Jacoby: Not an overnight superstar
posted at 8/4/2011 11:06 AM EDT
It's hard to figure out where it started for Jacoby Ellsbury
On his way out of the clubhouse Wednesday night -- about an hour after teammates had given him the celebratory business for a second straight night thanks to a walk-off, ninth-inning homer -- Ellsbury offered a hint.
"In Little League," he said, "I hit 17 home runs in 16 games." (There was no time to verify. It would just have to be assumed to be true.)
Perhaps that was instance Ellsbury became a superstar. Others would argue another jumping off point, whether it be when he ran down a deer at the age of 11, starred at Oregon State, or put on an American League All-Star uniform.
"Dude, he's good," Red Sox designated hitter David Ortiz said of Ellsbury. "He's learning how to play the game. Everything comes down to a lot of hard work and experience, and that's what he's taking advantage of right now.
"Ells has always been a superstar to me. He just has sometimes health problems, but he plays the game like a superstar. That's the reason why this organization has waited for a while because they believe in what he's got, what he can do. And he's coming through like they expected."
This was the biggest takeaway from the Red Sox' 4-3 win over the Indians Wednesday night: the moment Ellsbury's line drive cleared the centerfield fence, making him the first Red Sox player to notch back-to-back walk-off RBI since Butch Hobson in 1978, he could wear the badge befitting the best. He might have been Ortiz' superstar for some time now, but it has been a process that led the outfielder to this punctuating point.
Ellsbury is hitting .317 with a .373 on-base percentage and .886 OP. He has hit 18 home runs and swiped 31 bases. How do these numbers rate among American League outfielders? Averge: Second; OBP: Fourth; OPS: Fifth; Homers: Fourth; Stolen bases: Third.
"I heard great things about him coming into the season," said Red Sox first baseman Adrian Gonzalez. "I wasn't around for the last couple years to see where he was, but he's definitely put himself in part of the elite center fielders in the league."
But, even with the prolific home run tear in Little League, the road to this moment -- when we can legitimately call Ellsbury a superstar -- has offered a reminder that patience is perhaps an organization's, and player's, most important attribute.
Just after Ellsbury was selected in the 2005 draft, the image of the outfielder leading off his Oregon State baseball team's College World Series game came on the Red Sox' clubhouse television. Some players understood the irony. "Hey Johnny," relief pitcher Alan Embree yelled over to then-Red Sox centerfielder Johnny Damon, "your replacement is on TV." The young leadoff hitter wouldn't disappoint, beating out a routine grounder to shortstop.
Then there was trying to figure out exactly what Ellsbury was. While playing in the Arizona Fall League, he was instructed to bunt at least twice a game by his AFL manager, and former Red Sox coach, Luis Alicea. It was a weapon the organization raved about as the outfielder moved through the system, and ultimately translated into eight bunt hits in '09. The evolution, however, has led to not a single bunt single this season.
While many remember his ninth-inning catch the World Series-clinching game in Colorado, it is sometimes forgotten that it wasn't until the sixth game of the American League Championship series that Ellsbury was inserted in the lineup, having accumulated one at-bat in the Sox' first eight playoff games that year. The Red Sox wouldn't lose another game once he took over for Coco Crisp.
Then came the transformation into an everyday player, starting in '08. But, again, despite his solid season (hitting .280 with 50 SBs in 145 games), he would lose his starting job by the fourth game of the American League Championship Series, having gone hitless in his 14 at-bats against Tampa Bay. A year after Ellsbury's perceived postseason breakout, fortunes of Ellsbury and Crisp had flipped.
In '09, when the centerfield job was officially Ellsbury's, what is now looked back at the first true example of what the Red Sox had -- a season in which he hit .301 while stealing 70 bases -- there was a major bump in the road many forget. After going 0-for-4 in a May 30 game against Toronto, the outfielder was moved out of the leadoff spot. He was hitting .299, but only carried a .332 on-base percentage (.268 vs. lefties). Yet, it would seem, while hitting lower in the order, Ellsbury learned a lesson, bouncing back with a .391 OBP in June, including a .516 OBP against lefties.
And while many viewed the injury drama of '10 as Ellsbury's last great roadblock, it should be noted that this season didn't exactly start out swimmingly. He was once again yanked from the leadoff spot, having lived under .200 for the first 20 days of the season. But once he reentered life at the top of the order, on April 22, there has been no looking back, hitting .337 with a .388 OBP and .918 OPS (second-best on the team).
Now you have your superstar.
Despite what those tuning in the last two games might suggest, it didn't happen overnight.
"He's a guy that's always asking questions. We're always talking," Gonzalez said. "It's just incredible what he can do."