Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Jacoby Ellsbury and selectivity at the plate

"They’re not going to try to walk me. They’re not going to want to give me a free pass. A lot of times, people talk about getting your walks up – but if they’re going throw me strikes and not want me to get on base, they’re going to throw a lot of strikes to me, which makes it a little more difficult to walk."
-- Jacoby Ellsbury, March 3

"Everybody talks that you need to walk more, but they need to throw you balls. If you’re fast they’re not throwing you many balls. They don’t want you on the basepaths. As a fast player, as a leadoff guy, they’re not going to pitch around me. It makes it tough to walk. If you go up trying to walk you get down in the count. If the pitch is there you have to be swinging at it. You can’t be taking pitches just to walk. The biggest thing for me is quality at-bats. I can’t control what they’re doing."
-- Jacoby Ellsbury, June 2

The Red Sox still see Jacoby Ellsbury as their leadoff hitter of the next decade. He's one of the fastest players in baseball, and that allows him to get on base even when he doesn't hit the ball all that hard. (For example: His speed indirectly caused Rick Porcello to misplay a chopper in front of the mound, the pitcher bobbling the ball in his haste to get a throw off.)

But if he's going to hit leadoff in front of some of the best hitters in baseball, he has to get on base at a better clip than .342. Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia and Jason Bay all are up over .400 -- there's no reason for Ellsbury not to be able to be in that territory.

He just has to figure out how to take a walk once in a while -- and that means not making the excuses he's been making since the spring.

He's right. Pitchers don't want to give him a free pass. The statistics even back that up; so far this season, he's second among all Red Sox regulars in pitches seen in the strike zone. Here's an abbreviated leaderboard:

* Nick Green, 50.7 percent
* Jacoby Ellsbury, 50.6 percent
* Mike Lowell, 50.2 percent
(The major league average is 49 percent.)
* Kevin Youkilis, 47.9 percent
* Jason Bay, 46.8 percent
* David Ortiz, 46.1 percent
* Jason Varitek, 44.8 percent

But that doesn't mean Ellsbury isn't doing his part by helping those pitchers out. When pitchers do take him out of the zone -- something that's still happening almost 50 percent of the time -- he's doing more chasing than almost anyone on the team:

* Nick Green, 43.4 percent
* Mike Lowell, 27.4 percent
* Jacoby Ellsbury, 26.1 percent
(The major league average is 24.5 percent.)
* Dustin Pedroia, 23.9 percent
* Jason Varitek, 23.8 percent
* J.D. Drew, 19.4 percent
* Kevin Youkilis, 18.7 percent
* Jason Bay, 17.0 percent

On the other hand, when a pitch is in the strike zone, he's not doing as much swinging as a few of his teammates:

* David Ortiz, 76.7 percent
* Nick Green, 70.6 percent
* Jason Varitek, 66.9 percent
(The major league average is 65.7 percent.)
* Kevin Youkilis, 61.4 percent
* Jason Bay, 61.3 percent
* Jacoby Ellsbury, 60.6 percent
* Mike Lowell, 59.1 percent

It all comes down to knowledge of the strike zone. Ellsbury is taking pitches when they're in the strike zone, and he's chasing pitches when they're not.

In a way, he's right when he says it's not really about drawing walks. If pitchers fill the strike zone with fastballs and he can get hits, it won't matter. After all, if you only draw 20 or 30 walks but hit .350, you're still going to have an above-average on-base percentage. The problem is that Ellsbury isn't hitting .350. He's not even hitting .320. Before his two-hit effort against the Tigers on Tuesday, in fact, he wasn't even hitting .300.

Until Ellsbury learns what to chase and what to lay off, he's not going to be a quality top-of-the-order hitter.

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