Red Sox keys: Jacoby Ellsbury

October 01, 2008 - 11:29 am

Jacoby Ellsbury raced into the consciousness of the American public by winning everyone in the country a free taco from Taco Bell last October. His prize-winning stolen base came represented an impressive punctuating moment to a debut in which he hit .353 with a .394 OBP in the regular season, then followed that with marks of .360 and .429 OBP in October.

It proved difficult for the 25-year-old to sustain that performance in 2008, his first full season in the majors. He hit .280 with a pedestrian .336 OBP and .394 slugging mark. His uneven season contributed to the team's season-long struggles from the leadoff hole. 

For the season, Sox leadoff hitters had a terrible line of .256/.322/.344/.665. The team ranked second to last in the American League in OPS by its leadoff hitters and third to last in OBP. The Sox were 27th among the 30 big-league clubs in OPS and 25th in OBP. 

He shifted between the top and bottom of the batting order over the course of the season. Yet while the Sox made concessions to his struggles throughout the middle of the year, they remained mindful of the impact that Ellsbury could have at the top of the order.

"I don't think it was entirely appropriate all year to hit him lead-off because there were some struggles, but I think we acknowledged all year long that's where we wanted him to end up," said Sox manager Terry Francona. "I said all year even when he wasn't hitting lead-off, we would be a better team when we got him back in that lead-off spot and that's what's happened."

Ellsbury's resurgence in September came at a crucial time, as the Sox were losing lineup mainstays such as Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew to injury. After slumping for much of the summer, he concluded the year with an 18-game hitting streak, the longest by a Red Sox hitter this year. During that time, he hit .370/.386/.580/.966, while scoring exactly a run a game.

In games where Ellsbury has batted leadoff and reached base either once or not at all, the Sox 34-31. In games where he has reached base twice or more from the lineup's pole position, the team is 33-17. That reflects, at least in part, upon Ellsbury's tremendous ability to score. He led the A.L. with 50 steals, demonstrating an ability to move himself into scoring position. His presence on the bases, teammates believe, also helped to distract opposing pitcher or force them into slide step deliveries, resulting in better pitches to hit. 

"I don'€™t want to say he'€™s the key, but he'€™s very important to us scoring runs when he'€™s getting on base," said teammate Alex Cora. "We'€™re not the power hitting team that people think we are. With him on the bases, the next guy gets better pitches to hit. It trickles down the lineup."

For his part, Ellsbury understands that he plays a table-setting role. 

"My job is to get on base and to score runs," said Ellsbury. "Being a leadoff hitter, no matter how you get on'€”error, hit by pitch, hit, home run'€”get on base, cause some havoc on the bases and get in scoring position."

If he reprises his exceptional performance of last October, then the Sox will enjoy a significantly improved opportunity to do damage against a fine Angels pitching staff.