COMMENTARY | When does your leadoff hitter stop acting as your leadoff hitter? If you're the Boston Red Sox, apparently never.
Jacoby Ellsbury has been mired in a season-long slump, but his May has been especially horrid. He's only recorded two multi-hit games this month and hasn't reached base safely more than twice in a game since April.
And yet he's still been Boston's first batter in every game.
"We have to get him going, bottom line," manager John Farrell told NESN. "There's a human behind every name, and there's a psyche you have to work with. That's where stability and continuity has a purpose and a place."
Whether Ellsbury is over-thinking things as a result of his impending free agency or not, he hasn't been productive. Among team worsts this month is his walk rate--third from the bottom when discounting for Ryan Lavarnway's meager 7 at-bats. To put his .267 May OBP in perspective: it's worse than six of his teammates' batting averages--all regular starters with 40+ at-bats under their belt this month.
Ellsbury hasn't even tried to vary his approach, rarely attempting a bunt base hit. With his speed, it's something that should be a staple in his repertoire.
The 15 for 81 run he is on may not have shaken the confidence of the managerial staff to drop him from the leadoff position, but fans are growing more restless with each groundout to second.
While there may not be a logical replacement, with Ellsbury's almost constant disappointment it may be time to get a bit illogical. Shane Victorino filled in during Ellsbury's recent day off, but if he can't stay healthy he cannot be relied upon. Beyond him, there may be a somewhat unconventional answer: Daniel Nava.
Nava is good player, deserving of a regular spot in the lineup, but doesn't appear to excel at any one thing. He has an adequate combination of patience and power that you'd expect from a 29-year-old finally sticking in the majors. But one thing he does manage to bring that Ellsbury has failed at so far this year is the ability to never seem completely off. Nava hasn't gone more than 10 at-bats without a hit, never letting his OBP dip below .382, a number Ellsbury hasn't seen since the second game of the season.
It would be one thing if Ellsbury had been making up for his inability to get on base with the occasional power display, but with just 3 RBI, 2 extra base hits and no home runs in May, it has been virtually non-existent. He can't get on base and his .335 slugging percentage is well below his .433 career average and second-worst on the team.
If the slate were cleaned and the names were erased, he'd be hitting 9th this year.
Dropping Ellsbury from the leadoff position could be just the spark he needs to get his season on track, and it doesn't have to be a permanent change. Ellsbury is the type of player who can bounce back from a message like that with authority, proving that he belongs at the top of the order. Playing the waiting game and hoping he turns it around on his own isn't working.
Boston has been winning despite his subpar season, but if a return to meaningful October play is to happen, Ellsbury will need to be a large part of it.
Andrew Luistro has followed the Red Sox for over 20 years.
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