Ellsbury stealing Sox records, spotlight
Center fielder lethal on basepaths, still improving in all facets
BOSTON -- The night he morphed into a speeding blur down the third-base line was exactly six weeks ago -- on Sunday Night Baseball against the Yankees, no less.
Jacoby Ellsbury danced off third, saw that Andy Pettitte was ignoring him and fulfilled a life-long dream -- stealing home and getting such a great jump that not even a slight stumble as he approached the plate was enough to stop him.
How come the Red Sox's center fielder -- a Boston blazer if there ever was one -- had never scratched this itch of stealing home during his years as a high school star at Madras (Ore.)?
"He would score from second so often," said Bruce Reece, Ellsbury's high school coach. "I don't think he was on third very often, to be real honest with you. It was mainly second that he would steal. Then the next guy up would hit a ground ball or get a base hit and then he'd score. I can't remember him being on third more than twice out of all those times. I vividly remember guys being on third and talking to them about what we needed to do. I didn't get to see Jacoby at third very often."
At Madras, Ellsbury was legendary for his speed, even if Reece took just a bit of time to realize the extent of it.
"To give you an idea, I used to yell at him, 'You've got to get down, you've got to get dirty.' Then, after about a year and a half of doing that, I realized he was beating every throw there and I was being ridiculous to yell at him so I quit yelling at him," said Reece. "He did not get thrown out once in high school."
Unlike many of the other skills that baseball players develop, speed is typically something that is there or isn't there, and it's up to the individual to determine how big a weapon it becomes. Ellsbury has wowed with his legs since he first started playing baseball.
Actually, it wasn't just baseball.
"I always knew I was fast from a young age," said Ellsbury. "I played all different sports. Football, basketball, soccer -- so I played pretty much everything growing up. I was always one of the faster kids."
And the high-flyer of the neighborhood.
"I could dunk pretty easily," said the 6-foot-1 Ellsbury. "My vertical got even better as I got older. I could do some 360s and stuff. But it was fun, having speed and being able to jump. Especially playing football. I played wide receiver and defensive back."
But after getting a scholarship at Oregon State, Ellsbury reluctantly became a one-sport wonder because he knew that his future was probably the brightest in baseball.
Right now, the Red Sox are reaping those benefits, and they hope to do so for many years. At 25 years old, Ellsbury is in just his second full season.
It seems like he's been around longer, perhaps because he was a World Series star after being a September callup in 2007. Consider, though, that Ellsbury is only in his fourth year of professional baseball.
Racing to Red Sox history?
Ellsbury's legs, which have already turned him into an elite baserunner, are a known commodity. With 82 career stolen bases, Ellsbury has a strong chance to become the Red Sox's all-time leader, assuming he isn't traded before his first potential crack at free agency after the 2013 season.
After all, the Red Sox, always known for denting the Green Monster, have never been big on baserunning. The late Harry Hooper, who played his last game for Boston in 1925, holds the career club record with 300 swipes.
The single-season team record of 54, set by Tommy Harper in 1973, was nearly shattered by Ellsbury last year, as he stole 50 in his rookie year. With 23 steals entering Sunday, Ellsbury is on pace to steal 66 bases this season.
He claims not to pay too much attention to the numbers.
"Hopefully, you look at the end of the season and say, 'Hey, I did everything I could,' and the numbers speak for themselves. That's kind of how I go about it," Ellsbury said. "Obviously I want to be probably right around that 50 range, but that's not a mark I set for myself, like, 'Hey, I need to get 50.' Last year, if I had said, 'I want to get 40,; I might have slowed down. I want to go for as many as possible. Pretty much, as far as any kind of number, I want as many as I can get."
Red Sox manager Terry Francona has full trust in Ellsbury, both because of his speed and his instincts, which are impressive for someone with so little experience.
"He's paid attention really well, but I've actually been very impressed since the day he got here," Francona said. "The only thing we really talk to him too much about is stealing third and when we think is a good time -- risk/reward. His read of pitchers is very good."
All Francona ever asks of Ellsbury is to be smart. He never wants him to lose aggressiveness.
"What I don't want to do is put hesitation in him because you're not going to steal 55, 60 bases with hesitation," Francona said.
When it comes to the value of speed, no player in Red Sox history is a better example than Dave Roberts, who came off the bench and stole second in the bottom of the ninth of Game 4 of the 2004 American League Championship Series against the Yankees. Down by a run, the Red Sox were three outs from being swept. But Roberts grabbed the bag, and the Red Sox became the first team in history to overcome a 3-0 postseason deficit. As an analyst for NESN this season, Roberts gets to see Ellsbury up close.
"He's fearless," Roberts said. "I think that even being in this situation, on this stage and in this market, he is fearless and he lets his instincts take over, which is fun to watch."
When Ellsbury gets on base frequently, he can change the complexion of the game.
"He's one of the elite base stealers in the league, and, again, the same problems we have with a guy like Carl Crawford in Tampa Bay, other teams have to deal with against us," said Francona.
Hitting still evolving
The big question with Ellsbury is what type of hitter he will become. He is hitting .306 through his first 53 games of 2009, but has just one homer and 15 RBIs.
