Thursday, August 4, 2011

The Rise, Fall, and Resurrection of Jacoby Ellsbury

Jacoby Ellsbury burst onto the scene as a 24 year-old September call-up back in 2007.  Coco Crisp was marred in the midst of another disappointing season and Manny Ramirez wasn't quite being Manny that year, so Boston figured it could use a little help in the outfield as it battled the hard-charging Yankees for the AL East crown.  Ellsbury had just seven games of major league experience under his belt, but once he received consistent playing time he made the team for good and hasn't looked back since.

Jacoby started off his career with a bang by torching American League pitchers at a .361/.390/.536 clip across 26 September games.  He notched ten multi-hit games, showed some pop with ten extra base hits and suffered only three hitless games the whole month.  Ellsbury's contributions as AL Rookie of the Month certainly helped Boston capture its first AL East flag since Derek Jeter's rookie season, but the fleet outfielder found himself riding the pine for most of the ALDS and LCS.  Faced with a 3-2 series deficit, a struggling Crisp and intense scrutiny from the Fenway Faithful, Terry Francona finally inserted Ellsbury into the starting lineup for the pivotal Game Six.  He batted eighth, slapped an RBI single to left and scored on a Julio Lugo (of all people) double in the third inning of a series-tying 11-2 pasting of the stunned Indians.  Satisfied with the rookie's poise under postseason pressure, Francona kept him in the lineup, a move that, in retrospect, makes him look smarter than Will Hunting.

Boston polished off the Indians and, with Ellsbury batting leadoff for Game Three and Game Four in Denver, swept the Rockies to win their second World Series championship in four years.  Tacoby Bellsbury won millions of Red Sox Nation inhabitants free tacos with a stolen base in Game Two, stroked three doubles and a single in Game Three (becoming the first rookie to drill a pair of doubles in the same inning of a World Series game) and got the scoring started in Game Four by poking a double down the leftfield line to lead off the game before scoring on a David Ortiz single through the hole.  The postseason hero, who had been an afterthought two weeks earlier, wrapped up his first Fall Classic with an unreal .438/.500/.638 line.  A star had been born, a surefire bet for Rookie of the Year heading into 2008 and I remember thinking at the time Man, it's going to be a blast watching this kid play for the next ten or fifteen years.

And while Ellsbury was good in 2008 and 2009, you got that BJ Upton feeling that he wasn't really playing up to his unlimited potential.  Here was a guy with all the tools, an electric player who could take your breath away, yet by advanced statistical measures he was average at best in every facet of the game except for baserunning (at which he is probably the best in Red Sox history).  Sure, he stole a ton of bases and made some flashy catches in center field, but where was the power?  He finished both seasons with single digit home run totals, and it wasn't like he was finding gaps with lots of doubles either.  Reporters gushed about how he would cream the ball in batting practice and urged us to be patient, that the power would come if we just gave him time. 

Unfortunately, Boston is not a patient town in any sense of the word, and the city soon soured on him.  His once bright star faded rapidly.  He went oh-for-the-friggin-ALCS against the Rays in '08 as the Sox lost in seven, and then failed to do much against the Angels when LA swept us in '09.  In the what-have-you-done-for-me-lately? sports climate, Ellsbury came up short, even though he was earning less than half a million dollars each year and was the definition of an incredible bargain.

In 2010 he changed his uniform number and moved to left field for the aging Mike Cameron, but Ellsbury suffered through a lost season when he collided with Adrian Beltre in April and fractured four ribs.  His injury was misdiagnosed, he came back a few times before promptly returning to Boston's crowded Disabled List (joining teammates Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, and Josh Beckett, among others).  He tried to play through the pain, but team doctors wanted to play it safe and shut him down in mid-August just as the Sox were slipping out of the wild card race.

And then a funny thing happened; Boston turned on him.  It was like this injury was the straw that broke the camel's back, and his name suddenly became as good as mud.  Fans and writers questioned his toughness, called him "soft," said he didn't want to play and was getting revenge on the organization for making him switch positions for someone ten years older than him.  None of these criticisms were true or fair (this guy had four fractured ribs! it wasn't like he was faking the injury like Manny used to), yet Ellsbury's stock tumbled last year.  Talk radio crucified him and Bostonians no longer remembered him stealing home against the Yankees; he was now perceived as a pouting star who couldn't bite the bullet for the good of the team. 

But now the 27 year-old MVP candidate is having the last laugh, and all is forgiven after his resurrection.  He's the total package enjoying a career year right now, and his season has been nothing short of extraordinary thus far.  The first time All-Star has finally put it all together in his fifth season and is hitting .317/.373/.513 and is on pace for career highs with 122 runs, 211 hits, 45 doubles, 27 home runs, 97 RBI, 46 stolen bases (on the low side for him, considering he swiped 70 in '09) and, most importantly, 161 games played.  That's Hanley Ramirez production right there, and according to baseball-reference WAR calculations, he's the third most valuable position player in the AL this season.  On Tuesday he enjoyed his first career walk-off hit with an RBI single against the Indians, and wasted no time in getting his second by lashing a line drive home run to center field last night.  By providing back to back thrilling conclusions, he's single-handedly preserved Boston's hold on first place by doing his best Big Papi impression. 

Unfortunately his contract is up at the end of the season, and Boston might have to let him walk after last winter's spending spree.  Looking back, Theo shouldn't have bothered with Crawford and should have saved some of that dough to resign Ellsbury, but in fairness Jacoby's value was at rock bottom after playing only 18 games last season.  He'll be looking for a big payday and lenty of teams will be looking to add an offensive catalyst like him to the top of their lineups, so Boston will have to pay full market value if they want to retain his services.  Inking him to a long term deal should be the team's top priority this offseason, but he might follow the money and make like Johnny Damon and Jason Bay before him.  He'd be foolish to leave Fenway's friendly confines, where his OPS is 87 points higher than it is everywhere else, but departing free agents seem to lack appreciation for the park's beneficial impact for hitters and Ellsbury would not be the first (nor the last) to think he could replicate his success elsewhere. 

It will be a shame if he's playing somewhere else in 2012, but the greater tragedy may be that far too many Red Sox fans didn't appreciate his greatness until it was too late.

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