After a lost 2010 season, Jacoby Ellsbury is silencing doubts about his durability with a fine 2011.
Jacoby Ellsbury has arrived. Again.
2011 feels like 2008 all over again for Red Sox fans, and Jacoby Ellsbury might even say as much himself.
2008 was Ellsbury's first full season in the Majors. Having swiped the starting center field job from Coco Crisp in the previous, World Series-winning fall, Ellsbury lived up to hype in 2008.
Ellsbury made 114 of his 129 starts from the leadoff spot. He led the AL with 50 stolen bases. He finished third in AL Rookie of the Year voting. Boston's top prospect was panning out.
2009 was even better for Ellsbury. His 70 stolen bases were an MLB-best, and he looked increasingly comfortable at the top of the Boston order, hitting .301 with a .355 OBP, improving upon his 2008 averages in both of those categories by roughly 20 percentage points.
And then last year happened.
The Lost Season
The offseason addition of Mike Cameron had, not without much analysis and debate in the media, moved Ellsbury over to left field. On April 11, Ellsbury and third baseman Adrian Beltre collided while playing a shallow fly ball, resulting in hairline fractures to four of his left ribs.
Two different return stints, one in May, the other in August, both ended with the same result: Ellsbury back on the 15-day DL with rib injuries.
All in all, Ellsbury played in only 18 games in 2010.
2010 had to have been the epitome of frustration for Ellsbury. At 26-years-old and riding high as a third-year Major Leaguer, all signs pointed to Ellsbury breaking out and cross the threshold of stardom.
A second consecutive season hitting .300 would have likely squashed any lingering doubts about the young speedsters ability to hit leadoff. An All-Star selection, something Ellsbury had never earned, wasn't out of the question.
Instead, seemingly everything that could go wrong in 2010 did go wrong. Ellsbury effectively lost a season of his prime, in what has to have been a agonizing feeling for a young player who very much appeared to on the verge of accomplishing bigger and better things in a career that was panning out extremely well for both him as an individual as well as Red Sox as his employer.
Instead of adding to his luster, Ellsbury had to answer question after question about his toughness amid perceptions that he was soft and nursing minor injuries.
If anyone should have been taking heat, it should been individuals on the Red Sox medical staff for rushing Ellsbury back in May before his ribs had fully healed, as revealed by a more extensive diagnosis in June.
A lost season indeed.
Proving Himself All Over Again
2011 feels a little like 2008 for Jacoby Ellsbury because he's had to prove himself all over again, just like a rookie.
Ellsbury showed up to Fort Myers in February, chomping at the bit. He finished spring training with a .390 batting average and a pair of homers in 16 games. A sign of things to come.
The best way for Ellsbury to silence questions from 2010, about his durability and toughness, was to shut his mouth and rake in 2011, which is exactly what he's done.
Ellsbury looks totally locked in as the calendar flips to June, and he's giving no indication that he's going to let up any time soon.
He's hitting right around .300, his .365 OBP is a full 10 points higher than his career-high (.355) and his 19 stolen bases lead the AL.
Most impressively, Ellsbury is hitting for power. He already has six homers this season. He's never hit more than nine in any single season.
Ellsbury's 15 doubles have him more than halfway to his career high (27) only a third of the way into the season.
Ellsbury's sliding hard on the basepaths and executing his usual stunning diving catches with absolutely no hesitation. The ribs are healed and he trusts his body.
Maybe this year that first All-Star nod will finally come.
Looking to the Future
For all of Ellsbury's success this season, one has to wonder what the future holds for him. He's had his name tossed around in trade discussions throughout his career.
Interestingly, the Red Sox were able to obtain Adrian Gonzalez from San Diego without giving up Ellsbury, a player often linked to this deal in various trade rumors.
As for Ellsbury, speed and defense have always been his best tools, and he's proving that he can consistently hit for average. In 2011, he's beginning to hit for power.
Speed and slick D are never enough for any player to secure star status. Veterans Scott Podsednik and Juan Pierre are prime examples of this. They were never able to develop much more to their game besides these tools, which both rapidly fade with injury and age.
But with his power and sustained ability to not only hit but draw walks, Ellsbury is beginning to live up to once-hopeful comparisons to Kenny Lofton, former Red Sox center fielder Johnny Damon and current teammate Carl Crawford.
2011 was the first of three arbitration-eligible seasons for Ellsbury. He avoided it this time around by signing a $2.4 million one-year deal. Ellsbury is now at the juncture in his career where Boston GM Theo Epstein has locked up other homegrown talents to long-term contracts.
This list includes Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, Jon Lester and, most recently, Clay Buchholz.
Is it, now, Jacoby Ellsbury's time? The base-stealing darling of the World Series-winning 2007 postseason is maturing into a franchise cornerstone, putting the demons of 2010 behind him with his excellent 2011.
He's becoming known for more than just stealing bases on the opposition and the hearts of New England women.
Ellsbury's at a crossroads in his career, where he's poised to break out and firmly establish himself as one of the game's best outfielders, moving beyond the niche reserved for guys with speed and a good glove but nothing else.
Two months into 2011 and Ellsbury is looking good. But we all know the season is six months long.