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Ellsbury's season may be historically great

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  July 25, 2011 06:30 AM

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Since Jacoby Ellsbury flashed on the Fenway scene in 2007, helping win a world championship for Boston and a taco for the world, it's been fun to try to find a player he compares to and a challenge to find one that felt accurate.

Baseball-reference's player comparisons were of little help. Ellsbury's similarity scores mostly brought up old timers such as Buzz Boyle, Buster Mills, and Danny Southern. Only Tim Wakefield could tell us anything about them, having surely faced one or the other when he was tossing devilish knucklers for the Pittsburgh Alleghenys back in the late 1890s.

Among ballplayers not quite so ancient, Johnny Damon, his center field predecessor once removed, was an easy potential comp, but there was skepticism whether Ellsbury would hit with similar power, which also left any Grady Sizemore or Brady Anderson comps feel like wishful thinking.

His new teammate, Carl Crawford? Pretty close, but the longtime scourge of Red Sox catchers is another with presumably more extra-base pop.

Brett Gardner? Yankees fans had an argument a season ago when Ellsbury was injured, not so much now, though that probably won't stop them.

Jason Tyner? OK, now you're just being mean.

Now that Ellsbury is healthy, hitting for power for the first time, and putting together an overall monster season -- at this writing, he's batting .317 with 16 homers, 28 stolen bases, 125 hits, and an .891 OPS -- he finds himself compared to a higher class of players. His numbers this year remind me of a vintage Roberto Alomar season. There's some Best of Barry Larkin to be found in those numbers, too, and maybe some Expos-era Tim Raines. If you're keeping score, that's a brand-new Hall of Fame inductee, a player who might want to get a speech ready for next year, and another who I know will get there because he deserves it, even if Raines needs to take the Blyleven path.

Good company? Legendary company. And while keeping in mind that this is fewer than 100 games we're talking about, here's the amazing thing: Should Ellsbury sustain this pace, his season would rank as one the most statistically impressive in baseball history. And the company he would keep would become even more elite.

Skeptical? Stay with me. First, consider that according to CBSSports.com, Ellsbury's current numbers projected over a full season come out to 27 homers, 92 RBIs, 210 hits, 121 runs, 47 steals, a .316 average, and an .886 OPS.

Once my eyes returned to my sockets after looking at those numbers, I know what I had to do: To the baseball-reference.com play index! Pronto! The mission: To find out how many players in baseball history have approached that set of numbers in a single season. I rounded down Ellsbury's projections slightly, first searching for players who have had 25 homers, 45 stolen bases, a .310 average, and an .880 OPS in a single season.

Turns out there are just five of them, and not one named Bonds, Griffey, Mantle or Mays. I present them in reverse chronological order:

Thumbnail image for hanleyfinnells725.JPGHanley Ramirez, 2007: In his second full major league season, the former Red Sox phenom who went to Florida in the necessary Josh Beckett/Mike Lowell swap batted .332 with 29 homers, 81 RBIs, 51 steals and a .948 OPS. He finished 10th in National League Most Valuable Player voting. Jimmy Rollins won the award, and yes, it seems strange that the Phillies shortstop ever was the league MVP. Stranger still, upon looking at Hanley's beastly numbers his first four seasons in the majors, is his puzzling regression this year. He's hitting .247 with 10 homers and a 100 adjusted OPS. The one thing I never thought Hanley Ramirez would be in his age 27 season is average.

arod98finn.jpgAlex Rodriguez, 1998: A-Rod actually had other years -- many of them -- that were more wondrous years or wonderful years or whatever that card says. Start with his three MVP seasons (2003, '05, '07) in which he walloped a combined 149 homers. Then there were his two runner-up seasons (1996, when led the league with a .358 average and 379 total bases at age 20 and fans actually liked him, and '02, when he hit 57 homers but finished a distant second to Oakland's Miguel Tejada.) But his '98 season sticks out here because of the particular parameters we set; this was the one time in his career that A-Rod surpassed 45 steals, finishing third in the league with 46. Forty-year-old Rickey Henderson led the league with 66, which provides a nice segue to the next guy on our list . . .

rickey90finn.jpgRickey Henderson, 1990: Well, hello Rickey. No surprise to see you here . . . I think when we set the criteria for this based on the numbers Ellsbury is charging toward, the first name that came to mind as a potential match is Henderson's, the best leadoff hitter the game has known and the all-time leader in stolen bases and runs scored and second in walks . . . We know how Rickey feels about his own career: "Today, I am the greatest." But where would you rank him among the greatest players of all-time? Has to be in the top 25 easily, right? Baseball-reference's Fan EloRater has him at 23d between Ken Griffey Jr. and Eddie Mathews . . . As part of my master plan to annoy you into admitting Raines belongs in the Hall of Fame, I must note that he is Henderson's most similar player at every age from 24-39, though the similarity score wasn't particularly close . . . Don't know if you saw him in the celebrity softball game during the All-Star break, but he still looks like he could play at 53. At the least, he could probably come off the street and lead the Mariners in on-base percentage . . . Oh, yes, his 1990 season: .325 average, 28 homers, 65 steals, 119 runs scored, league-leading 1.019 OPS, and his only MVP award.

