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Big League Stew

We’re Going Streaking! Jacoby Ellsbury bounces back in a big way

Alex Remington
Big League Stew

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The Stew goes through the quad and into the gymnasium to look at some of the hottest players in baseball and their chances of keeping it going.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Boston Red Sox

The Naked Truth: .318/.377/.540, 27 HR, 94 RBIs, 36 SB, 13 CS, 51 BB/91 K

Having a nice little Saturday: Jacoby Ellsbury is closing in on a 30-30 season, and writers as diverse as Fox Sports' Ken Rosenthal and Fangraphs' Paul Swydan have supported the 28-year old as a top MVP candidate. It's pretty fair to say that no one saw this coming. Back in 2010, Ellsbury was ejected from center field by the ancient Mike Cameron, who signed a two-year deal with the Red Sox and almost immediately went on the disabled list, as did Ellsbury himself.

As Ben Nicholson-Smith at MLBTradeRumors writes:

A year ago, Jacoby Ellsbury had nearly as many trips to the disabled list (three) as he did extra base hits (four), which tells you much of what you need to know about his season.

Now, he's being mentioned among  the best players in his league. Nicely done.

You're my boy, Blue!: Ellsbury's biggest question, of course, is: Where did all this power come from? In parts of four seasons from 2007-2010, Ellsbury logged 1,510 plate appearances and smacked just 20 taters, while he's hit 27 in a spooky 666 plate appearances this year. David Pinto recently showed that Ellsbury's fly balls have been going further as the season has gone on, concluding that it is possible that Ellsbury "became stronger due to rehabilitating his injury from the previous season." A scout who saw him back in high school said that he projected Ellsbury to top out at around 10 home runs in the majors, but was nonetheless very impressed by the teenager, saying, "He had a rawness to him, but you could see the athleticism and you could see the bat speed." {YSP:MORE}

However, home runs aren't the only thing he's doing better this year. He's striking out a bit more and also posting the highest walk rate of his career, as well as the lowest contact rate of his career. It looks like an extreme contact hitter has been selling out for a little more power. Normally, when that happens, you expect to see the batting average fall, but his batting average has stayed high, perhaps thanks in part to a Batting Average on Balls in Play (BABIP) of .337, 12 points higher than his career average. So maybe he's getting a bit lucky there. He may also be getting a bit lucky on homers: his homer per flyball rate (HR/FB) is 11.3 percent, nearly twice his career average of 6.3 percent and well above the major league average of 7.5 percent. Even considering that Fenway is a homer-friendly park, that's incredibly high.

Paul Swydan points out several prior MVP seasons that Ellsbury's season resembles, including that of Jimmy Rollins in 2007, when Rollins exploded for 30 home runs, more than he'd ever hit before or has hit since. It's very possible that Ellsbury's output this year will prove to be a historical outlier, and that in future seasons he will settle into a more usual 15-25 homer output. But there's no question that his defense (far better than the Sox feared when they expelled him from center field), foot speed, and batting skill make him a tremendously valuable player regardless of how many home runs he hits.

Think KFC will still be open?: If the Sox hold on in the AL wild card, Ellsbury is a strong choice for MVP. Right now, he actually leads the American League in Fangraphs WAR, having passed Jose Bautista, who has been the best hitter in baseball but whose defense is nowhere near as good as that of the speedy Ellsbury. He may have a tough time because he has so many good teammates: Rosenthal's column lists three Red Sox among his top eight MVP candidates in the league, placing Ellsbury alongside Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez, and it's very possible that they might split the vote. But Jacoby Ellsbury has been one of the best all-around players in the American League this year. Again: nicely done.

Which other players are currently streaking?

Mike Napoli, Texas Rangers .312/.411/.613, 26 HR, 67 RBIs, 4 SB, 2 CS, 54 BB/78 K
Mike Napoli has always had power. In parts of five seasons in Anaheim, he averaged 18 homers a year despite averaging just 101 games a year. It's not that he was injured, it's just that Mike Scoscia insisted on giving 1,076 plate appearances to powerless backstop Jeff Mathis, a man who hit .199 over that period. Finally emancipated from Southern California, Napoli is about to set personal bests in virtually every offensive category that matters, and when he's been on the field he's been one of the best hitters in the universe. He hasn't amassed enough plate appearances to qualify for the batting title, but among players with at least 390 PA, he has the second-highest slugging percentage and second-best OPS in all of baseball, behind only Jose Bautista. (You could probably win a bar bet on that tonight.)

It isn't smoke and mirrors, either. He's posting by far the best strikeout-to-walk ratio (K/BB) of his career, with the second-highest walk rate and by far the lowest strikeout rate of his career. His 18.3 percent HR/FB rate is a bit higher than his career rate of 15.9 percent, but that can likely be attributed to park effect: this year, the Ballpark in Arlington has been the most homer-friendly park in baseball, while Angel Stadium has been 26th out of 30. (Napoli has hit an equal number of homers at home as on the road, but he likely has had an easier time hitting home dingers in Texas than he had in Anaheim.) He has been getting lucky on balls in play, with a BABIP 37 points higher than his career average. Don't expect Napoli to hit .300 next year. But count on him to hit 20 homers. He's done it four years in a row, one of only two catchers in baseball (along with Brian McCann) to do so. He's a seriously good hitter.

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Matt Wieters, Baltimore Orioles .262/.323/.449, 20 HR, 63 RBIs, 1 SB, 0 CS, 40 BB/80 K
The player nicknamed "Mauer with Power" was supposed to be better than this. But it's just his third major league season, and over the past month and a half it has looked like the lights have gone on, as the former Georgia Tech star has hit .280/.345/.583 with 10 homers in 36 games since the beginning of August. His strikeout-to-walk ratio is still less than ideal; though he walked 102 times against 106 strikeouts in the minor leagues, in the majors he has struck out more than twice as often as he's walked. But this year and last year, at least, the ratio has come down to right around 2.0. He's also added a good bit of power -- those 10 homers in the last month and a half nearly equal the 11 homers he hit in 130 games in 2010. None of this is a surprise, exactly, because he was supposed to be terrific immediately. But those expectations provide a good gut check for his improvement: he was supposed to be this good, so this is legit. If he can walk a little more, he'll be one of the best catchers in baseball.

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Edwin Jackson, St. Louis Cardinals 12-9, 3.71 ERA, 186 2/3 IP, 3.53 FIP, 1.41 WHIP, 2.58 K/BB
Many people panned the Cardinals for trading their talented young center fielder Colby Rasmus away — I was one of them — but Edwin Jackson, one of the key returns in that deal, has been excellent in his return to the National League, with a 5-2 record and 3.32 ERA in 10 starts with the Redbirds. That's heavily skewed by a start on Aug. 3 where he gave up eight runs to the Brewers; in his last eight starts, he's 4-1 with a 2.65 ERA. Between Jackson, Chris Carpenter, and Jaime Garcia, the Cardinals have a top three to match with nearly anyone in the league (outside of the otherworldly foursome in Philadelphia, of course), and they have been able to pitch with authority despite the loss of Adam Wainwright.

Jackson still has a fearsome fastball, the fifth-fastest average heater in all of baseball with an average velocity of 94.5 mph. He also has much better control than he did as a youth, and this year he's posting the best walk rate and best K/BB of his career. Jackson was always held back by poor control early in his career, and it's a big reason that the 28-year old has already pitched for six teams in his nine-season career. But if his improvement in control is for real, with his stuff, he could be a frontline starter for years to come.

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