The Red Sox lost 5-4 to the Rays last night, falling a game and a half behind the team with the best record in baseball. (More on them tomorrow.) The Sox lost in part because Jacoby Ellsbury failed to reach base in four plate appearances. The game continued what is a brutal slump for Ellsbury; he has not reached base more than once in any game since June 15, and his June numbers make Juan Pierre look like…OK, a slightly better Juan Pierre: .245/.265/.327, with 20 strikeouts against three walks.
I want to go back to a piece I wrote a week ago for CBS Sportsline, which hosts the AL Tout Wars league. In the piece, I describe a trio of trades I made in an attempt to salvage my season, and I include the following note:
There’s something else going on here as well. I am utterly convinced that I got the meat of Ellsbury’s season. His peripherals have spiraled downward in June, and he has so little power than I suspect pitchers are starting to just knock the bat out of his hands. With fewer times on base, and what will probably be a tendency to steal less as the season wears on, I strongly suspect that Ellsbury won’t get to 60 steals this year. I feel like I traded him at a high point.
Now, that Ellsbury has hit .194/.237/.306 with six strikeouts and two walks since the deal helps to make me look competent, but that’s not the point I’m trying to make. No, instead I’m fascinated by the apparent path of Ellsbury’s season, one in which it appears-and I want to be careful to qualify this with the note that sometimes an apparent pattern is just noise-that pitchers have learned about a critical hole in his game and have begun to exploit it.
For a second, get a mental picture of Ellsbury, or just click back to the front page and take a look at him. He’s listed at 6’1″ and 185 pounds, and he looks a bit smaller than that. Ellsbury has some pull power to right-center, but he distributes the ball around the field with a level stroke, hitting more balls to left field than to center, and more to center than to right. Power is not a big part of his game; despite a couple of blips in small samples at Double-A in 2007 and last September in the majors, Ellsbury’s isolated power has generally been between .100 and .125, with even that mark raised by the doubles and triples he gets with his speed rather than his putting a charge on the balls he connects on.
Comparisons to Johnny Damon, who has a similar swing, are both persistent and reasonably accurate, with one critical difference. As Ellsbury rose through the Sox system, he struck out a bit more at each level, but never at a rate that created concern. Last season at Pawtucket, he struck out in 11.7 percent of his plate appearances, a figure that has risen to 12.7 percent in the majors, and 13.0 percent this year. The raw figure isn’t crippling, but the steady trend does indicate that he’s being overpowered just a bit more at each level.
Now look at Ellsbury’s season to date. After a slow start in which he had intermittent playing time, sharing the Sox center-field job with Coco Crisp, Ellsbury made a case for increased run in the second half of April, when he started 15 of 16 games and hit .310/.423/.466, with nine unintentional walks and just one strikeout in 72 plate appearances. Ellsbury was working deep counts frequently, and despite very little power-four extra-base hits-he was drawing walks.
Ellsbury continued to play well in May, with a respectable .275 batting average and 13/13 BB/K ratio in 113 PA. The uptick in his strikeout rate looked more a function of deep counts than any problems with the bat. In June, however, a disturbing reversal took place. Pitchers stopped walking Ellsbury and started blowing him away. In 102 plate appearances, Ellsbury draw three walks and struck out 20 times-nearly once every five PAs. His batting average went in the opposite direction of his contact rate, slipping to .245 even as he maintaned the identical .299 BABIP he’d had in the season’s first two months.
This is not a coincidence. I think that in the same way hitters who have solid walk rates and no power in the minors often run into trouble at the higher levels, Ellsbury is seeing a critical part of his game disappear in the majors as pitchers recognize that he can’t hurt them. While Ellsbury does have some pull power to right, he also tends to hit the ball on the ground that way, and he does not have a natural uppercut. The natural thing to do is to pound the strike zone and make Ellsbury swing the bat. While he has sustained his success when he makes contact, he has found himself hitting behind in the count more, generating fewer walks and many, many more strikeouts.
Now, after bringing all of this up, I’m not writing his eulogy today. Returning to the popular comparison, Damon saw his contact rate drop when he reached the majors, and he was a pretty lousy player in his age-22 and -23 seasons. At 24, he started to drive the ball more, and at 34, he has nearly 2200 hits, a World Series ring, and $70 million or so in career earnings. The critical difference mentioned above is age-Ellsbury is already 24, so he has less development time remaining to him-and it’s possible that Ellsbury simply won’t be able to add the power that Damon did. Jeremy Reed certainly didn’t have Ellsbury’s pedigree, but he stands as an example of what can happen to a player’s OBP if he can’t hit for a modicum of power.
What we can say is that Ellsbury is facing the toughest challenge of his baseball career, and how he meets it is going to determine whether the outsized expectations created by his cup of coffee in 2007 and his excellent post-season work can be filled. His June performance isn’t a slump caused by random variation. There definitely is a reason for it: the league learned how to get him out. How he adjusts back to the circuit will make the difference between him being a starting center fielder or becoming just a good fourth outfielder.