In his first two years in the Major Leagues, Boston Red Sox OF Jacoby Ellsbury hasn’t been a guy who has flashed much power. In 2008 and 2009, Ellsbury hit a combined 17 home runs and had an ISO (isolated power) of .114 each season. To put that in perspective, his .114 ISO over those two seasons was fourth worst in baseball amongst outfielders, and was worse than Aaron Rowand (.148) and Mark Teahen (.142).
However, in 2011, Ellsbury has been “Hulking” up. In his first 20 games of this season, Ellsbury has already four homers and his ISO is a respectable .206. He has shown more pop than ever before and he is hitting more fly balls than ever before.
Going into Sunday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim, 45.8 percent of Ellsbury’s at-bats have ended with a fly ball. That’s exactly an 11 percent increase from last season. And if you take his infield fly-ball percentage of 4.5 percent, then a whopping 52 percent of Ellsbury’s at-bats in 2011 have ended with a ball in the air.
There are two schools of thought when it comes to this recent power serge from Ellsbury. There’s the thought that hitting for more power is good for him, as it means he is becoming more of a complete player with the stick. The second thought is well, shouldn’t a guy with his speed focus on hitting line drives and getting on base?
These schools of thought have morphed into whether or not Ellsbury is becoming the next Grady Sizemore, or the next Willie Mays Hayes?
The Sizemore Argument
My buddy Odie and I always compared Ellsbury to Sizemore. Both are white, left-handed hitting center fielders, who showed tremendous speed at an early age. After two years, the speed was certainly there for the Red Sox outfielder (even more than Sizemore), but the power Sizemore developed wasn’t there for Ellsbury.
Sizemore hit 22 home runs in his first full season in the Major Leagues in 2005. However, it was the next year where Sizemore showed that he has legit power.
His fly-ball percentage increased from 31 percent in 2005 to 46.9 percent in 2006, and his ISO went from .195 to .243. His power surge netted him a .906 OPS and 28 HR for the Cleveland Indians.
What I liked about Sizemore, in the early stages of his career, was that while his power increased, all his peripherals stayed intact. He was striking out about the same as the previous season and a half (23.4 percent in '06 to 22.6 percent in '04 and '05), his OBP increased (.375 in 06 to .335 in '04 and '05), and he was hitting just as many line drives (19.8 percent in '06 to 21.8 percent in '04 and '05).
When I saw Sizemore early in his career, I certainly said the power increase is good for him and he is becoming the ultimate player. I am not so sure we can say that about Ellsbury just yet.
Which brings us to…
The Mays Hayes Argument
The center fielder for the Indians before Sizemore, and maybe even before Kenny Lofton, was Willie Mays Hayes. In his first season with the Tribe, Hayes was a punch-and-Judy type hitter. He was the '90s version of Vince Coleman.
He would bunt for a hit, steal second and then steal third. He was an unstoppable force.
Unfortunately, all of Hayes’ accomplishments were lost when the Internet bubble burst in the early-2000s. However, if memory serves me correctly, Hayes stole around 100 bases in his rookie year and didn’t hit a home run.
Then, in his second season, when Hayes arrived to camp, he added more muscle and started launching homers. While Hayes was hitting the long ball more often, all his peripherals suffered.
I fear that Ellsbury maybe suffering the same fate.
While he is hitting the long ball more often, Ellsbury is striking out a ridiculous 27.9 percent of his at-bats. For a guy who has never K’d more than 14.4 percent of the time in any full season, this is alarming.
Ellsbury also was a guy who used to hit the ball on the ground, bunt for hits and like Hayes, cause havoc on the base paths. Now, he is hitting a career-low 37.5 percent ground-balls (down from almost 50 percent the previous seasons). It’s hard to cause havoc on the bases when you are hitting pop ups to right field.
Based on what I have seen so far, Ellsbury is turning into more of Hayes than Sizemore. He has developed a severe uppercut in his swing and appears to be looking to hit home runs.
That’s not his game. Perhaps he should take some advice from the late, great Lou Brown:
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