BOSTON — Is he the dashing young superstar who awed the baseball world with his speed and power in 2011?
Or is he the middle-of-the-road, middle-aged ballplayer he’s been much of the rest of his career?
Few questions have inspired more barroom arguments around New England than:
Who is the real Jacoby Ellsbury?
He and super-agent Scott Boras are convinced he’s one of baseball’s best and some team will be all too happy to throw about $120 million dollars for six years their way after the season.
But you have to wonder as the injury-prone Ellsbury, who turns 30 on Sept. 11, continues to leave the Fenway faithful frustrated.
Regaining the 2011 magic
Ellsbury was speaking with Boston Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez a week ago Friday when the center fielder mentioned his 2011 season.
You remember Ellsbury’s amazing 2011 campaign when he bashed 32 homers, drove in 105 runs, stroked 46 doubles, led the American League with 364 total bases and batted .321 with a .376 on-base percentage.
“He told me early, the first month (during ‘11), he hit (only) a few (homers) and then slowly he was getting his power numbers,” Rodriguez said. “He said that this year the difference is that early in the season he’s feeling a lot better with his approach. He feels like he’s more comfortable. Eventually, if that (what Ellsbury did in 2011) is the way it goes, we’re going to see a lot of good things from him.”
Ellsbury’s identity as a hitter still is very much in question as he approaches free agency at the end of this season.
Who is the real Jacoby Ellsbury?
Is he the prototypical leadoff hitter like he was in 2009 when he legged out 10 triples, stole 70 bases and hit .301 with a decent .355 on-base percentage but had only eight homers?
Or is he a potential No. 3 hitter with the 30-homer power he put on display in ‘11 when he finished second for the AL MVP?
Then there have been years when he has had low on-base percentages (.336 OBP in 2008, .313 in 74 games last year and .314 in first 41 games this year), reflecting that he might not even be an ideal top-of-the-lineup hitter.
One reason nobody knows who he is is that he has missed so much time with injuries since the beginning of 2010.
Something that is clear-cut: Since his remarkable 2011 season, Ellsbury hasn’t been the same hitter. He has batted just .263 with five homers and 39 RBIs over 115 games since then (entering Friday’s contest in Minnesota).
“I feel great,” Ellsbury insisted recently. “I have a good approach. I’m putting the ball in play. Just stick with the plan.”
Another slow start
In his first 41 games this year entering Friday, Ellsbury batted .249 with a lackluster .314 on-base percentage and just one homer, 13 RBIs and seven doubles, putting him on pace to finish with four homers, 51 RBIs and 28 doubles.
That said, he was leading the AL in triples (4) and stolen bases (12).
Will his power return? Well, Ellsbury is correct about how his home run swing developed as the 2011 season progressed. He had just four homers on May 19, 2011. Only 11 of his 32 homers that year came before the All-Star Break.
“I’ve just got to hit the same balls,” Ellsbury said. “Instead of liners maybe (the pitchers) miss in a little bit and I get under it.”
Whether the power numbers return or not Ellsbury needs to do much more to prove his worth than just stay healthy. Especially with the way he has looked at the plate recently. And with some big holes in the lineup, the Red Sox desperately need his production.
Ellsbury was just 12 for 64 (.188 average) with two extra-base hits and one stolen base this month entering Friday.
It’s not surprising he hasn’t been stealing bases because he hasn’t been on base.
Rodriguez thinks Ellsbury is capable of being a combination of what he was in 2009 and ‘11.
If he doesn’t turn it around soon, it won’t be easy to get that megabucks contract that he and agent Scott Boras have coveted for so long.
“He’s got the strength to hit the ball out,” Rodriguez said. “He’s got the strength of running, getting on base, stealing bases. So it’s just a matter of continue to work, get comfortable at the plate, try to really not focus on anything but let things happen.”
Rodriguez said there is nothing too specific he and Ellsbury must work on.
“I think the main thing with him is to keep him aggressive at the plate,” Rodriguez said. “Looking for his pitch and be aggressive and let it go. Take his chances early and then with two strike, he’s pretty good putting the ball in play.”
Red Sox hitting coach Greg Colbrunn said Ellsbury’s numbers don’t exactly reflect how the center fielder has hit.
“If you go back and look at the video and compare 2011 to 2013, (it) pretty much matches up,” Colbrunn said recently.
“Everything matches up stride for stride. We feel like he’s been swinging the bat pretty well lately and seeing the ball. His at-bats have been good. He’s hit some balls with tough luck.
“He could easily be at .300 with three or four or five home runs and a couple more doubles. And it just happens the balls that he has hit well have happened to be into the wind or right at people and things like that.”