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Bob Ryan

Could Ellsbury join these leading men?

By Bob Ryan
Globe Columnist / August 9, 2011

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Let us speak of leadoff men.

It’s a valid topic hereabouts because the Red Sox currently have one of those rare types - a leadoff man who has injected himself into the MVP race.

The Most Valuable Player Award, as we know it, has been in existence since 1931 (there were previous awards, but we are speaking of the Baseball Writers’ version), and in all those years there have only been seven winners who were primarily leadoff men during that particular season.

American League: Phil Rizzuto (1950), Zoilo Versalles (1965), Rickey Henderson (1990), and Ichiro Suzuki (2001).

National League: Maury Wills (1962), Pete Rose (1973), and Jimmy Rollins (2007).

So it’s rather evident a leadoff man must put together a truly special season to attract sufficient attention from the voters, who have always been most attracted by homer/RBI guys, and even pitchers, rather than classic table setters.

Three of the seven leadoff MVPs muscled up a bit, and that surely enhanced their candidacies. Versalles, a generally decent Twins shortstop of the 1960s, had that head-scratching 1965 season in which he had 76 extra-base hits, leading the league in doubles (45) and triples (12), while also knocking out 19 homers. He led the league in total bases (308). He also led the league in errors (39) and strikeouts (122), all of which makes him one of the most fascinating MVP choices ever.

Henderson was just plain sick in 1990. He led the league in runs (119) despite missing 26 games. He led the league in on-base percentage (.439). He also slugged a career high .577, so it’s not surprising his OPS (on-base plus slugging) led the league at 1.016. He also stole a league-leading 65 bases. The A’s won the AL pennant, which helped. He has many amazing seasons, but this one set his standard.

Rollins led the NL in runs (139) and triples (20) when he won his 2007 award. His 88 extra-base hits (38 doubles and 30 homers) were pretty outrageous for both a shortstop and a leadoff man. His OPS was a healthy .875. He drove in 94 runs and stole 41 bases. Combined with his defense, it was a very impressive résumé on a division-winning team.

Keep in mind that it is never just a numbers game. There are intangibles to consider, and the question of just who’s more “valuable’’ than the next guy in any given year is totally subjective. People are still asking what led NL voters to give the 1944 MVP to St. Louis shortstop Marty Marion (by a 190-189 margin over Chicago slugger Bill Nicholson). Marion, a slick fielder, hit .267 with no dazzling peripheral stats. Alas, we will never know. But there must have been some reason.

Rizzuto was rewarded for his greatest season with an MVP award in 1950. The Scooter only led the league in two categories (plate appearances and sacrifice bunts), but he put up career highs in batting average (.324), hits (200), runs (125), RBIs (66), walks (92), on-base percentage (.418), and slugging (.439). And he was a Yankee at the peak of their mid-century glory, the Bronx Bombers winning their second of what would turn out to be a record five consecutive World Series triumphs.

Rose needs neither an introduction nor a defense. He had a career-high 230 hits in 1973, but other than that he was just Pete Rose being Pete Rose, no more or less so than in a half-dozen other Pete Rose years. As for Ichiro, the whole rookie package just fascinated people, with everyone overlooking the fact that, despite his league-leading 242 hits, his paltry walk total of 30 kept his on-base percentage under .400 (.381). That, of course, has never changed. Despite all those hits (a record 10 straight 200-plus seasons), the only year he has ever had a “4’’ as his first OBP digit (.414 in 2004) necessitated an all-time record of 262 base knocks.

Oh, and the Mariners won the division with a record 116 wins. That didn’t hurt his MVP bid, either.

Wills dazzled the world in 1962 with a record 104 stolen bases, to go with 208 hits and 130 runs, stealing the MVP in a close vote with Willie Mays (49 HRs, 141 RBIs). One might say it was sizzle over substance, given that Dodgers teammate Tommie Davis, who finished third, led the league with both a .346 average and 153 runs batted in. But when you break a stolen base record that Ty Cobb established in 1912 you get people’s attention.

OK, where does all this leave Jacoby Ellsbury?

First of all, he’s picking the right year to stake an MVP claim. No one is having a monster year. His only position player competition comes from a pair of teammates and a Yankee or two. Some people are throwing CC Sabathia and Justin Verlander out there, but let’s get serious. Both are excellent pitchers having very nice years, but voters have made it clear over the years that in order for a starting pitcher to make the cut he’s got to have a transcendent season, not merely a very good one. It’s got to be Sandy Koufax in ’63 (25-5, 1.88 ERA, 306 strikeouts), Bob Gibson in ’68 (22-9, 1.12, 13 shutouts) or Denny McLain that same year (31-6, 1.96); something like that. And, please, don’t get me started about relievers.

Ellsbury’s numbers are going to be very good. His OPS is .890, and that’s despite a relatively low walk total (38). But the Red Sox are undoubtedly happy to sacrifice the walks in order to get the pop. With 72 ribbies, he has already surpassed Ichiro’s career high. He projects to well over 100 runs, and he may very well drive in 100 or more, something few leadoff men can ever dream of. (Yes, I know he was lower in the order to start the season, so there would be an asterisk.) But the point is that he has settled into that leadoff role now, and that’s where he will stay.

Of course, we have seen this before. Remember Nomar? Well, he led off for the most part in his rookie year of 1997, and we were all agog as he led the league with 209 hits and 11 triples, scored 122 runs, drove in 98 runs, had 85 extra-base hits (44 doubles and 30 homers), and slugged .534. Only a similarly unimpressive walk total (35 in 734 plate appearances) dragged his OBP down to .342. But no one was complaining, the assumption being he wasn’t long for the leadoff spot - which he wasn’t.

Nomar finished eighth in the MVP voting, by the way. But he was Rookie of the Year.

Ellsbury’s defense, base running, and overall presence are all a major part of the package, which brings us back to the weight voters place on things other than numbers. If a voter has a vision in his or her head of Ellsbury with a walkoff home run, Ellsbury making a sensational catch, Ellsbury scoring on a ridiculously short sacrifice fly, Ellsbury stealing home or Ellsbury repeating that ’07 move when he scored from second on a wild pitch, or Ellsbury otherwise impacting the game in some way, that could, in the absence of a dominant contender, result in a first-place MVP vote.

And what is the competition? Well, it’s Adrian Gonzalez, who will drive in a whole lotta runs. It’s Curtis Granderson. And it’s, and it’s, c’mon, whom? Little Pedey could easily mount a campaign with a strong finish, but show me another viable position player candidate. Just don’t start with the pitchers.

All I’m saying is that, given all the circumstances, Jacoby Ellsbury could join an exclusive club: Leadoff MVPs.

Bob Ryan is a Globe columnist and host of Globe 10.0 on Boston.com. He can be reached at ryan@globe.com.

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