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Dave D'Onofrio's Sox Beat: Ellsbury's inflated statistics

June 01. 2013 11:15PM
Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (2) steals third base, beating the tag of Philadelphia Phillies third baseman Freddy Galvis (13) during the sixth inning at Citizens Bank Park. (Howard Smith-USA TODAY Sports)

As Jacoby Ellsbury left Citizens Bank Park with his sixth base of the night - he stole the first five, then the Phillies actually gave him one to take home in recognition of a new Red Sox single-game record - his manager was understandably impressed.

He talked about how his leadoff hitter's speed can split the attention of the pitcher, potentially causing him to miss location with his pitches, and possibly making things easier on the hitter at the plate. And acknowledging the practice as well as the presence, he spoke about the way Ellsbury can so quickly put himself in scoring position.

"Single-handedly," John Farrell told reporters after a 9-2 win, "he changed the game himself."

But did he really? And, for that matter, had his major-league leading 21 steals to that point been a primary factor in the Red Sox ascent to first place?

Not exactly.

Thursday night in Philadelphia, Ellsbury didn't score after any of his five stolen bases - and that was consistent with the eventual outcomes of the vast majority of his thefts this season.

Because he took both second and third after being plunked by a pitch Thursday, the center fielder had through Friday stolen 21 bases in 20 different innings. Only five times has he personally crossed the plate after a successful theft, and those are also the only five occasions on which the team has scored later in the frame.

That means only 23.8 percent of Ellsbury's steals have resulted in a run. Yet overall, he's scored 34 percent of the time he's reached base by hit, walk, or hit batsman this season, and 39 percent of the time over his career.

That suggests the weapon of his wheels hasn't made a major impact on the scoreboard. And while there may be numbers to suggest on the surface that the presence of his speed has helped the guys hitting behind him, that impact isn't totally clear, either.

When Ellsbury had stolen a base this season, the subsequent batter was 5-for-12 with seven walks and a hit-by-pitch, robustly equating to a .417 batting average and a .650 on-base percentage. However, some of that may be inflated by good fortune, considering those hitters were 5-for-7 on balls put into play - they'd also struck out five times - and the theory is that the danger of Ellsbury's speed would distract pitchers to the point the batter would find himself in a favorable count. That hasn't been the case.

In only five of 21 chances has the batter been ahead in the account by the time Ellsbury swiped the next base. Eight times he's taken the bag on the first pitch, 13 times the count has been even, and the three times he's stolen with the hitter behind, the results have still been a single, a walk and a groundout.

Ideally, Ellsbury wouldn't even need to steal a base to make things easier on those up next, as the threat would be enough to upset the pitcher's focus. Yet Boston's No. 2 hitters went into Saturday ninth among American League teams in both batting average and on-base plus slugging - despite typically having Ellsbury in front of them, and always having MVP-candidate Dustin Pedroia as well as David Ortiz or Mike Napoli behind them.

And while it's true that the three who have filled that role - Shane Victorino, Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes - have seen the second-, third-, and fourth-highest percentage of fastballs on the club, none of them have seen as many heaters as Ellsbury himself. So it would seem a stretch to say that's a product of the opposition staying away from breaking balls because Ellsbury is on base.

In the short term, the Sox primary concern is the groin tightness that kept Ellsbury out of the opener to this weekend's series in New York. But more broadly the big question is what becomes of the soon-to-be-30-year-old outfielder after this season, when he hits the open market - and the more it becomes obvious that the 32 home runs he hit in 2011 were an aberration, the more the focus of the free-agent process will turn to the rest of his toolbox.

Ellsbury and agent Scott Boras will undoubtedly thrust his ability to steal bases to the top of that list, particularly if he leads the AL in that category for a third time. And there are situations where that ability can make a difference. As an example, take the April tilt against Tampa Bay where Ellsbury reached, stole second, took third on an error, and scored on an infield single to win the game in extra innings. It just emphasizes the idea that the quality of the steal means more than the quantity.

And so while he might've swiped five bags on Thursday, the only thing Ellsbury's speed really changed that night was the Red Sox record book.

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Baseball's a funny game sometimes. Yankee hitters entered Friday night's game against the Red Sox without having drawn a walk since Monday; as their leadoff man, Brett Gardner worked a free pass against Jon Lester. The Red Sox, meanwhile, began that night having walked more times in May than any other major-league team, and by a wide margin; yet they didn't draw a single one on the final night of the month.

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Stat of the week: Jose Iglesias entered Saturday night with seven infield hits. While that had been credited with playing a big part in his .435 average, more relevant has actually his .765 average (13-for-17) when he hits the ball to the outfield.

Dave D'Onofrio covers the Red Sox for the New Hampshire Union Leader and Sunday News. His e-mail address is ddonof13@gmail.com.

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