Thursday, August 27, 2009

Better approach at the plate giving Ellsbury more chances to steal bases

(This story appeared only in the Union Leader's print edition.)

No Red Sox player has stolen more bases in a season than Jacoby Ellsbury. But the record Ellsbury broke in Tuesday’s first inning is a byproduct of everything else the second-year center fielder has done this season.

“When I’m getting on base, it gives me more opportunities to steal bases – but at the same time to score runs,” he said.

Ellsbury’s on-base percentage at this time last season was .330. It was .343 going into last night’s game against the White Sox. He’s running more often, but he’s also getting on base more often – and the more he’s on base, the more bases he can steal.

Ellsbury has begun to turn himself from a free-swinging slap hitter into the type of patient hitter the work-the-count Red Sox want him to be. In a lineup filled with pitch-grinders who work counts, the center fielder is working his way up the ladder.

He saw a team-low 3.58 pitches per plate appearance a year ago and swung at the first pitch 25 percent of the time he stepped to the plate.

So far this season, he’s seen 3.75 pitches per plate appearance – more than both Mike Lowell and Nick Green – and is swinging at the first pitch 16 percent of the time.

His first at-bat on Sunday against the Yankees lasted six pitches before he hit a ground ball between first and second base and tied up Robinson Cano. His second at-bat on Sunday ended in a strikeout – but not before he’d forced CC Sabathia to throw eight pitches.

“He’s a little more confident now to go deeper in the count,” Red Sox hitting coach Dave Magadan said. “That’s everything. If you’re scared to get to one or two strikes and get behind in the count right off the bat, you’re not going to see a lot of pitches. Right now, he’s confident that just because he gets strike one, it’s not the end of the at-bat.”

Then again, Ellsbury’s run-scoring single to center field on Tuesday came on a first-pitch slider from White Sox reliever Randy Williams. He’s making himself more unpredictable as a hitter – and that means he’s making himself a better hitter.

“That’s one of the few pet peeves I have as a hitting coach: Unless you’re doing a lot of damage on the 0-0 count, I don’t want guys swinging at the first pitch,” Magadan said. (The hitting coach swung at the first pitch 17 percent of the time during his career.) “Now, I want guys up there ready to hit on the first pitch. If you get a good pitch to hit, I want you to hit it and drive it. But if you’re hitting .270 on the first pitch with a .500 OPS, you’re not doing a good job. If you’re hitting .270, that’s what your on-base percentage is because you’re putting the first pitch in play.”

Ellsbury actually has seen his batting average on the first pitch drop from last year (.347) to this year (.324). That has only given Magadan more reason to wean Ellsbury off his habit of hacking.

Drawing walks remains a challenge. Drawing walks, though, goes hand in hand with doing damage with the bat. The better Ellsbury hits the ball, the more walks he’s going to draw.

“If you’re a guy that’s not going to do anything with the bat, they’re going to throw the ball over the plate,” Magadan said. “I wanted him to show teams that he could sting the ball and hit the ball with authority and then gradually work into that patience and seeing pitches and all that. It’s hard to do it the other way around.”

Drawing walks still can be an extra challenge for a guy with the speed of Ellsbury, but that’s all part of the total package. The more he can get on base, be it via an infield single or a walk, the more damage he can do with his legs.

“On 3-2, he’s going to get fastballs,” said Dustin Pedroia, who usually watches Ellsbury’s at-bats from the on-deck circle. “On 3-1, he’s going to get fastballs. They’re not going to risk walking him. That part, when you see his walks, shoot, they don’t want to walk him. He’s not going to walk 100 times. But he’s done a great job of getting on base. When he gets on base, there’s a good chance he’s going to score.”

Never was that more obvious than in the aftermath of Ellsbury’s record-breaking stolen base. He doubled to lead off the first inning and stole third base on the first pitch Freddy Garcia threw to Pedroia. When Pedroia hit a squibber to first base, Ellsbury scored.

“I hit the ball off the end of the bat, and we got a run,” Pedroia said. “His speed helps us win.”

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