"Say hey! Jacoby Mays Hayes here. I play like Mays and run like Hayes."
Jacoby Ellsbury exploded into the hearts of Red Sox Nation (and the spank banks of the female and gay faction) in 2007 with a scorching September call-up and legendary World Series performance. His combination of world-beating speed, line-drive power and movie-star looks made him an instant icon in Boston. His Hall of Fame plaque was already etched. Streets and babies were being named after him. Women were leaving their husbands just to get a crack at him. The sky was the limit.
Then reality sunk in. Buoyed by a .380 batting average on balls in play (a really high BABIP like this signals he was getting lucky) in his brief debut, Ellsbury was destined to come back to Earth. In 2008 his destiny was realized. Sharing time with Coco Crisp in center and filling in for Manny Ramirez in left, Ellsbury played 145 games in his official rookie season. The speed was still fully on display. He stole 50 bases in 61 attempts for a very good 82% success rate, becoming the first Red Sox player to steal 50 bases since Tommy Harper in 1973. The fielding numbers also said he was a star in left where he challenged Carl Crawford for the title of best left fielder. Unfortunately, the power and luck both disappeared. In 609 plate appearances he mustered just 9 home runs, 7 triples and 22 doubles for a slugging percentage of .394. His BABIP dropped to .312, which took his average down to .280. With the drop in average, his OBP also plummeted to a below average .336. Though he was blessed with the traditional lead-off hitter profile, Ellsbury was unable to provide value from the spot while getting on base so little.
The next season was even more of a mixed bag. Ellsbury upped his steal total to a Red Sox’ record 70 (with an 85% success rate). His luck at the plate also returned some so he was able to post a line of .301/.355/.415. However, the numbers were inflated by an increase in singles that can be attributed almost as much to luck (where the defense is positioned plays a huge role in many singles) as to skill. His power output was exactly the same as the year before. His walk rate improved a little, but was still far from elite. When I watched his at bats it was clear that opposing pitchers were not respecting him because they knew the worst that could happen would be a ground ball single. If he were to advance his game he needed to make pitchers think twice about pounding the strike zone with fastballs.
Another interesting wrinkle to the season was his shift full time to center field in the wake of Crisp’s departure. His speed and Web Gem plays made it appear that he was an incredible center fielder. However, if you watched him close enough you realized that his routes were awful and he was actually not getting to a lot of balls that he should be. The Jacoby Special was taking three steps back on a shallow fly ball then having to race in and make a diving catch to save the play. The defensive numbers supported this notion and ran counter to what most fans thought about his play in center. The numbers said Ellsbury was one of the worst defensive center fielders in baseball, if not the worst.
Before the 2010 season, the Red Sox signed 37-year-old center fielder Mike Cameron with the intent of sliding Ellsbury back to left. The stat heads all agreed this was the right move while the main stream media wailed that it was another example of Theo Epstein trying to get too cute. Unfortunately we never got the chance to know either way. Both players missed the majority of the season, combining for 66 games on the year. Ellsbury was blasted locally for milking his multiple broken ribs and not making more of an effort to come back down the stretch. The heartthrob who was destined for the Hall of Fame was now Public Enemy Number 1 on Yawkey Way.
Heading into 2011, there was an endless list of questions about Jacoby Ellsbury. Was he healthy? Was he any good? Would he be traded? What provided a clearer picture about his defense, the numbers or the eyes? Is he single? Is he a clubhouse cancer? The question no one was asking was: would he become one of the premier speed/power guys in baseball?
Yesterday, Jacoby Ellsbury hit his 14th and 15th home runs on the season and pretty soon he should double his previous career high (9 in 2008). He is third in baseball in steals with 28 (though his success rate is a piss poor 73%). In addition to home runs, he is setting career highs in slugging, on base percentage, walk rate, line drive percentage and home runs per fly ball. His defense even seems to be improving. According to Baseball-Reference’s Wins Above Replacement, he is the 6th most valuable hitter in baseball (just behind Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez). He has completely transformed himself from a speedy slap hitter to a speedy power hitter. To put his season into some historical perspective, Ellsbury is on pace to hit 25 home runs and steal 47 bases; here is the entire list of players who have met both thresholds in a single season:
On this list you have three Hall of Famers (Henderson, Morgan and Sandberg), one of the three best players of all time (Barry Bonds) and his All Star father (Bobby Bonds), one of the most exciting and tragic young players ever (Davis), a perennial MVP candidate (Ramirez) and the criminally underrated Cesar Cedeno. Is this the season that propels Ellsbury into this elite level or is this the best we are going to see from the center fielder at the age when most players peak? In a career full of questions, this latest one is far and away the most intriguing. Stay tuned…