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Centering further attention on Ellsbury

Posted by Chad Finn, Globe Staff  August 9, 2011 02:00 PM

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Yeah, I know, this probably teeters on overkill given that I wrote glowingly and at great length about Jacoby Ellsbury's astronomical statistical projections just a week or so ago. All right, it is overkill. But that's never stopped me before; you might say I'm a ramblin' man, and I ain't ever gonna change. Besides, Ellsbury has been so spectacular -- he would get my hypothetical vote for American League Most Valuable Player if the season ended today -- that it's fun to marvel at what he's accomplished and what he could accomplish through through different lenses.

With Ellsbury adding to the legend of his superb season with back-to-back walkoff hits last week and a six-RBI game against the Yankees Saturday, I caught myself wondering if this was what it was like to watch Fred Lynn during his Rookie of the Year/Most Valuable Player daily double in 1975. Maybe that particular thought was tinged with the usual hyperbole, but it did make me curious about how Ellsbury's season stacks up against some of the best individual seasons compiled by his predecessors in Fenway's center field.

So today's particular lens comes courtesy of baseball-reference.com's addictive Play Index, where for a small fee you can find the answers to just about any statistical patterns, feats, and trends you've ever wondered about. I simply took Ellsbury's adjusted OPS this season, which is 140 entering tonight's game at Minnesota, and searched for Red Sox center fielders who have had a 140 OPS+ or better in seasons in which they qualified for the batting title. It was a pretty simple quest, one that gave us the names of three players who met the criteria a total of nine seasons.

Here they are. I'm sure you'll agree that's some impressive statistical company Ellsbury is keeping:

Tris Speaker 1909-'15 : While some may recall him first and foremost as the captain of Jerry Trupiano and Joe Castiglione's all-audio equipment team, he will also forever be remembered as one of the greatest players of all-time. The lifetime .345 hitter ranks 12th on baseball-reference's Fan EloRater, splitting up No. 11 Mickey Mantle and No. 13 Joe DiMaggio, and that seems about right. What's lesser known about Speaker that he was in center field for Tim Wakefield's first start for the Red Sox, and legend has it that he's the one who, during a train ride during a 1912 road trip to St. Louis to face the Browns, first referred to teammate Jason Varitek as "Tek." True stories, honest.

smithreggie1969finn.jpgReggie Smith (1969): Those who savor their still-vivid memories of the Impossible Dream season are encouraged to provide me with some clarity and context on this, but looking at what Smith accomplished statistically (.826 OPS in a low-offense era, 149 homers) during his seven full seasons with the Red Sox (1967-73), shouldn't he be regarded as one of the most unheralded Boston players of the past half-century? He was no dud defensively, either, featuring a shotgun arm and winning a Gold Glove in '68. I know it's complicated, that in his baseball youth Smith had a reputation as being headstrong, which was a label the Red Sox seemed to casually slap on more than a few minority ballplayers during the particularly shameful seasons of the Yawkey era. But no matter what the circumstances were, there's no denying he had a wonderful career and deserved to spend more than one year on the Hall of Fame ballot. His No. 1 all-time comp is actually another former Red Sox outfielder . . .

Fred Lynn (1975, '79): A reader recently suggested, with bull's-eye accuracy, that I tend to compare a lot of players to Lynn. I thought about it a bit, and there are two reasons for that, I believe. One, as a child of the '70s who, as you may have noticed, is still slightly nostalgic for those days, Lynn was the benchmark for both substance and style. While the old-timers might have thought he should have played through his various injuries, kids admired his grace and cool, whether he was making a spectacular catch in center field (he sure ran into the wall a lot for someone who was "soft") or hitting another majestic home run with that sweet lefthanded swing that we all dearly wished we could imitate but never quite could. That, as you may have guessed, is the sentimental reason. The other reason is that Lynn actually compares historically to both Smith and Ellis Burks, who is Lynn's most similar comp from ages 32-35. Considering Lynn's two monster seasons that pop up here -- his transcendent rookie season in '75 (161 OPS) and his even better '79 season (176, when he led the league in batting, on-base percentage, slugging, OPS, and hit 39 homers) -- it seems to me that comparing Ellsbury's breakout to a vintage Fred Lynn season is just about the highest compliment he can be paid.

conigliarobillycfinn.jpgFootnotes: I'm not even done with the post and I'm already finding an oversight: Even though he predated the "Red Sox" nickname - ah-ha, my loophole! -- I should have noted Chick Stahl, who had a 141 OPS+ while manning center field for the 1904 Boston Americans. In 157 games, he batted .290 with three homers, 67 RBIs, and a team-best .782 OPS. He also had a .961 fielding percentage. No idea about his Ultimate Zone Rating . . . If we change our criteria from a 140 OPS+ to 130, four other seasons make the cut: Lynn's in 1976 (132 OPS+) and '78 (133, trailing only MVP Jim Rice's 157 among Sox regulars); Ellis Burks's superb sophomore year in '88 when he hit .294 with 18 homers, 25 steals and a 131 OPS+ at age 23; and Carl Everett's 2000 (135), when his unique brand of clubhouse-poisoning lunacy remained mostly dormant and he hit .329 with 24 homers and a 1.050 OPS in the first half . . . As for that Dwayne Hosey-as-Spiderman photo at the top of this post, there's actually an explanation: Hosey's 1995 season, along with Billy Conigliaro's '69 season, would have qualified for the above list if both players had had enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title. In '95, the peak of Dan Duquette's obsession for collecting other team's failed and flawed prospects, Hosey duped the Sox into thinking he could be an every day center fielder, hitting .338 with a 1.026 OPS in 77 plate appearances and starting during their ALDS sweep at the hands of the mighty Cleveland Indians. The Opening Day center fielder the next season on one of the worst defensive teams you will ever see (2B, Wil Cordero . . . RF, Kevin Mitchell . . .), he hit .218 in 87 plate appearances before being sent to Pawtucket in May. He never played another major league game.

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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