Three weeks ago Yankees hitting coach Kevin Long wanted to bet me that Jacoby Ellsbury would finish the year with at least 15 home runs. Ellsbury had one home run at the time. I regarded Long's offer as a figure of speech, otherwise I would have jumped on it.
Two weeks later I saw Long again. Ellsbury had only two home runs, where he remained as New York passed the one-third mark of the season last weekend.
"Still think he gets to 15?" I asked Long.
"Yes, absolutely," he said.
In Boston, where the Red Sox have the worst hitting outfield of the past half century, people may be lamenting the loss of Ellsbury, who last winter left the Red Sox with little more than a thank you to sign a seven-year, $153 million contract with New York. But it becomes clearer with each passing fly ball to the warning track that Ellsbury's 2011 season may have been one of the most anomalous power campaigns in history (32 homers, 105 RBIs). Not even playing his home games at Yankee Stadium this year (He'll hit 20 to 30 home runs in that park! went the common hot stove talk) has invigorated him. Only 2.3 percent of his flyballs this year are going for home runs, a fraction of the 12 percent that flew out in 2011.
This is not to suggest that Ellsbury is a bad player. He is a premier defender, an expert baserunner and a fine table-setter. It's just that he's not a power hitter and should not be expected to be one. Without power, and given the money the Yankees gave him, he is not as missed in Boston as you might think -- despite huge problems in that outfield that the Red Sox will need to address.
Ellsbury is one of 14 position players in baseball history to sign a contract worth more than $150 million. All of them have hit 10 home runs in a season at least three times -- except for Ellsbury, who has done it once.
"Home run hitters drive Cadillacs," said the late Ralph Kiner, a seven-time home run champion. "Singles hitters drive Fords." It hasn't been literally true since the advent of free agency, but it's not even figuratively accurate these days. Ellsbury is the richest table-setter in history. He proved that you don't need power to get slugger money; but it does help to have among your suitors a Yankees team desperate to avoid missing the playoffs for a second straight year for the first time since 1993.
Both New York (29-27) and Boston (27-30) are pillars of mediocrity in a year in which mediocrity reigns. Eighteen of the 30 MLB teams (60 percent) are within four games of .500. For the most part, this season seems to be about teams simply hanging around .500 and waiting for a three-week hot streak that will put them on track for 90 wins and a spot the postseason tournament.
I asked Long what happened to Ellsbury's power.
"Have you watched the way they've pitched him?" Long said. "Everything's away. They've pitched him tough. And he's done a great job doing what he can with those pitches. He shoots the outside pitch the other way as good as anybody. We're in the process now of making adjustments. We're working on getting him closer to the plate."
"You mean, making that outside pitch a pitch that looks down the middle?"
"Maybe, but it's more than that. You have to invite the pitcher inside. How do you do that? By getting on the plate. Then the pitcher begins to think he can bust it in on your hands. And once he does that, he'll get pitches that he can turn on.
"What you have to remember is that Jacoby doesn't hook pitches. He doesn't take that pitch that's away from him and hook it into the rightfield seats. [Mark] Teixeira can hook the ball. [Brian] McCann can hook the ball. [Carlos] Beltran can hook the ball. But that's not the way Jacoby hits."
Yankee Stadium has yielded the fourth-highest slugging percentage in baseball this year (.436), behind only Coors Field in Denver, Rogers Centre in Toronto and Chase Field in Phoenix. And yet Ellsbury has only six extra-base hits at Yankee Stadium, including one home run, and a .393 slugging percentage to go with his .273 batting average and .342 on-base percentage.
It should not be a surprise. Ellsbury has hit with relatively little power before and after the 2011 season for so long that the question about him should not be Where did his power go? but What the heck happened in 2011? It belongs with the odd career years of Davey Johnson (43 in 1973), Wade Boggs (24 in 1987) and Brady Anderson (50 in 1996) as among the most anomalous in history. None among them hit even half as many homers before or after their career highs.
The truth is that for the past three years Ellsbury is way closer to being Padres outfielder Chris Denorfia than he is to being a $153 million slugger. Check out the similarities:
Denorfia, by the way, also is playing under a multi-year contract, though it has slightly fewer digits: two years, $4.25 million. Ellsbury will make more money in 16 games than Denorfia will all year.
Meanwhile, on Thursday night in Cleveland, the Boston outfield continued its anemic hitting. Jonny Gomes, Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr. went 0-for-11 with six strikeouts, dragging down the team's batting average from all of its outfielders to .215. They are on pace to be the franchise's worst hitting collection of outfielders since the 162-game schedule began in 1961. Here are Boston's worst groups in that span according to batting average, OPS and home runs, with the players with the most appearances in left, center and right, respectively, listed parenthetically:
Red Sox Outfielders, Worst Batting Average (1961-2014)
2014: .215 (Jonny Gomes, Jackie Bradley Jr., Shane Victorino)
Red Sox Outfielders, Worst OPS (1961-2014)
2014: .614 (Jonny Gomes, Jackie Bradley Jr., Shane Victorino)
1992: .666 (Billy Hatcher, Bob Zupcic, Tom Brunansky)
1994: .701 (Mike Greenwell, Otis Nixon, Billy Hatcher)
2012: .715 (Daniel Nava, Jacoby Ellsbury, Cody Ross)
2010: .729 (Daniel Nava, Darnell McDonald, J.D. Drew)
Red Sox Outfielders, Fewest HRs (full seasons, 1961-2014)
2014: 28* (Jonny Gomes, Jackie Bradley Jr., Shane Victorino)
1993: 31 (Mike Greenwell, Billy Hatcher, Carlos Quintana)
1992: 31 (Billy Hatcher, Bob Zupcic, Tom Brunansky)
2012: 40 (Daniel Nava, Jacoby Ellsbury, Cody Ross)
* projected total
Wait, it gets worse. This group of Red Sox outfielders are on pace to be the worst hitting outfield in the past 53 years among all teams. When you look at the competition to be the worst of the worst, you will notice how hard it is to get a hit in the major leagues in this era. Three of the five worst outfields show up in just the past three years, though the Red Sox and White Sox of this year still have two-thirds of a season to pull up their mark.
|Worst Batting Average By Outfielders|
Worst Batting Average by Outfielders (1961-2014)
2014 Red Sox .215 (Jonny Gomes, Jackie Bradley Jr., Shane Victorino)
2012 Astros .220 (J.D. Martinez, Jordan Shafer, Brian Bogusevic)
Last year, Boston's outfielders led the league in hitting (.285), making this decline a first-to-worst collapse. For all that went right for the Red Sox last year, much has gone wrong this year, especially in the outfield. Nava has twice been sent to the minors for remedial work. Victorino and Mike Carp (one home run combined) have been hurt. Gomes has reverted to struggling against righthanded pitching (.174). Sizemore and Bradley neither hit with power nor get on base often enough.
There is no way Boston will stand for an outfield continuing to hit .215 without doing something by the end of July. Whether the answer is promoting Mookie Betts from its minor league system or trading for free-agents-to-be such as Seth Smith or Josh Willingham, or one of the surplus outfielders in St. Louis (Allen Craig?), the Red Sox will have to start considering options if Gomes, Bradley, Sizemore and Victorino don't improve in the next 30 games.