CHICAGO — Among the 18 qualified leadoff hitters in baseball, Jacoby Ellsbury has the fourth-lowest on-base percentage (.303), second-lowest OPS (.638), and second-lowest batting average (.241).
Outside of Desmond Jennings (Rays) and Juan Pierre (Marlins), Ellsbury is the worst leadoff hitter in baseball through 45 games.
Let’s pause here to consider that the Marlins aren’t really trying to win this season. So among teams that are trying, the Red Sox have the second-worst leadoff hitter.
History does not suggest a major change. Ellsbury has been a little better in the second half of the season in his career (.300/.346/.463) than the first (.285/.346/.406), but not remarkably so.
His batting average on balls in play is .273, which is below his career mark of .318 but not to such a point as to suggest he has been a victim of incredibly bad luck.
Ellsbury did have a transcendent second half in 2011 (.328/.375/.625) that included 21 home runs. But since then he has had only five home runs in 494 at-bats while hitting .259/.309/.356.
It’s fair to say that 2011 was the outlier season of all outlier seasons for him. Ellsbury had an OPS+ of 146 that season. He has otherwise never been above 98 for a full season. The average OPS+ is 100.
When you look at his spray chart, you see a lot of ground balls to second base.
Ellsbury looks to be trying to pull the ball most every time up and isn’t getting much return for it. That’s a puzzle for the Red Sox to solve. The amateur analysis is that he’s trying to muscle up and hit for power instead of going the other way, taking singles, and getting on base.
Ellsbury will be a free agent after the season, so it’s fair to wonder whether the pressure of that is affecting him. This slump would theoretically cost him millions, although one should never underestimate the power of Scott Boras to manipulate the free agent market. Perhaps there’s a one-year “pillow contract” out there for Ellsbury or a team still entranced by those 2011 statistics.
The Red Sox could have that pillow. They’re paying Ellsbury $9 million this season. How about a one-year deal for $10.5 million to try again? Boras took an average annual value of $12 million for Michael Bourn from Cleveland, albeit for four years.
The other side of this issue — the far more pressing one — is how long the Red Sox will continue to bat Ellsbury at the top of their order. The other options would seem to be:
Shane Victorino: He has had a nice bounce-back season at the plate. But nagging injuries have dogged him.
Dustin Pedroia: He seems like the obvious choice. But he doesn’t much like hitting leadoff and is producing bunches of hits at No 3. Why mess with that?
Daniel Nava: He would be an unconventional choice but he does have a .382 OBP. But if the idea is to use Jonny Gomes against lefties, Nava may not be in the lineup every day.
John Farrell has been a calm hand at the tiller so far, immune from making rash decisions. The Red Sox are 27-18 and solidly in contention, so perhaps they can give Ellsbury another two weeks to figure it out.
But at some point, you can’t keep running a leadoff hitter out there who doesn’t get on base. That’s about as simple as baseball analysis gets.