Friday, September 18, 2009

Maybe Jacoby Ellsbury is just lying

Jacoby Ellsbury all season has maintained he's an aggressive hitter who looks for strikes, the type of hitter opposing pitchers aren't going to walk because they don't want to put him on base. He's a contact hitter with a high contact rate. He's not going to turn himself into the type of leadoff hitter J.D. Drew was, the type of leadoff hitter Dustin Pedroia was trying to hard to be.

He's going to see the ball and hit it. That's about the extent of it.

The trouble is, well, it's not true.

For one thing, he's not swinging at the first pitch the way he did last year and the year before. He's a look at how his putting-the-first-pitch-in-play numbers trend:

2007: 126 plate appearances, 20 first pitches (15.9 percent)
2008: 607 plate appearances, 79 first pitches (13 percent)
2009: 616 plate appearances, 46 first pitches (7.5 percent)

When Ellsbury swings, he makes contact around 88 percent of the time. If he's not putting the first pitch in play, it's because he's not swinging at it.

He's also working deeper into counts than he has ever before. Hitting coach Dave Magadan credited this with to a bolstered confidence when he's hitting with two strikes -- rather than swinging at the first pitch he can reach, he's waiting for his pitch early in the count even if it means he winds up down 0-2 thanks to a couple of breaking balls on the outside corner.

Here's how his pitches-per-plate appearance numbers have trended:
2007: 3.67
2008: 3.58
2009: 3.77

Within this season, even, he's making progress:
April: 3.69
May: 3.73
June: 3.98
July: 3.66*
August: 3.74
September (thus far): 3.92
*Ellsbury went back to the leadoff spot in the order after the All-Star break. You can decide if the dip is coincidental or not.

When you consider that the average major-league hitter sees 3.83 pitches per plate appearance, it's clear Ellsbury has made a specific adjustment to take more pitches and work deeper into counts.

Oh, and he's having more success this year with two strikes on him, too:
2007: .692 OPS
2008: .519 OPS
2009: .665 OPS*
*He hit a home run on an 0-2 pitch on Thursday night.

Ask him about it, though, and he'll insist he's maintaining the same approach, maintaining the same aggressiveness early in the count if he gets a pitch to hit.

If opposing pitchers know he's more comfortable taking a first-pitch strike, he'll see more first-pitch strikes -- and he'll go down 0-1 and 0-2 more often. For all the improvement he's made hitting with two strikes, he's still far more productive when the count is in his favor.

It's almost as if...

Nah. Couldn't be.

Are you making more of a conscious effort to take more first pitches, or does it just seem that way?
"No, not really. I've always taken a lot of first pitches. I haven't consciously done anything different."

The pitches per at-bat for you have been trending up this year. I wasn't sure if you were working deeper to counts or if it's just the way you're being pitched.
"It's just the way I'm being pitched. If they're throwing me strikes over the middle, I'll swing at them. If they're throwing them off the plate, hopefully, I'll take them. I'm an aggressive hitter as it is. But if they're throwing them in the zone, I'll be swinging, that's for sure."

Magadan said it takes some time to hit with two strikes and to be comfortable getting deep into the count without worrying about being down 0-2, especially in the major leagues. How do you develop that or learn that?
"A lot of it is being comfortable with your approach, having good eye-hand coordination, being able to adjust and hit the breaking ball, hit the changeup, hit the fastball. It just gives you confidence to hit with two strikes. It's never really been an issue for me. I haven't really worried about it too much.

"As a leadoff hitter and a guy who can steal, they're going to pitch the ball over the plate. They're going to make you put the ball in play. That's what they do against me. Everyone talks about your walks, but they're going to throw me strikes. If I take strikes, I go down looking. My approach is to be aggressive and put the ball in play and see what happens."

When you came up to the major leagues, were you already comfortable going down 0-2, or was there a point when you got more comfortable hitting in pitchers' counts and still being productive?
"Any hitter wants to be in hitters' counts. I don't want to be 0-2. If it happens, I feel comfortable putting the ball in play and hitting a ground ball and trying to beat something out or making them make a play, making them make a good play on me. I guess that's how I've always hit. I've always felt fairly comfortable hitting with two strikes."


Jim Monaghan said...

Is there any way to track the changes that pitchers made in their approaches to Ellsbury after his initial success in 2007?

One of the things I thought in 2008 was that pitchers had adjusted to Ellsbury and he hadn't made the appropriate counter adjustment.

This year he seems to be in a better launch position with the bat, which I think is allowing him to see the ball a little longer.

Brian MacPherson said...

There is a way, but I don't have access to those numbers. Just like we can track how pitchers are attacking the strike zone, we can track how hitters are being attacked. (Here's an example:

I just don't have the resources to pay for those sorts of numbers.

Waiting until deeper in the count is a huge adjustment, though, and it makes him more dangerous early in the count because pitchers can't waste breaking pitches off the plate on the 0-0 count thinking he'll swing at them. They've got to come right after him.

floydiansea said...

Whether he's admitting it or not, or even aware of it or not, it certainly seems that he's made adjustments that make him even more dangerous. Great contact, patience and speed? Jeepers.