The Red Sox aren't complaining. They aren't asking Ellsbury to develop into a thumper. But if he does run into some power, like Dustin Pedroia did during last year's Most Valuable Player season, it will be a nice bonus for the Red Sox.
"I haven't really been swinging the wood bat for that long," Ellsbury said. "I went to college for three years swinging the aluminum and I was only in the Minor Leagues for two years, so pretty much, this is only my fourth year of pro baseball.
"Yeah, it's still new. I feel like I'm doing the things I need to do to continue to improve, to continue to get better, and I can. That's exciting, knowing that you haven't peaked out yet, knowing that you still have your best years ahead of you. I'm just working hard every day to become a better player and not be satisfied with where I'm at."
Perhaps Ellsbury could follow in the path of someone like Johnny Damon, who hit six homers in his first full season, eight the next year, and then 18 the year after that. Crawford is another speedster who was quiet with the power at first, belting a total of seven homers over his first two seasons. But in 2004, Crawford smashed 11 homers, followed by seasons of 15 and 18.
"I think I have the power to hit home runs," Ellsbury said. "But, I think that's something that will come later. That speed will be there and the homer power will start to develop and just be another weapon that I have."
Getting a chance to see a lot of Ellsbury as AL East rivals, Crawford is impressed by what he sees.
"He's already gotten better from last year to this year," Crawford said. "I just see him getting better every year. He'll probably win a batting title some day. He looks like he makes good contact, has good speed. He will probably develop a little pop, too. Who knows, he definitely has the skills to play center field and steal a lot of bases for a long time."
During a recent 22-game hitting streak, Ellsbury demonstrated the type of havoc he can create even without the home run ball.
"He's pulling the ball with authority," Francona said. "He's slapping the ball to left field. He's hitting the ball up the middle. He's gotten hits everywhere. Right field gap, left field gap. Any hitter is going to have more success doing it like that."
Bursting on to the scene
Forget about the fact Ellsbury was seemingly hidden in a small town in Oregon, which had a population of just over 5,000 in the 2000 Census. Oregon State coach Pat Casey found him and believed right from the start.
"I saw him originally play when he was in high school and I just thought, 'Wow, this guy has some explosiveness that you just don't see in athletes very often.'" Casey said. "I was just so impressed with his athleticism and his explosiveness. I thought, 'If this guy ever gets turned into a baseball player, he's going to be something special.'"
Before long, Casey knew that he had a future Major Leaguer. And not long after that, he knew he had a future impact Major Leaguer.
"After his freshman year," Casey said, "I told one of my friends who was a scout, 'I've never said this in all my years of coaching, but I have a bona-fide, drop-dead, first-round draft pick in Jacoby Ellsbury.'
"After his sophomore year, talking to the same guy, I said, 'I'll tell you something else, I don't even think he'll be just a big league player. I think he'll be an All-Star in the big leagues.' That's how much confidence I had and how much I believed in his abilities."
Though Casey's All-Star prophecy hasn't come true just yet, it seems only a matter of time.
Despite Ellsbury's brilliance in college, he was not a no-brainer selection for the Red Sox, who had the 23rd pick in the 2005 First-Year Player Draft.
"I get real happy when I remember back to those days," said Red Sox amateur scouting director Jason McLeod. "I remember talking to our area scout up there, talking to our regional supervisor early in that spring when he really wasn't a guy on our radar for our first pick.
"Thinking back to those conversations in early February where [area scout] Fred Petersen calls me and says, 'Jay, this is our guy. This is going to be our guy right here because of this, this and this,' and how they saw him in an early workout.
"And I remember thinking at that time, 'Wow, Jacoby Ellsbury at 23? Hmmm.' So kind of watching him through that season and selecting him and now seeing what he's done going through our system and to the Major League level, it's fun to think back to those conversations and it definitely makes all of us happy to see what he's doing."
If McLeod initially had doubts, what were they?
"I had seen him in the summer prior, at the Team USA workouts on the Cape. I really liked his speed and athleticism. At that time, I thought, the strength issue could be an issue. I didn't know how well he'd handle the wood bat.
"It's been documented now -- I was like kryptonite for Jacoby that year. He had an incredible junior season at Oregon State, but I saw three or four games and he might have gone like 3-for-17 when I saw him. He probably hit .430 that year, or higher. I just didn't get good looks at him that year. Our scouts, though, were all over him. This was their guy. They definitely saw the athleticism, speed, the ability to play center field.
"He just didn't swing the bat well for me when I was at the games. But his performance spoke for itself and our guys really, really loved him. It's been so gratifying for them, and I'm obviously so happy for all of us."
No teammate knows Ellsbury better than shortstop Jed Lowrie, a fellow Oregonian.
"He was always fast -- always a burner," said Lowrie, who was also drafted by the Red Sox in 2005. "It was really just about him getting the reps in. He's such a good athlete. He did so many different things that as soon as he got to pro ball, he really flourished. Not to say that he didn't do well in college. His junior year, he had a fantastic year. But I think the more he plays, the better he gets."
The Red Sox and all of their fans are looking forward to seeing how much better Ellsbury can become.
Ian Browne is a reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.