Tuesday, June 16, 2009

Walk, don't run

Jacoby Ellsbury had a .332 on-base percentage when he was bumped from the leadoff spot in the order.

In the two weeks since, he's hit second, seventh and eighth -- and his on-base percentage is .444. He has twice as many walks as strikeouts. Heck, he has more walks than stolen bases.

Problem solved, right?

Well, no, not exactly.

One cardinal rule of baseball is to be skeptical every time you're looking of a sample size of two weeks or smaller. It doesn't take much to skew statistics when you're talking about 50 plate appearances -- just one walk, in that sample size, can boost an OBP by 20 points.

In fact, when there are just six walks on which to make the judgment, it might just be worth breaking them down individually:

* May 31: The first game in which Ellsbury was bumped down to the No. 8 spot in the batting order, hitting in front of shortstop Nick Green. He came up in the fifth inning with runners on second and third and two outs and Green on deck -- and the Blue Jays intentionally walked him. An intentional walk doesn't tell you anything about the patience of a hitter or his knowledge of the strike zone.

* June 2: The second game in which Ellsbury was hitting eighth, again hitting in front of Green. He came up in the seventh inning with a runner on second and two outs -- and the Tigers intentionally walked him. Intentional walk. Doesn't count.

* June 6: With J.D. Drew taking the weekend off, Ellsbury now was hitting second in the batting order. He came up in the fifth inning with Dustin Pedroia on first base and one out, and he worked a five-pitch walk. Two batters later, after a double steal, Jason Bay singled home both Ellsbury and Pedroia. A terrific spot for a walk -- and it led directly to a pair of runs.

* June 13: With a lefty on the mound and Drew on the bench, Ellsbury was hitting second yet again. He worked a one-out walk in front of Kevin Youkilis, and he stole second base, advanced to third on an error and then scored on another error when the Phillies tried to pick off Youkilis at first base. Another good spot for a walk.

* June 13: Daisuke Matsuzaka stood on first base with two outs and Youkilis waited on deck. Ellsbury took three straight fastballs off the outside corner, watched another fastball clip the outside corner, swung and missed at a changeup down and away, and then resisted swinging at a changeup in the dirt. Youkilis then struck out, but that doesn't change the fact that Ellsbury did his job: He gave the team's No. 3 hitter a chance to hit with runners on base. A productive walk.

* June 13: Yes, Ellsbury walked three times in one game -- and all three were productive. Pedroia had just singled home a run, and there were runners on first and second with two outs. Ellsbury chased the first pitch he saw, fouling off a cut fastball down and away, but he waited out the next four pitches, all below the knees, and gave Youkilis a chance to hit with the bases loaded. (Youkilis then hit a laser that would have scored three runs if not for an over-the-shoulder catch by Shane Victorino.) Another productive walk.

In his last 10 games, then, Ellsbury has worked four unintentional walks -- all in spots where he gave the heart of the batting order a chance to hit with runners on base. For context, let's compare that to the rest of the Red Sox lineup:

Nick Green: 0 in 34 plate appearances (0.0 percent)
Jacoby Ellsbury: 4 in 46 (8.7 percent)
Dustin Pedroia: 6 in 61 (9.8 percent)
Jason Bay: 5 in 48 (10.4 percent)
Mike Lowell: 6 in 44 (13.6 percent)
David Ortiz: 5 in 33 (15.1 percent)
Jason Varitek: 8 in 43 (18.6 percent)
Kevin Youkilis: 10 in 46 (21.7 percent)
J.D. Drew: 11 in 46 (23.9 percent)

Fun fact: Since May 11, the only Red Sox hitters to be issued intentional walks are Ellsbury (twice), Varitek (twice) and Lowell. Think the middle of that lineup is imposing at all?

Again, it's a small sample size -- but it does drive the point home: The walks Ellsbury has drawn over the last two weeks are a good start, but he's still got a long way to go if he's going to be the type of high-OBP on-base guy the Red Sox would like him to be.

No comments: