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« Bobby Abreu's Lefty Woes | Main | Lincecum Looking For More Strikes With Fastball »

Can Jacoby Ellsbury Keep Slugging?

Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury became a radically different offensive player in 2011, finishing second in American League MVP voting by bashing 32 home runs and posting a 146 OPS+. Ellsbury's 2011 homer total eclipsed his major and minor league tally from 2005 to 2010 (30).

ESPN SweetSpot blogger David Schoenfield thinks Ellsbury's newfound slugger status is here to stay, setting the over/under on Ellsbury's 2012 homer total at 24.5:

How much luck was involved in his 32 home runs? The ESPN Home Run Tracker breaks down home runs into different categories, including "just enough" (barely cleared the fence) and "lucky home runs" (a home run that would not have cleared the fence on a calm, 70-degree day). Miguel Cabrera led the majors with 16 "just enough" home runs. Ellsbury had just four such home runs. He had three "lucky" home runs. In other words, the power -- at least in 2011 -- was legitimate.

Ellsbury did change his plate approach considerably in 2011, pulling the ball much more often when he put it in play (35%, up from 27% from 2008-10)  and hitting far fewer ground balls on those pulled pitches (44%, down from 52%). As a result, Ellsbury ranked in the top in slugging on pulled pitches among qualified hitters:

Curtis Granderson 1.108
Matt Joyce 1.031
Carlos Gonzalez 1.026
Jose Bautista 1.000
Mark Reynolds .995
Jay Bruce .982
Josh Hamilton .961
Josh Willingham .943
Jacoby Ellsbury .928
Mike Stanton .911


For comparison, Ellsbury slugged .579 when he pulled the ball from 2008-10, way below the .658 average over that time frame.

As you might expect from all those pulled pitches, most of Ellsbury's thunder came when pitchers located on the inside half of the plate. Here's his in-play slugging percentage by pitch location in 2011, compared to 2008-10:

Ellsbury's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2011

 Ellsbury's in-play slugging percentage by pitch location, 2008-10

All but four of Ellsbury's jacks in 2011 came on pitches thrown down the middle or inside.

Pulling the ball more and cutting down on grounders are both positive signs in terms of Ellsbury's power-hitting prospects for 2012 and beyond. But a skeptic might point out that overall, Ellsbury's fly balls hit didn't travel much farther than in years past. Ellsbury hit fly balls an average distance of 254 feet in 2011, compared to 252 feet from 2008-10. The other nine hitters on that list of top pull hitters hit their fly balls an average of 275 feet, ranging from Josh Willingham's 258 to Mike Stanton's 296.

So, can Ellsbury keep slugging? I would answer with a qualified "yes." Ellsbury's plate changes portend to more power, making him a good bet for 15-20 homers if he keeps ripping the ball in the air to right field. His days of single-digit dinger totals are over -- ZiPS, Bill James and The Fans expect between 16 and 20 shots in 2012. With a little luck, he could creep up on 25. But expecting another 30 homer season from Ellsbury would be downright greedy, Red Sox fans.  

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