Thursday, July 21, 2011
Pedroia, Ellsbury leading the way
By Jeremy Lundblad
If it all starts at the top, the Boston Red Sox appear to be in good shape.
Since the beginning of June, the Red Sox have three of the top four hitters in the majors. They happen to occupy the top three spots in Boston's order.
Adrian Gonzalez (.362) leads the majors in that span, but he's been on a season-long hot streak. It's the other two players who stick out on that list.
Since June 1, Dustin Pedroia is hitting .360 with an MLB-best 1.084 OPS. Jacoby Ellsbury's .345 batting average ranks fourth since June 1, and he has nine home runs in that span, which matches his career high for a full season.
In that span, the first two spots in the Red Sox order have combined to hit .345 with a .420 on-base percentage and .580 slugging percentage. In all three cases, that is far and away the best in the majors.
Since the beginning of July, both have suddenly emerged as power hitters, with six home runs each. Their 12 home runs make them the top combination in the majors this month, ahead of Adrian Beltre and Josh Hamilton (11). Among individual players, only Jose Bautista (7) and Aramis Ramirez (7) have more.
Consider that Pedroia and Ellsbury's 12 combined home runs this month are five more than any other team has in the top two spots in the order. The Milwaukee Brewers are next with seven. Five teams are homerless in July from the top two spots, while another six have managed only one home run.
That two Red Sox are among the top power hitters this month is no surprise. It just wasn't expected to be their table setters.
The power has been more shocking in Ellsbury's case.
On Wednesday, he had the second two-homer game of his career. In the process, he extended a personal hitting streak against the Baltimore Orioles to 29 games. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, it's the longest hitting streak against that franchise since Jimmie Foxx hit safely in 31 straight games from 1935 to 1936.
Those two home runs brought Ellsbury's season total to 15. That's six more than his previous career high and just five away from the 20 career homers that he entered the season with.
It's not just the long ball, either. Ellsbury's 26 doubles are tied for sixth in the AL and just one shy of his career high.
All those extra-base hits have produced a .509 slugging percentage, which ranks 11th in the AL. Not bad for a leadoff hitter.
Of course, Ellsbury's speed (28 stolen bases) hasn't gone anywhere. It's just been overshadowed by the power surge.
He's now on pace for 25 home runs and 47 stolen bases. He'd be just the 10th player in MLB history to join the 25-45 club. Only two have come from the AL: Rickey Henderson (twice) and Alex Rodriguez.
Ellsbury is also on pace to be just the second player in Red Sox history with 45 steals and a .500 slugging percentage in the same season. The other? Hall of Famer Tris Speaker in 1912 and 1913.
So what is behind the power surge from a player known for his speed?
One aspect has been Ellsbury's production in two-strike counts, where he's emerged as one of the league's best.
Ellsbury's first home run Wednesday marked the fourth time this season that he went deep on a 1-2 count, most in the majors. In all, eight of his 15 long balls have come with two strikes, which puts him behind only Curtis Granderson, Jose Bautista and Miguel Cabrera.
Ellsbury's .271 BA and .448 slugging percentage with two strikes both rank third in the AL.
Ellsbury's surge has been a tale of surprising power. In Pedroia's case, it's a return to form after an alarmingly slow start.
He entered June hitting .240 with a .683 OPS and an alarmingly high strikeout rate. The same player who fanned only 52 times in his MVP season had 37 strikeouts in his first 48 games.
The tide truly turned once Pedroia received good news on his balky right knee. Talk of surgery quieted after Pedroia was diagnosed with a bruised kneecap on June 9.
Since that time, Pedroia turned around his offense. In the 34 games since, he's hit safely in 32 while posting a .369 BA and 1.124 OPS. His current 18-game hitting streak is the longest of his career.
"I think the knee thing really was a load on his mind," hitting coach Dave Magadan recently told the Providence Journal. "He was concerned he was making it worse and it was going to affect the rest of the season for him. When he got word that he wasn't going to make it any worse and the procedure he had done alleviated some of the pain, at that point it cleared his mind. From that point, he was off and running."
Everything that went wrong has now turned the corner.
Pedroia entered June hitting .192 with a .258 slugging percentage against righties. His .547 OPS against righties would have been the lowest for any Red Sox regular over the past 35 years, recalling memories of Tony Pena's .566 OPS in 1991.
Since June 1, Pedroia is hitting .331 against righties, and his 1.030 OPS nearly doubles the .547 OPS he had at the end of May.
Pedroia's strikeout problem has also faded. After striking out once every 5.6 at-bats over the first two months of the season, he's cut that to once every 12.6 at-bats since June.
Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.