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Ellsbury should follow Damon's lead

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  April 26, 2011 07:57 AM

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The Red Sox fan's daydream that Jacoby Ellsbury could someday become the player Johnny Damon was in his prime is more than reasonable.

It's practically impossible to resist comparing them, and not just because Ellsbury was essentially Damon's successor in center field, excepting Coco Crisp's underwhelming place-holding for a year-and-a-half.

Both Ellsbury and Damon are fast, lefthanded-batting, presumed lead-off hitters. Both have noodle-arms in center fielder, though it must be noted that only one once had a throw cut off by his left fielder. Both have greatly assisted pink t-shirt sales in their day.

And then there is that trendy comparison of the moment; namely, that Ellsbury may be adding power to his offensive repertoire, just as Damon did after a couple of years in the bigs. And baseball-reference doesn't exactly discourage the comparison. Damon, in the third full season of his career in 1998, smacked 18 homers with the Royals after hitting just 17 in his first 1,297 at-bats. Ellsbury, with four homers through 73 at-bats this season, is showing signs of a similar slugging surge after clubbing 20 through his first 1,372 at-bats.

damonjohnnyfinn425.jpgDuring his four years with the Red Sox -- it seems like longer, probably because of the lasting legacy he secured in 2004 -- Damon averaged 14 homers per season. During his four years in New York, where he found the short right field porch to his liking, he averaged a fraction more than 19 homers per season. If Ellsbury could approach producing that kind of power, he'd be such a force when he hits free agency that Scott Boras might actually be actually succeed in convince a team or two that he's the second coming of Rickey Henderson, an extremely hyperbolic approach he previously took with Damon.

But there are also causes for . . . well, not alarm or concern, exactly, because not even bunting fool Mike Scioscia is going to take issue with a home run or a dozen out of his lead-off man. So let's put it this way: Ellsbury's boost in power is a terrific development if it's legitimate and not a misleading, teasing conclusion drawn from a little bit of early-season data. The suspicion of the latter is magnified by this: Damon hit 18 homers during his age 24 season; Ellsbury turns 28 in September. And we're still not sure who he is as a ballplayer.

The other caveat is that swinging for the fences from time to time -- something Ellsbury appears to be doing, given his uppercut swing, his shrinking groundball percentage of 39.2 (he's at 50.4 for his career), and his increased fly ball rate (43.1 percent, nearly 13 percent higher than his career average) -- is fine so long as it doesn't become counterproductive. Eighty-one at-bats into the season is obviously too soon to conclude that it is, though it's curious that he's striking out in 28.8 percent of his at-bats this season. Reggie Jackson, the all-time leader in strikeouts, whiffed in 26.3 percent of his at-bats over his career.

Repeat, and repeat again: His current numbers are based on a limited number of at-bats, and they are subject to change for better or worse during the next few evenings in Baltimore. But in the big picture, there's no denying that there are other elements of Damon's game that Ellsbury would be better off emulating. You probably know what they are, and I don't mean growing long hair and a beard or running headlong into a utility infielder in a playoff game.

Ellsbury's No. 1 priority should be mastering the leadoff hitter's ultimate duty, not to mention the most important fundamental of a baseball offense: getting on base as often as possible. And during the 60-something percent of the time when he does make an out, he must at least make the pitcher work for it.

He's actually more effective at getting on base than dingbats like me usually give him credit for, owning an acceptable .342 lifetime on-base percentage, including a high of .355 in '09, which happens to match Damon's career percentage. You'd like to see him get up in that .380 range consistently, which Damon achieved or surpassed in 2000 and '04, but with just incremental improvements Ellsbury be a dynamic table-setter. It's rare that hitters improve their patience in the big leagues, but Ellsbury made a leap of .19 from '08 to '09, and with good health and the right priorities when he's in the batter's box he could do it again.

But he's not there yet, in part because he must become more patient. Or maybe the better word is selective. He's currently 52d in the American League in pitches per plate appearance (3.79), three spots ahead of the Royals' Jeff Francoeur, who rumor has it sometimes swings at breaking balls while he's still on deck. Again, a puny sample, but it falls right in line with his career numbers: He was 54th in the AL in '08 (3.59) and 52d in '09 (3.77).

Damon is just 37th in the AL at 3.92 this season, but history strongly suggests he'll climb the charts as the season progresses. Last year he was 10th in pitches per plate appearance (4.11). In 2009, 14th (4.06). And in 2008, 10th again (4.10). That's a long history of working the count, flicking a pitcher's best offering foul then doing it again and maybe again, and exasperating an opponent by methodically driving up his pitch count the way Chuck Knoblauch and Derek Jeter used to do to Pedro back in his electric prime.

kellyrobert425.jpgYankees fans who like to argue that the overlooked Brett Gardner is just as effective at the top of the order as the once-hyped Ellsbury will delight in knowing that Damon's successor in left field led the AL in pitches per plate appearance last season at 4.61.

A healthy Ellsbury should be a superior player to Gardner; he certainly has more raw talent. But at age 27, often the peak year for a hitter, what will he become? Can he be Grady Sizemore? Steve Finley? Kenny Lofton? Ellsburys similarity comps through age 26 don't exactly encourage dreams of Cooperstown: Johnny Grubb, Denard Span, David DeJesus, Felix Jose, the unforgettable Doc Smoot . . .

(Apropos of nothing, as my colleague Mr. Cafardo would say, his most similar comparison through ages 24-25 is Roberto Kelly, whose dual claims to fame were hitting a home run off Jeff Reardon to perform last rites on the Red Sox' playoff hopes in 1991, and being traded straight-up for Paul O'Neill, a deal with which Yankees fans -- and Seinfeld fans -- have no grievances.)

Ellsbury is off to an inconsistent start (.219 batting average, 296 on-base percentage), which is completely justifiable given his lost 2010 season when he played just 18 games after Adrian Beltre crushed his ribcage like a sleeve of saltines. He's shown real signs of life recently, with two hits in each of the last two games against the Angels. And with two at-bats tonight, he'll equal last season's total, a small victory unto itself considering all he's gone through.

Ellsbury deserves the benefit of the doubt, and it's cool to see him break into an unexpected home run trot (or four) early in the new season. But at as the at-bats accumulate, we'd almost rather see him run than trot, because that would mean he's not only fulfilling the lead-off man's duty of getting on base, but fulfilling his own vast promise in a way that best utilizes his skill-set.

No one is suggesting he should strive to be Jason Tyner; the homers are great. But here's hoping they're an accessory to Ellsbury becoming what his talent tells us he should be, not an alternative.

-- GlobeChadFinn

About Touching All The Bases

Irreverence and insight from Chad Finn, a Globe/Boston.com sports writer and media columnist. A winner of several national and regional writing awards, he is the founder and sole contributor to the TATB blog, which launched in December 2004. Yes, he realizes how lucky he is.

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