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Ellsbury a case of before and after

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  July 22, 2011 06:01 AM

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"I don't know what's going on with Jacoby. I don't think any of us really know. ...Don't go down that road. One thing I can say is there's a lot of guys here that are hurt and supporting the team. We wish Jacoby was here supporting us, too."
- Kevin Youkilis, July 2010

One year later, Jacoby Ellsbury is among the very best players in baseball, a rare combination of power and speed. Ellsbury no longer is being asked to cheer on these Red Sox. Along with a few others, he is too busy leading them.

For Ellsbury, the most relevant question now is whether this year has been at least partially a product of last.

So what do you believe? Do you believe that Ellsbury was destined for this season, no matter what, and that his ascension to MVP-caliber status was purely a matter of time? Or do you believe that the shame and frustration of 2010 inspired Ellsbury to grow, to mature, to make changes that are now reaping enormous benefits?

Those of who subscribe to the latter are the only ones with proof.

So far, the Red Sox have played 96 games in this all-or-nothing season, and let there be no doubt: other than Adrian Gonzalez, there has been no more valuable member of the Red Sox than their dynamic No. 2. Ellsbury is on pace for 160 games played, a .316 average, 25 home runs, 91 RBI, 118 runs scored, 47 steals, and 208 hits. He has been the best leadoff man in the American League and an indisputable force, and there are decidedly few players in baseball who possess Ellsbury’s current skill set.

Fact: There are only three players in the game with at least a .300 average, 15 steals, and 15 home runs: Matt Kemp, Ryan Braun, and Ellsbury. Braun recently signed a five-year, $105 million contract extension ($21 million per) and Kemp ($6.95 million this year) is headed for an enormous raise in salary arbitration. For that matter, so, too, is Ellsbury, who is earning $2.4 million this season after being arbitration-eligible for the first time.

All of that – along with the contract awarded Carl Crawford last offseason – suggests that the price for Ellsbury is skyrocketing , something Ellsbury is sure to capitalize on so long as he maintains something close to this level of performance through 2013 and Scott Boras remains his agent.

Unless Boras has a personality transplant, the Red Sox aren’t going to be able to re-sign this guy, folks. Better to accept that reality now.

In the interim, let’s all try to agree on something. With regard to Ellsbury, you don’t get the productivity of this season without the controversy from last year. You just don’t. Boras himself has effectively admitted as much. In case you missed it Wednesday, colleague Dan Shaughnessy was among those who spoke with Boras at the All-Star Game, when Boras acknowledged a cause-and-effect between this year and last.

“When you look at time frames in baseball, they’re really registered around performance,” Boras said. “I think as fans get to know Jacoby, they understand him and the discipline and what he does. [Last year in rehab from broken ribs] Jacoby was doing things that were done to make him the player that he is today. I think if the fans look back on this, they’ll understand that he is completely committed for his work and his career and the Red Sox. Certainly that allowed him to be in the position that he’s in now. I think all in all, as we reflect on it, everyone knows from his performance on the field, who he is and what he’s about. So there’s no reason to speculate on who Jacoby is.”

Jacoby was doing things that were done to make him the player he is today. …Certainly, that allowed him to be in the position he’s in now.

Lest anyone still think the case against Ellsbury last season was purely media-generated, think again. Youkilis himself wondered why Ellsbury was not rehabilitating with the club, and rest assured that he merely vocalized an opinion that was far more widespread. Often, manager Terry Francona has spoken of Ellsbury learning the “responsibility” of playing in the major leagues, which is to say that there is often value in simply being in the lineup, whether a player can physically perform at 100 percent or not.

For Ellsbury, last year was a hard way to learn that. But he wouldn’t be the player is now had he failed to endure it – or had anyone failed to call him out.

Regardless, one person (and one person only) now deserves credit for the kind of year Ellsbury is having: Ellsbury himself. He could have responded differently. He could have been resistant to criticism and merely adhered to his routines because they had worked for him to that point. He was, after all, an everyday player in the major leagues. But what Ellsbury is becoming now is a bona fide superstar, the kind of player with the skills to steal home and hit two home runs in a game – and to have people witness it all knowing that none of it was a fluke.

For all that Ellsbury has accomplished this season, games played remains the most important statistic on his log. He has missed just one contest all year, that coming when he was scratched from the starting lineup just hours before the first pitch. The other numbers are the result of Ellsbury being on the field day in and day out, which is all anyone was trying to tell him in the first place.

In any competition, you can’t win if you don’t play.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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