ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. -- The Red Sox need for this to be a beginning.
Jacoby Ellsbury quietly had one of his best games in some time on Tuesday. He reached base three times, taking a stray Matt Moore fastball off the shoulder and then walking twice, in four plate appearances in the Red Sox' 5-3 loss to the Rays. The contest represented the seventh time this year -- but the first in the punchless month of May -- in which Ellsbury had reached base three or more times.
Few players on the Sox have a chance to deliver such a transformative impact in all facets of the game as Ellsbury. He is a game-changer, of course, on the bases -- something to which his AL-leading 12 stolen bases attest. And it's been meaningful for the Sox that, after an injury-marred 2012 campaign, the 29-year-old has once again been in the lineup every day so far this year.
But to date, while he's been a contributor when on the bases and he's been an excellent defensive center fielder (he ranks sixth among big league center fielders with four runs saved at this juncture of the year, according to John Dewan's system), he simply hasn't offered any production. Indeed, in a development that could be concerning for both Ellsbury (given his impending free agency) and the Sox, it's striking to take note of how similar his offensive line looks to the one he posted a year ago, when he never regained his strength following an early-season shoulder subluxation:
2012: .271 average, .313 OBP, .370 slugging, .682 OPS, 4 homers, 323 plate appearances
2013: .256 average, .321 OBP, .363 slugging, .684 OPS, 1 homer, 184 plate appearances
More recently, the leadoff hitter has made infrequent impact on the offense in the month of May, during a nosedive that now has the team 4-9. He's hitting .200/.290/.255 this month, with just three runs (a shockingly low total from him that speaks in part to the depths of the team's offensive woes over the last two months) and two RBIs. After providing a spark on the bases in the season's first month, he's stolen just one base in this turn of the calendar.
So what gives? Teammate David Ortiz hinted that Ellsbury may be dealing with some timing inconsistencies that have made it difficult for him to drive the ball.
"I emphasized some things for him in spring training. I was watching the game and basically [told] him that the only way he can hit for power like he did before and drive the baseball more is just try to be ready early. He got better afterwards, when we were talking about it," said Ortiz. "It's just sometimes as a hitter, you get caught in between. Sometimes you're getting ready too early. Sometimes you're getting ready too late. He's a guy that, they're pitching him differently now. They're not pitching him like the leadoff hitter that he was a couple of years ago. Now, we know you've got pop, you showed the whole world that you can hit 30 homers, now we're going to try to work on you from the very beginning."
Ortiz suggested that Ellsbury is getting a heavier diet of offspeed pitches away in his new life as a potential power hitter, a type and location that can make it difficult to impact the ball. But in this May struggle, it's also been easy to wonder about his approach at times -- as when he grounded out on a first-pitch fastball from Blue Jays left-hander Mark Buehrle on Saturday while leading off the game, just the third time since 2009 that he'd put the first pitch of an opposing starter's outing in play.
That said, he's actually walking with greater frequency than ever (8.2 percent of plate appearances, which would best his previous career-high of 7.1 percent and his career norm of 6.8 percent), so as Ortiz suggested, the outfielder may simply be in a position of getting caught in between -- struggling to find those opportunities where he can put an aggressive swing on a pitch while also being selective enough to have a competitive at-bat.
"He went through a couple of games where he was a little bit more aggressive than he has been. But you can look back at the pitches. Ball was somewhat in, a little in, so he's probably looking in," said hitting coach Greg Colbrunn. "I think he's been pretty consistent all year. He's had some stretches where he's hit the ball and had nothing to show for it. That's hitting. But he's consistent. He battles each at-bat. He doesn't give at-bats away. He's up there every at-bat with a plan and it seems like he's sticking to it."
Still, it's a bottom-line game, and so here's the most basic of bottom lines: Something is amiss. Ellsbury leads the American League in the number of outs he's produced (129) at this stage of the season. He recently matched a career high by going seven straight games without a run or RBI -- context-dependent stats, to be sure, but still striking given the degree to which the Sox expect to lean on him as a catalyst.
His recent struggles started to generate faint curiosity about whether the Sox might move him out of the leadoff spot in the batting order, particularly against lefties (against whom Ellsbury owns a .219/.286/.266 line this year). His strong game on Tuesday might quell such lines of inquiry for now, but if the Sox offense remains in a state of somnambulance, then questions of lineup alchemy will creep into the picture.
Still, the Sox insist that there's every reason to continue to have faith that Ellsbury will enjoy improved fortunes. During the recent homestand struggle, Ellsbury had some ringing outs on days when the cold weather meant that balls had no carry and sputtered on the warning track (for outs) rather than clanging off walls (or even clearing them). Meanwhile, because Ellsbury is viewed as a player with a meticulous pregame routine to keep him in a good place mechanically, there is an expectation that an improvement in fortunes is near at hand. He has a process upon which his past successes are grounded, and he trusts it to get him back to those peaks.
"He's a guy who comes prepared to play every day. It will get there. It will get there," said Ortiz. "We're here to help out each other. We're not here to be pointing fingers or do anything like that. I know that we have a long way to go."
Indeed. For the sake of context, it's worth recalling what Ellsbury did during his first 39 games (which, conveniently enough, ran from April 1 through May 14) of a remarkable 2011 season that nearly netted him an American League MVP award:
.301 average, .352 OBP, .458 slugging, .809 OPS, 4 homers, 165 plate appearances
Those represent better numbers, to be sure, than what Ellsbury has posted this year, but he had yet to start his transcendent stretch that made him one of the best players in the game that year.
So: It's a long season. There's time. Still, in a stretch when the Sox are desperate to get production from their stars to carry them out of a funk, the team could use Ellsbury to jumpstart the offense. They don't necessarily need him to be the Ellsbury of 2011 -- a season that, right now, represents a fairly dramatic outlier in his career trajectory -- but they'd certainly welcome the 2008 or 2009 version of the dynamic leadoff hitter, rather than the 2012 edition of a player who was struggling to find his way.
Perhaps Tuesday represented a point of departure. Certainly, that is what the Sox hope -- and need.