Jacoby MaCabe Ellsbury, the first Native American of Navajo descent to reach the Major Leagues and member of the Colorado River Indian Tribes, is one of those rare athletes who are good at every sport they play. Born to Jim and Margie Ellsbury, Jacoby was a great basketball, football, and baseball player in high school. In his senior year, Jacoby hit .681 and had 82 stolen bases.
Ellsbury’s rareness reached new heights this season, as he joined only six other players in major league baseball history and the first ever for the Boston Red Sox to have 30 or more home runs, 30 or more steals, 200 or more hits and 100 or more RBIs in a single season. He joins the likes of Hank Aaron, Alex Rodriguez and Valdimir Guerrero.
The question for Red Sox fans, second after “how in the world did they collapse and not make the playoffs?” is whether their one shining light will win the American League’s Most Valuable Player award, which would make him the first American Indian to earn the distinction.
Before we take a longer look at Ellsbury’s mind-blowing 2011 season, let’s take a look back on the road Ellsbury took in becoming the best player on a very talented, if under achieving, team.
Jacoby was drafted by the Boston Red Sox in the 1st round (23rd overall) in 2005, and was called up to the majors on June 30, 2007. By the end of the 2007 season he was named MLB’s American League rookie of the month for September 2007.
In 2008 Ellsbury displayed the all around talent that the Boston Red Sox saw when they drafted him in the first round. He finished the season with 50 steals to lead the American League. He has also established his prowess in center field, playing 178 straight games, or 1,430 innings, without committing an error. Ellsbury finished third in the AL Rookie of the Year voting, behind Evan Longoria of the Tamp Bay Rays and Alexi Ramirez of the Chicago White Sox.
In 2009, Ellsbury followed up his great rookie season with another exciting year. He led the American League in stolen bases for the second consecutive year, improving on his previous season’s output by adding 20 stolen bases, to finish with 70. He also led the AL in triples, with 10, and won Defensive Player of the Year in MLB.com’s annual This Year in Baseball Awards 2009.
2010 was a glitch in the system for the fast rising Ellbsury, as he was plagued by injuries all season, sustaining hairline fractures to four of his ribs after a collision with teammate Adrian Beltre. Despite repeated attempts to come back, his ribs were slow to recover, and he re-aggrivated the injury in an August game against the Texas Rangers. In total, Ellsbury played in only 18 games.
In December of 2010, the Red Sox sent a major shockwave through the league when they signed All-Star left fielder Carl Crawford to a gigantic $142 million contract. Ellsbury’s status as the star outfielder for the team was diminished due to his brutal 2010 season. Many in Boston wondered if Ellsbury would remain on the team much longer, or find himself traded.
Now, the question is what will Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein give to Ellsbury to keep him in Boston after his monster season. Crawford, meanwhile, a stand-up guy who placed the blame for his terrible season on his own shoulders alone, hit a measly .255 with 11 home runs and 56 RBIs.
Ellsbury’s season, however, was one for the history books. As the Sox leadoff hitter, he contributed an incredible average with a ton of power to have one of the greatest single seasons for a leadoff man in the sport’s history. He hit .321 with 32 homeruns, 105 RBIs, scored 119 runs, had a .376 on base percentage and stole 38 stolen bases. His on-base and slugging percentage was a jaw dropping .931. While his team went into a historic, crushing swoon in the month of September, blowing their playoff chances with a 7-20 record, Ellsbury alone almost carried them into the playoffs. He hit .358 with 8 home runs, 21 RBIs and 11 doubles in September.
There are several American League MVP candidates that Ellsbury will be competing with, and despite the fact that MVP voters aren’t supposed to take in a team’s playoff status, surely it goes into the thought process. These players include the Yankees’ center fielder, Curtis Granderson, and the Detroit Tigers’ pitcher Justin Verlander, both helped along by being the best players on their respective playoff teams. The Blue Jay’s Jose Bautista, who had a monster year, is in a similar boat to Ellsbury, he had an incredible performance for an under-performing team that missed the playoffs.
The BBWAA (Baseball writers of Association of America) members assigned to the National League and American League Most Valuable Player committee are told, “There is no clear-cut definition of what Most Valuable means. It is up to the individual voter to decide who was the Most Valuable Player in each league to his team. The MVP need not come from a division winner or other playoff qualifier.”
The rules of the voting remain the same as they were written on the first ballot in 1931: (1) actual value of a player to his team, that is, strength of offense and defense; (2) number of games played; (3) general character, disposition, loyalty and effort; (4) former winners are eligible; and (5) members of the committee may vote for more than one member of a team.”
Using these guidelines, lets critique Granderson, Bautista, and Verlander against Ellsbury.
Verlander, the right handed ace for the Tigers, had a dream season. He compiled a 24-5 record, with a 2.40 ERA, 250 strikeouts, four complete games and two shutouts. Detroit has won the last 12 Verlander starts. He’s a shoe-in for the American League Cy Young award, but an MVP pitcher? Verlander’s own manager, Jim Leyland, doesn’t seem to think pitchers should be in the MVP running. “I don’t think a pitcher should be the most valuable player. I just think when a guy goes out there 158 times or 155 times and has a big year, I don’t think the guy that goes out there 35 times should be named over that guy.” Ellsbury played in a staggering 158 games this season.
The Yankees Granderson smashed 41 home runs, had 119 RBIs and 25 stolen bases. He is tied for the major league lead in RBIs, is two off the major league lead in home runs, and is just the second player ever, next to Hall of Famer Willie Mays, to have 40 homers, 100 RBIs, 100 runs scored, 20 steals, and 10 triples in the same season (Mays did it in 1955). Granderson’s just the third Yankee centerfielder ever to hit 40 home runs, keeping company with Joe DiMaggio and Mickey Mantle. Granderson’s case isn’t hurt by putting up these numbers on the best team in the American League, but with a .262 average and 169 strikeouts, his numbers aren’t as well rounded as Ellsbury’s.
Then there’s the Blue Jays Jose Bautista? He hit .302 with a whopping 43 home runs and 103 RBIs. Bautista led the majors in on-base percentage and slugging percentage, and has played a solid third base when the Blue Jays needed him to do so. He is also a very good defensive right fielder with a great glove and powerful arm. If everything was even, Bautista would have a much greater chance of winning the MVP, but since the Blue Jays had a mediocre season, this will penalize him as much as the Red Sox swoon will Ellsbury. Bautista also doesn’t have Ellsbury’s speed on the base paths, had less RBIs, and half as many doubles as Ellsbury compiled.
With incredible numbers a given for MVP candidates, one often has to look into more esoteric statistics to put some separation between the players.
Fangraphs, a highly touted website focusing on baseball statistics, rates Ellsbury as having prevented 16 more runs defensively than the average centerfielder, which blows away Granderson. In fact, Ellsbury’s defensive numbers are best among centerfielders in the major leagues. All of Ellsbury’s positive contributions give him a total WAR (wins above replacement) of 9.7, meaning that the Red Sox won about 10 more games than they would have been expected to with a replacement-level centerfielder playing everyday. No one else in baseball has a higher WAR than 8.4, and only seven other American Leaguers have a WAR of at least seven.
That’s why Jacoby Ellsbury should be your American League MVP.