morganjoefinn723.jpgJoe Morgan, 1976: You may have heard this a time or two -- and by a time or two, I mean every other inning -- during his 21 years masquerading as analyst on ESPN's "Sunday Night Baseball" broadcasts, but it's worth mentioning in today's context since it was a season worth bragging about. Morgan won his second straight MVP award in '76, batting .320 with 27 homers, 111 RBIs, and 113 runs, as the Reds, on the short list of the greatest single-season teams in history, went on to sweep the Yankees in the World Series. The truly impressive thing -- or I should say most impressive-- about Morgan's season is his efficiency. He stole 60 bases and was caught just nine times. He walked 114 times while striking out just 41. And he led the NL in on-base percentage for the third straight season (.444), slugging (.576), and, obviously, OPS (1.020.) I think it's fair to say we all got weary of Morgan talking about his exploits as a player. But looking at what he accomplished, it's very easy to understand why he was so proud.

cedeno73finn.jpgCesar Cedeno, 1973: Upon first glance, the longtime Astros center fielder may appear to be the weak link among this quintet, the Alex Gonzalez in a lineup of Adrian Gonzalezes. But to dismiss him immediately would be to overlook how productive he was in his early career, when the comparisons to a young Willie Mays might have seemed doused with hyperbole had Cedeno not been a big league regular at 19 and a Gold Glove-winning star with a 22-homer/55-steal season to his credit at age 21. According to "The New Bill James Historical Abstract," published in 2001, Cedeno rated as the 21st best center fielder of all time and the fourth-best young center fielder (career value up to 25), trailing Ty Cobb, Mickey Mantle, and Tris Speaker, and a spot ahead of Mays. Injuries and scandal prevented Cedeno from fulfilling his early promise, and though he spent 17 seasons in the majors, '73 was arguably his last great season (.320 average, 25 homers, 56 steals).

* * *

So once the play index gave us the aforementioned Fab Fave, I upped the degree of difficulty by adding 120 or more runs and 210 or more hits as categories.

With those feats -- again, both within Ellsbury's current projections -- the list narrows to two: Ramirez '07 and Rodriguez '98.

(With their work here done, I like to imagine that Rickey and Morgan will go off and yammer about who really had the best season among them. "Rickey says Rickey is the greatest!" "Well,you cannot be the greatest if you did not play for the World Champion 1975 and '76 Reds, Rickey. That was a slidepiece, Jon.")

Finally, once we add one more category to the criteria -- 90 or more RBIs -- there's just one man standing at the top step of the dugout:

Alex Rodriguez is the only player in baseball history to meet the set of dazzling if specific offensive statistics Jacoby Ellsbury projects to achieve this season.

Three conclusions:

1) A-Rod had such a phenomenal season in 1998 that I'll refrain for once from making a snide crack about him. (Feel free to do so yourself, however. 'Roid jokes, popcorn-feeding actresses, centaur paintings, Jeter envy, and purple lip gloss are always popular topics.)

2) Obviously, the failure to meet the stolen base criteria weeds out countless legendary players and seasons along the way. Hey, I didn't set the parameters; Ellsbury did.

3) Ellsbury's bounce back from his lost and controversial 2010 season, when he played just 18 games because of multiple rib fractures, has blown right past impressive and redemptive and is speeding toward historic faster than he goes from first to third.

Advanced metrics and conventional wisdom suggest Ellsbury isn't the Red Sox' most valuable player, let alone the league's. Dustin Pedroia is second in the majors in WAR (fangraphs version) to Toronto's Jose Bautista, while new-kid-in-town Adrian Gonzalez is the people's choice for the AL MVP.

But if Ellsbury can continue to pile up the stats and soar among the stars, he will be a very tempting choice for voters when they're looking at their MVP ballots. Perhaps even the favorite.

Red Sox fans, of course, hope Ellsbury keeps it up for obvious reasons -- he's a blast to watch, an electrifying athlete, somewhat ironically, an upgrade on what Carl Crawford was supposed to be, and he's helping the team win (and win, and win).

I hope he keeps it up for another reason. To see where it falls among the most well-rounded power/speed offensive seasons in baseball history.

The bar has been raised, Gardner.

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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