellsbury’s average has not dipped below .270. Since May 5, he has remained between .291 and .303, the latter of which is his team-leading average today. Ellsbury has run down balls in the outfield and created havoc on the bases, and he has the kind of impact on the Boston lineup that most everyone knew he could have.
Try this on for size: Last night, when Ellsbury stepped on home plate with the Red Sox’ fifth and final run in the bottom of the sixth inning, it marked the 100th game in which he has scored since the start of last season. The Red Sox are 76-24 in those contests, including 25-7 this year. (In those games, Ellsbury has batted .401 with 142 runs while going 64 of 68 in steal attempts.) Of the last 12 games in which Ellsbury has scored at least once, including last night, the Sox are 11-1, the loss coming in last week’s aberrational 11-10 loss at Baltimore that featured a historic bullpen meltdown.
Forget the leadoff spot. If Ellsbury can do this kind of consistent damage from the bottom third of the lineup, it gives the Red Sox a dimension that they did not previously possess. We’ve said it before and we’ll say it again: the most underrated quality in baseball is the ability to contribute consistently on a day-to-day basis without suffering so badly in any one area that you become a liability.
"He’s not just a good young player. He’s a good player,’’ said Sox manager Terry Francona, speaking to Ellsbury’s maturity as a hitter. "He’s played a lot. He’s out there everyday and understanding his responsibility. He’s done a good job."
Last year? Not so much. After the whirlwind conclusion to 2007, Ellsbury got off to a terrific start in 2008. On May 23, in 45 games, Ellsbury was batting .297 with 37 runs scored, an .826 OPS and 19 steals. After that, he batted .242 with a mere 13 walks in his next 76 games. Ellsbury went from a budding Johnny Damon to a bumbling Johnny from Burger King. Like most things involving him, it all happened fast.
Late last year and early this one, Magadan worked with Ellsbury on his most obvious problem: getting to the fastball consistently. Because Ellsbury hit with a high leg kick, he frequently was late getting the ball, mostly because he was late in getting his foot planted and being in what Magadan likes to call -- fittingly, in this case -- the "launch position.’’
Late last season, the coach and player all but eliminated Ellsbury’s leg kick, leading to a season-ending 24-game stretch during which Ellsbury batted .369. He subsequently went a disappointing 6 for 32 in the postseason and 0 for 14 in the American League Championship Series. This year, with a full offseason and spring training behind him, Ellsbury has settled on a relatively small kick that has satisfied both him and Magadan -- this is what players mean when they speak of making "adjustments’’ -- leading to the kind of results that have made Ellsbury a menace to other clubs.
The power? The Red Sox believe that will come -- Ellsbury is slugging .410 this year. Were one to add Ellsbury’s steals (36) to his total bases (130) -- aren’t those really one and the same? -- his slugging percentage would jump to .524, the kind of number that, coupled with his defensive skills and current average, would make him one of the elite players in baseball.
"He’s got talent and he works hard," Francona said. "You don’t see too many players, regardless of their age, hit .280 or .300 the whole year. There are a lot of ups and downs through the course of the year."
Nonetheless, more than halfway through the 2009 season, Ellsbury seems to have found a comfortable, consistent level.
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