Jacoby Ellsbury finds comfort zone
Red Sox outfielder talks about matching 2011 numbers, staying in Boston long term
FORT MYERS, Fla. -- Boston Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury produced one of the greatest seasons in franchise history in 2011, but his offensive prowess went for naught after the club failed to reach the postseason for the second consecutive year.
A World Series title is the ultimate goal for Ellsbury and his teammates. From a personal standpoint, however, it's clear Ellsbury believes he should have won the American League MVP award last season.
He led the majors with 364 total bases, which was the most by a leadoff hitter since Bobby Bonds collected 341 for the San Francisco Giants in 1973. Ellsbury also led the league with 83 extra-base hits. He also finished among the league leaders with 212 hits, 32 homers, 105 RBIs and 39 stolen bases.
But when it was time for MVP voting, Ellsbury finished second behind Detroit Tigers pitcher Justin Verlander. Ellsbury earned 242 points in the voting, while Verlander won it with 280 points. If the Red Sox had reached the postseason, Ellsbury may have had a better chance of winning the award. But he had to settle for second place.
"We're playing against the best competition in the world. Obviously, I did everything I could and left it all on the field last year," Ellsbury said. "When I found out about the results, I was happy for Justin Verlander, but at the same time, me being as competitive as I am, I wish I would have won. We play against the best players in the world and I definitely held my head high finishing second."
New Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine spent last season in the broadcast booth as an analyst for ESPN. Ellsbury was his MVP pick and he reiterated that point after Sunday's workout at the player development complex behind JetBlue Park at Fenway South.
"I thought he was the MVP, personally," Valentine said. "I thought his year was phenomenal. From Opening Day when I saw him in Texas, his swing seemed to be so consistently good. His defense was terrific. Watching him at the end of the year, it looked like he was given the at-bats that were needed and the numbers speak for themselves. I don't know how you get those numbers. It's an amazing body of work how he filled up all the columns.
"What that means is that he's very good. What he means to our team, I hope he stays healthy and I think he'll be a major contributor. If he's not totally unique, he's in a very small sample. He's just a joy."
Each offseason, Ellsbury sets personal goals and always keeps those numbers private. Since he was among the league leaders in many categories, he said he was most proud of his run production.
"I was pretty happy with driving in the runs," he said. "It's all about scoring runs and driving in runs, so I was pretty excited about that. I know when it was getting close, people were talking to me about Darren Erstad driving in 100 runs [with Anaheim in 2000], so when I got 100 RBIs I was pretty excited about that."
Is there any way Ellsbury can repeat his accomplishments? It will be tough, but he says he can reach similar numbers.
"I went into my workouts the way I went into them last year," Ellsbury said. "I have goals coming into this season, but the biggest thing is continuing what I've been doing. Those goals I set at the beginning of the year and then I'll revisit them during the season, they're personal goals, but I'm excited about coming into this year."
Because of Ellsbury's combination of power, strength and speed, Valentine is mulling moving him out of the leadoff spot, maybe even hitting him third.
"Sure, I think he could be," Valentine said of Ellsbury being a No. 3 hitter. "When I've talked to him about it, he thinks he could be, he just never has been, which makes it a little bit of a mental challenge."
Some players feel comfortable in a certain spot in the order, but Ellsbury said he would be comfortable in any spot. At this point, Ellsbury says he doesn't have an opinion on the matter, but if Valentine decides to hit him third, he won't change a thing.
"I would keep my approach and everything the same," Ellsbury said. "I've told him whatever he thinks the team needs, if it's better for me to hit down in the order or hit leadoff, I'm going to do whatever he feels best and will give us the most wins."
Valentine managed arguably the best leadoff hitter ever to play in the majors when he had Rickey Henderson with the Mets in 1999 and 2000. Valentine recalled that when Henderson first got to New York, the two never talked about moving him to the No. 3 spot in the order.
"In fact, the first conversation I had with Rickey was that I wouldn't ask him to hit anywhere else. He said, 'That's good because Rickey is a good leadoff hitter.' That was the same day Rickey told me, 'Rickey don't do signs.'
But seriously, I think that's going to be an interesting situation that will probably evolve during this spring and this season," Valentine said of Ellsbury's spot in the lineup.
For all the talk about Ellsbury's offense, his defensive skills are spectacular. He won a Gold Glove in 2011 and did not commit an error on 394 chances.
"It's something I take great pride in," Ellsbury said. "I know the guys on the mound pitch their butts off to get outs and I want to save as many runs as I can for them.
"I've always tried to be a complete player and tried to do everything, as far as from a defensive standpoint, running the bases, hitting and driving the ball, so for everything to come together, last year is something I'll always work on. I try to be a complete player and that's what I take pride in."
After his incredible season, Ellsbury received a major pay raise. He earned $2.4 million in 2011, then came to terms with the Red Sox during the winter for an $8.05 million salary in 2012. He will be arbitration eligible again in 2013 and will become a free agent before the 2014 season.
Ellsbury said he loves playing for the Red Sox and their fans, and if the organization offered him a long-term deal, he would consider it.
"There's always that possibility," he said. "I leave that up to my agent and I'm just happy we were able to get everything worked out this year, but as far as future contracts, I let them take care of it and then inform me if there are decisions to be made."
Almost exactly one year ago, Ellsbury arrived at camp on a mission, with a goal of proving that his 2010 season, in which he was limited to 18 games due to three separate rib injuries, was a fluke.
Ellsbury proved the naysayers wrong and should have won the MVP for his performance.
"I try to let my play speak for itself," Ellsbury said.
Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.
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