<
>

Sox stick with Ellsbury in leadoff spot

CHICAGO -- If you've been watching, you don't need an explanation for why Boston Red Sox manager John Farrell said dropping Jacoby Ellsbury from the leadoff spot in the order has been considered.

"Consider it yes, but we're sticking with him," Farrell said Tuesday. "Giving him the opportunity to get out of the situation he is in now. But I can say this: Whether he's hitting first or hitting somewhere else in the lineup, there are still things we have to address, and he has to address."

But we'll enlighten you a little further with this breakdown of his plate appearances in the six games in which he has played on this trip (he sat out Sunday).

Ellsbury has grounded out a dozen times, including four times to second base in Monday night's 6-4 loss. He has popped up twice, struck out twice, flied out four times and lined out once. He has drawn three walks, been hit by a pitch once. And he has three singles -- a ground ball up the middle, an infield hit to short, and a line single to center.

Ellsbury came into Tuesday night's game with a slash line of .241/.303/.335/.638. His OPS of .638 ranks 26th among major league leadoff hitters with enough at-bats to qualify. Ellsbury broke an 0-for-10 skid with an eighth-inning single up the middle Tuesday in Boston's 3-1 loss to the White Sox. He finished 1-for-3 with a walk, raising his average to .242.

Among big league hitters with at least 75 plate appearances in May, Ellsbury ranked last with a .179 batting average heading into Tuesday. He is third from last this month in on-base percentage (.256), second from last in slugging percentage (.218). He has two extra-base hits -- a double and triple -- in 81 at-bats this month. He has gone 165 at-bats since his last home run, which came April 7 in Toronto, one of six Sox hits that day. That's the longest homerless drought by far on the ballclub.

Ellsbury has had little success this season when he has pulled the ball. Heading into Tuesday, he was 6-for-41 (.146) when he hits to the right side. In his breakout season, 2011, he batted .462 (72-for-156) when he pulled the ball.

Since returning from his shoulder injury last July 12 and through Monday, Ellsbury had played in 111 games, and has had 468 at-bats, close to a full season for many players, and certainly not a small sample size. Even allowing for the time needed to come back from such a long layoff, Ellsbury's performance over that span has been a disappointing .263/.309/.361/.670. That OPS is 258 percentage points below the .928 he posted in his career year, 2011, and 100 percentage points below the .770 he posted in 2009, which may be a more accurate barometer of his ability.

"It comes down to timing," Farrell said Tuesday afternoon. "Timing at the plate. Whether it's four ground balls to second base or three line drives to third base. He's in a situation where he's working to do what he can to get out of this, and we're working there with him. This isn't a matter of effort, it's a matter of maybe being a little more free of mind and letting that natural ability take over."

An obvious potential burden mentally is the fact that Ellsbury is in his walk year, and with free agency looming, he recognizes that a prolonged slump could cost him millions in the future.

"To say that's the sole reason, no, I wouldn't say that's the issue that he's dealing with right now," Farrell said. "I also know that he's human, and understands where he's at in his career and what's ahead of him. But the point we keep trying to make is the routine of today is the most important point and that's the focal point.

"What's going to take place throughout the remainder of the season and into the offseason, time will indicate that and it will be addressed at the appropriate time. So I can't say pending free agency is the cause of his inconsistency at the plate."

Farrell might have been moved to drop Ellsbury in the lineup Tuesday night, but couldn't because of the unavailability of Shane Victorino, who is day-to-day with a tight left hamstring.

"We're trying to keep some element of speed at the top of the order," he said. "But that's not the overriding thing. It's still where Jake has hit most of his career. With Shane out of the lineup, yeah we'd like that blend of speed and on-base ability, even though the on-base ability right now has been less so."

The Sox have reason to be concerned about Ellsbury's performance, though some perspective is required. Even with Ellsbury slumping, the Sox are still second in the majors with a .342 OBP.

And on this date in 2009, some folks were writing David Ortiz's professional obituary, because he was batting .211 with one home run and a .642 OPS. After that point, Ortiz hit 27 home runs and posted an .848 OPS over the remainder of the season.

It's always risky to play amateur psychologist. Slumps, at least most of them, defy explanation. The same may hold true for Ellsbury's.