Even when he was playing for the Falmouth Commodores, Jacoby Ellsbury was quiet, socially cautious. He actually played left field that summer, and while he was still skinny and a work in progress, he dove onto the warning track and crashed into the wire mesh fences and could really run. Then-Red Sox scouting director Jason McLeod went to Oregon State to interview him and because it was raining, watched him work out with the basketball team and was blown away by a driving dunk, and before the draft Theo Epstein predicted that because of the drug testing implemented that season “the game is going to change and we’d better be prepared for it.”
Jacoby Ellsbury may well have played his final game for the Red Sox, a game that finished the 2013 World Series. He turned 30 on September 11, and as the debate rages about what his worth from ages 30 through 35 may be, there is no question that six full seasons plus 33 regular season games in 2007, his selection as the 23rd pick in the 2005 draft is one of the best in the club’s history.
|1. Mike Trout (LAA)||111||.349||.452|
|2. Shin-Soo Choo (CIN)||150||.287||.421|
|3. Andrew McCutchen (PIT)||155||.317||.404|
|4. Dexter Fowler (COL)||109||.263||.370|
|5. Jacoby Ellsbury (BOS)||134||.298||.355|
|6. Jon Jay (STL)||147||.276||.352|
|7. Brett Gardner (NYY)||136||.278||.348|
|8. Carlos Gomez (MIL)||144||.285||.340|
|9. Colby Rasmus (TOR)||112||.278||.339|
|10. Austin Jackson (DET)||127||.272||.337|
For six-plus seasons and a total of $20,802,000—less than Adrian Gonzalez will make this coming season, approximately what Carl Crawford will earn—the Red Sox got a leadoff-hitting center fielder who batted .297 with a .350/.439/.789 stat line, three stolen base titles, one MVP runner-up season, a gold glove and, most important, two World Series rings. This is the way the system works: the clubs get complete control of a player for three years and a total of $1.5M, they then get three more years of control at an arbitrated salary at most players’ peaks, then the player gets to go out and see what he can make outside the team’s control.
OK, OK, Jacoby Ellsbury has hit as many as ten home runs once in his career. His arm is below average. Fine. The man is a superb center fielder playing in a home park where the game from right center field to the 420 corner, with walls and angles at every turn, is a vital part of building a home field advantage, which he and Shane Victorino did so well, like Dwight Evans and Fred Lynn in another generation. He was second in outfield putouts in 2013, third in defensive WAR.
He went into the post-sesason with a bad foot that sometimes forced him to play unusually deep, and in the final games had his left hand so badly swollen it impacted his ability to hit balls with any authority, and played right on through, saying nothing. So anyone and everyone in New England should thank him, wish him luck, and if the Seattle Mariners or the San Francisco Giants or Washington Nationals want to give him what the Red Sox gave Crawford, give him an appropriate sendoff for all that went into two rings and an extraordinary career.
And he did it without anger or public bitterness when his fortitude was roasted. In April, 2010, he was run over by Adrian Beltre, who actually wiped out two players in the same season with his ferocity. The next day, the Red Sox team doctor predicted Ellsbury would be out for three to five days. A close friend and world-famous osteopath from Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, who suffered a similar rib injury when her bicycle skidded on ice and she cracked her ribs on a stone bridge over the Concord River, insisted it would be a minimum of two months, maybe longer.
The doctor told Patriots radio voices that Ellsbury could not tolerate the pain, which set off a talk radio campaign. Well, of course, the ribs were cracked, the injury was a two-to-three month proposition, he tried to come back and suffered a more severe injury, and finally Epstein sent Ellsbury to Arizona for his rehab, as far from the doctor—no longer associated with the team—as he could get. No apology has been heard, and when asked about it the next spring, Jacoby simply said he didn’t want the issue lingering. Oh, by the way, if the Red Sox had not folded into 7-20 in September, he would have been the 2011 MVP.
In 2012, he hurt his right (front) shoulder in a second base collision and missed more than half the season. Dr. Neal ElAttrache of the Kerlan-Jobe Orthopedic Clinic, points out that the front shoulder is the strength shoulder when hitting, and noted the severity of Ellsbury’s injury. Which is enough. By the way, take away two major injuries and in his four other full Red Sox seasons, Ellsbury averaged 148 games.
Ellsbury was extremely uncomfortable when some media members, who do not consider winning important, began constant speculation about his contract future during the playoffs, but he has always been cautious in his words, as he was when he was 20 and playing in Falmouth. Will his legs hold up in his thirties? No one really knows. Will he ever hit 32 home runs again? No one knows. Will he have to sacrifice having a shot at another ring for his market value? Again, no one knows.
But go back and scroll through the first round draft picks in 2005 after the Pirates took Andrew McCutchen at 11—better yet, between McCutchen and Clay Buchholz in the sandwich round—and the fact remains that McLeod, Epstein and Red Sox made one of their best picks ever to get Jacoby Ellsbury at 23. Eight years and $20.8M later, they have two rings and two parades and if he leaves, the expectation that when he returns, he does so to a long, thunderous standing moment of thanks.