|Almost: Jacoby Ellsbury finishes second in AL MVP voting||11.21.11 at 2:02 pm ET|
The storybook ending seemed obvious enough.
Jacoby Ellsbury would shake off a 2010 season that was ruined by injury, produce an epic 2011 year that impacted the Red Sox in every way imaginable, leading his team to baseball’s ultimate prize while being also receiving the sport’s highest form of individual recognition.
Through no fault of Ellsbury’s, it didn’t quite turn out that way. The Sox, of course, endured a historic September collapse, despite their leadoff hitter’s best efforts to prop up his club. And Ellsbury fell just short of MVP honors, finishing second behind winner Justin Verlander of the Tigers in voting by the Baseball Writers Association of America.
Verlander received 280 points and 13 first-place votes. Ellsbury was second with 242 points, ranking first on four ballots and second on 13 more.
Even so, Ellsbury’s finish can hardly be viewed as a disappointment. Indeed, it represented a triumph for a player who not only returned to his pre-injury form but flourished into one of the elite players in a game, demonstrating an ability to dominate the game as he had never done before.
On many occasions in 2011, those around the Red Sox suggested that Ellsbury was a man on a mission. After a 2010 season in which he was limited to 18 games by rib injuries, the center fielder wanted to demonstrate anew that he was both a player who had to be dragged off the field and one who could make a tremendous impact while on it.
He accomplished that mission in full.
Ellsbury became the first player in Red Sox history to hit at least 30 homers and drive in at least 30 bases in the same season. Remarkably, even though he hit leadoff, he also managed to clear the benchmark of 100 RBI in one of the great offensive seasons in Red Sox (and even baseball) history.
Ellsbury finished the season hitting .321 with a .376 OBP, .552 slugging mark, .928 OPS, 32 homers, 39 steals (in 54 attempts) and 105 RBI. He led the American League with 83 extra-base hits and 364 total bases. Ellsbury delivered middle-of-the-order production while continuing to deliver his top-of-the-lineup impact on the bases.
Perhaps as significant, Ellsbury also played a career-high 158 games, or 140 more contests than he played in the previous season. Moreover, he played his best baseball down the stretch, singlehandedly trying to prop up the Sox as their season was getting derailed. As most of his teammates struggled, Ellbury was transcendent, hitting .358 with a .400 OBP, .667 slugging mark and 1.067 OPS along with eight homers and 21 RBI in the last month of the year.
The monster power numbers came as the biggest surprise to the baseball world, given that Ellsbury had never before managed to hit as many as 10 homers in a season. (His previous career high of nine came in his rookie season of 2008.) But Ellsbury said that he was not stunned by his power surge.
“I know what I’m capable of doing. I know everybody has been surprised by the power numbers, but it’s always been there,” Ellsbury said on the final weekend of the season, after he cleared the 30/30 plateau. “It just hasn’t translated to the game, but every year, I’ve consistently gotten better. This is kind of what I was looking for last year.”
Hitting coach Dave Magadan said that he, too, had long believed that Ellsbury could one day emerge as a power hitter. With a greater understanding of his own swing, as well as a growing comprehension of how opposing pitchers were attacking him, Ellsbury was able to apply his raw power into games as never before.
“It came quicker than a lot of people thought. A lot of people thought it wouldn’t ever come. I got a lot of strange looks when I talked about how much power he had,” said Magadan. “At the beginning of the year, I was saying that he had as much raw power as anyone on our team. A lot of people scoffed at it, but I see him swing everyday and just knew it was a matter of time.
“[The power was apparent] the first time I saw him. Watching him take batting practice, seeing how the ball took off his bat, it had a lot of carry. When he really got a hold of one, like I said, it was only a matter of time. He can hit them as far as anyone on our team.”
The award capped a spectacular return from a 2010 season that was ruined almost as soon as it started. Ellsbury, viewed by many as a breakout candidate, instead suffered multiple non-displaced rib fractures in the first week of the 2010 season.
That, in turn, led to several calls last winter for the Sox to trade the 2005 first-round pick, but the Sox resisted the temptation to sell low on a player whom they continued to view as having dynamic, game-changing potential. Ellsbury tuned out those conversations and instead threw himself into his offseason workout program with abandon.
A couple of winters ago, he moved from Oregon to Arizona so that he could be closer to the Athletes’ Performance facility during the winter. While he has been committed to the API program for years, last offseason, he took it to another level.
He did not want to miss a single day of his winter workouts. Instead of making his usual trip back to Madras for the holidays, Ellsbury had his family fly to Arizona to see him.
“I didn’t want to miss a day of training,” he said. “My sole focus was to get back to where I left off [before] 2010.”
He did just that. And in the process, he changed the conversation about both his present and future.
Rather than focus on whether the organization should part ways with him, fan and industry discussion about Ellsbury now revolves around whether the Sox will be able to retain him beyond 2013, when he will become eligible for free agency. However, that has now become a matter for another date. For now, the Red Sox are able to point to Ellsbury’s emergence as one of the success stories of their scouting department and player development system.
Verlander went 24-5 and led the American League in wins, ERA (2.40), strikeouts (250), innings (251), starts (34), WHIP (0.92), and ERA+ (170). He pitched more than seven innings 19 times on the year, or one more than the entire Red Sox staff (and, indeed, more than 12 teams). And he was nearly unbeatable down the stretch, going 12-0 with a 2.59 ERA in his last 13 starts as the Tigers pulled away in the AL Central.
Two of Ellsbury’s teammates, Adrian Gonzalez (7th) and Dustin Pedroia (9th), also finished in the top 10 in AL MVP balloting. The Sox were the only team in the league with three players to rank that high.
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