No member of the Red Sox was more impressive during spring training than Jacoby Ellsbury. Though manager Terry Francona admitted at the start of spring training that there was some concern about the possibility that his time away from the field in 2010 — he played just 18 games due to rib fractures — would hinder the outfielder’s development, there was no evidence of that notion in Florida.
Ellsbury hammered the ball throughout the spring, covered ample ground in center, ran aggressively on the bases… In short, he looked like the dynamic player whom the Sox had hoped was coming into his own entering 2010.
Then came the start of the season. Ellsbury went 3-for-8 with a homer in his first two games against the Rangers, but then entered a bit of a tailspin. He endured an 0-for-15 stretch between Texas and Cleveland, and suddenly, six games into the year, the Sox elected to drop him from the leadoff spot to the bottom of the order.
The results there were little better. Ellsbury showed power, but did not get into a consistent rhythm at the plate. He hit .200 with a .282 OBP after his removal from the leadoff spot, and he sat in three of the Sox’ next 12 games.
But with Carl Crawford unable to get on track after he took over as the Sox leadoff hitter, the Sox returned Ellsbury to the perch in which he has spent most of his career. And in the last six games in that spot, he has delivered the sort of impact for which the Sox were hoping.
He has at least one hit in all six games since returning to the leadoff spot, and four multi-hit games — including back-to-back three-hit games to conclude the series in Baltimore. He is 12-for-28 (.429) with a walk and five doubles, a .448 OBP, .607 slugging mark and 1.055 OPS, as well as a pair of steals. The difference for the Sox has been notable.
“We’re a different team,” manager Terry Francona said of Ellsbury’s impact. “I’ve probably said it a million times. Whoever’s hitting first, when they’re on base, especially with speed, it changes the game a lot. Even when guys aren’t stealing, if they’re having to stop guys from stealing, it creates a lot of things going on. It makes the next guy a better hitter, more mistakes, things like that.”
Francona suggested that Ellsbury has taken a more relaxed approach at the plate en route to his improved results. The outfielder has been using the whole field, rather than becoming pull-conscious. In short order, he has lifted his numbers to a .264 average, .326 OBP, .471 slugging mark and .798 OPS for the season.
‘At the end of the homestand when he got a few hits, he threw a couple balls into right. He didn’t whack them, he just stayed on them. He fought them off and got a couple hits ‘ big hits,” said Francona. “The last week or so, though, he’s using the whole field, he’s getting on top of the ball when he hits it to left field and he’s hitting a lot of line drives. It’s a short stroke. He hasn’t been afraid to hit deep into the count. There’s been a few strikeouts because of it, but he’s worked the count real well.”
As Francona pointed out, Ellsbury has been striking out with surprising frequency. He has eight whiffs during his current six-game stretch from the leadoff spot, and 23 in his 95 plate appearances this year, or one for every 4.1 plate appearances, a significant increase over his career rate of one per every 8.5 plate appearances prior to 2011.
Interestingly, more than half of Ellsbury’s strikeouts have been called. Given his recent performance, the Sox seem unconcerned.
‘I think sometimes [strikeouts] go in spurts. He’s swung the bat so well, he’s taken some called thirds, he’s had a few swinging. He’s had a pretty good week. I don’t think he’ll be a real high strikeout guy when it’s all said and done,” said Francona.
Ellsbury has gotten into two-strike counts in nearly half (46) of his 95 plate appearances. He is 7-for-44 with three homers, two walks and the aforementioned 23 whiffs when down to his last strike.
‘I think [his two-strike approach] will improve,” said Francona. “He’s still a young hitter and sometimes trying to find out what he could do. I also think early in the year it gets a little more glaring, just because guys aren’t in their compelte rhythm yet and things like that.”
–Carl Crawford and J.D. Drew are both getting the night off with left-hander Justin Vargas on the hill for the Mariners, and the Sox wanting to get some playing time for outfielders Darnell McDonald and Mike Cameron, who have played infrequently thus far this year. Both have been limited in their playing time in part because of the success of Drew and David Ortiz against lefties.
Drew is hitting .316 with a .960 OPS against lefties. Ortiz, who struggles against left-handers a year ago had relegated him to a near-platoon with Mike Lowell, is hitting .385 with a 1.054 OPS against southpaws. In the process, he has reasserted himself as an everyday player.
“He’s swinging at strikes, not chasing balls, taking his walks and staying through the middle,” said Francona. “He had a nice at-bat against [Orioles reliever Mike Gonzalez] the other night where he stayed right back through the middle. He’s kind of taken what they’re giving him, and he’s not expanding his zone.”
As for Crawford, who is now hitting .160 with a .436 OPS, Francona suggested that he is working with hitting coach Dave Magadan to improve the timing of his setup at the plate.
‘If there’s one thing I know they’re talking about, it’s just getting ready sooner. When it’s a rush, and there’s different terms, you get your front foot down, but when it’s a rush, it’s a little harder to see the ball, to react, so they’re trying to get him ready a little earlier,” said Francona. ‘It certainly should [help with pitch recognition]. Hitting’s always so finicky. One thing, people talk about mechanics. If you’re not seeing the ball, you can’t have good mechanics. It all goes hand in hand.”
–Kevin Youkilis, who left Thursday’s game with a sore left hip, is back in the lineup on Friday.