By Thom Henninger
While waiting for the next big deal or signing to go down at the winter meetings, my attention has been focused on Red Sox leadoff man Jacoby Ellsbury.
The 26-year-old center fielder batted .314 and posted a .390 OBP in the minors, but he slumped his way out of Boston’s leadoff spot midway through the 2008 season, his first full year in the majors. The normally patient and disciplined prospect drew just 14 walks over the final four months of the campaign.
This year, the promising left-handed hitter added roughly 20 points onto each of his 2008 hitting percentages and was a far more consistent performer. He finished at .301/.355/.415 with 70 stolen bases and 94 runs scored in 153 games.
There is an uncanny stat hidden away in Ellsbury’s 2009 performance. Among all major leaguers, no one bounced back from an 0-2 count better than he did. In 123 plate appearances that started 0-2, he batted .319 with a .350 OBP. Both marks were the highest among players who went 0-2 at least 50 times last season.
Patience was the key, as only 53 of those 123 plate appearances ended on an 0-2 pitch. Ellsbury batted .275 with a .302 OBP when they did, but hit .354 when the count went beyond 0-2.
In 2008, Ellsbury batted .207 and had a .239 OBP after starting 0-2. Even those hitting percentages were better than the major league-wide numbers for either of the last two seasons, but Ellsbury excelled in those situations in 2009.
It’s difficult to say if there’s anything significant to the jump in two-strike performance. The difference may be little more than the luck of having a dozen extra balls fall in for him last summer. Turn a dozen of those base hits into outs and Ellsbury’s split after starting 0-2 drops to .233.
There’s an odd twist to all this, as well. Ellsbury hit for a higher average when he fell behind in the count. He drew an impressive percentage of walks when he started 2-0, 3-0 and 3-1, but after reaching those counts, he hit .253, .077 and .216, respectively — numbers that are far below the major league norm. Yet, Ellsbury batted better than .300 after going 0-2 (.319) and 1-2 (.302).
Perhaps there’s nothing overly noteworthy about this dichotomy, though it’ll be interesting to see how Ellsbury did in two-strike counts a year from now. Regardless of the meaning of Ellsbury’s 0-2 success, one thing was obvious last summer: Ellsbury reclaimed his plate patience and his ability to work counts. He’s likely to build on that success as he enters his prime years, batting at the top of the Red Sox lineup.