Best leading man? Jacoby Ellsbury makes his case. Alex Speier
MLB Rank as Leadoff
Simply put, a compelling case can be made that Ellsbury is now the best leadoff hitter in the American League, if not the game. Few if any other leadoff hitters possess his diverse skill set at a premium position.
Friday’s performance continued a season that has shown Ellsbury making huge strides forward. It is not merely that his injury-riddled 2010 season is now a thing of the past; the 27-year-old is better than he was in 2009, when he appeared poised for a breakout.
“He looks more comfortable driving the ball to the opposite field with authority,” Sox Assistant GM Ben Cherington noted earlier this month. “He’s always had pull power. So that’s a sign of his evolution as a hitter, hopefully. Other than that, I think he looks very much like the healthy version of Jacoby in the past.”
On the season, Ellsbury is hitting .299 with a .365 OBP (a mark that would be a career high), .463 slugging mark (which would also represent a new career-best) and .828 OPS (ditto). He’s on pace for 19 homers, more than double his previous career best of nine, and he’s also on pace to swipe 57 bases.
Those terrific numbers are actually dragged down by Ellsbury’s strange sabbatical from the leadoff spot. When hitting first this year, Ellsbury is now hitting .319 with a .383 OBP, .464 slugging mark and .847 OPS from the leadoff spot. He has scored 28 runs in 39 games atop the order.
But he has been little short of sensational since the Sox ended their experiment with him at the bottom of the order on April 22, in the team’s 19th game of the year. Starting that day, Ellsbury has led off all 33 Red Sox games, hitting .345 with a .401 OBP, .486 slugging mark and .887 OPS.
Among hitters with at least 150 plate appearances from the leadoff spot this year (a list of 20), Ellsbury – when batting leadoff – leads the majors in OBP, and he leads the AL in average, slugging, OPS and steals. Ellsbury is having, essentially, the sort of season that got Carl Crawford his seven-year, $142 million deal, and that has people speculating that Jose Reyes (a player whose offensive numbers very nearly match Ellsbury’s) might similarly be in line for a nine-figure deal when he reaches free agency this offseason.
About the only criticism that can be lodged is that he sees fewer pitches than one would ideally like from a leadoff hitter. He is seeing 3.79 pitches per plate appearance this year, not terrible, but in the lower half of big league leadoff hitters.
That said, the Sox are hardly about to quibble.
“With Jacoby, he’s got great hand/eye and he’s looking to drive the ball. He’s not looking to just make contact most of the time,” said Cherington. “We encourage him to let the barrel go, and drive the baseball. Even when he hits a single, occasionally it’s a flare, but usually it’s crisp, solid contact. That’s because he’s on time and he’s pretty strong through the ball.
“Sometimes that means there’s going to be fewer foul balls over the third base dugout, which might drive a pitch count up but may not be innately the type of hitter who he is,” added Cherington. “The power production – not just the home runs but the doubles – we’ll take that even if it’s coming with a few less pitches.”
It’s hard to blame the Sox for that outlook. After all, Ellsbury is on pace to fill up the back of his baseball card in a fashion that has little precedent in baseball history.
Since 1901, the list of players who have had at least 15 homers, 50 steals, 100 runs and an .800 OPS in the same season runs just 15 deep. It features a number of Hall of Famers – Rickey Henderson, Joe Morgan, Roberto Alomar, Ryne Sandberg – as well as several stars of their eras (Barry Bonds, Craig Biggio, Tim Raines, Hanley Ramirez, Jose Reyes).
It is rare company, and it remains to be seen whether the Sox’ leadoff hitter can continue to keep it. That said, what has been on display thus far has been little short of spectacular.
Ellsbury’s 2011 season to date – particularly over his last five weeks, since returning to the leadoff role – may represent the coming of age of one of the most dynamic players in the game.