By Maureen Mullen
CSNNE.com Follow @maureenamullen
Early in spring training, before the regular season even began, a major league talent evaluator offered the unsolicited prediction that Jacoby Ellsbury would be the Comeback Player of the Year.
After appearing in just 18 games last season because of fractured ribs -- batting .192 with just four extra-base hits, all doubles, and seven stolen bases -- in a season that was difficult both on and off the field for him, Ellsbury has done nothing to prove that impartial prognosticator wrong.
He has been among the league leaders for most of the season in several offensive categories, including batting average (now at .316), runs scored (70), hits (123), doubles (26), and stolen bases (28). He hit his 14th and 15th home runs of the season Wednesday afternoon in Baltimore, leaving him just five behind his career total entering this season. His .509 slugging percentage is third on the team, behind only Adrian Gonzalez and David Ortiz.
Hes a year older, more mature, has a better understanding of the expectations on him, said Sox bench coach DeMarlo Hale. I dont know if it's bad for me to say this because he probably needs to say this himself, but coming back from last year, he might have a little fire.
Just dont ask Ellsbury, the Sox first-round pick (23rd overall) in the 2005 draft out of Oregon State, if he has anything to prove. Hes not interested in the topic. He just wants to play. Others, though, are not as hesitant to talk about the season Ellsbury -- who has appeared in 95 of the teams 96 games -- is having. He was named to the American League All-Star team, voted in by the players, for the first time in his career.
When you see it from a different perspective, you learn some things, said Hale. I have sat down and talked to him about it. But hes an All-Star and its well deserved, too, because thats the bottom line.
The difference is noticeable at the plate and in the field.
You see a little bit more leadership in the outfield, Hale said, Im happy to see him do that, because when he broke in Coco Crisp was here in Ellsburys debut season of 2007 and rookie season of 2008. They shared time. He moved around. Its tough. At times when he was playing there was Manny Ramirez on one side and J.D. Drew on the other. The relationship he formed with J.D. has progressed to where they have very good communication, and youve seen him performing with the other left fielders, Jason Bay, Carl Crawford. So thats maturing and becoming the captain out there. Its just not anointed to you. You say it fundamentally that youre the captain because youve got more ground to cover. But being the true leader out there in the outfield kind of comes in with time. I see it progressing.
Along with his outfield leadership, Ellsburys outfield skills are progressing. The knock against him had been his arm. But, his five outfield assists so far this season, more than any other season, are tied for fourth in the league.
Hes applied the things he worked on in the offseason to the game, Hale said. You work on leverage. You work on balance. You work on where your feet are. Working on your arm, games situations dictate maybe how aggressively you throw the ball -- different distances, if theres a relay man, a right-center guy, left-center guy, compared to a cut-off man thats in the middle of the infield, going toward home, going toward third base. And his arm has gotten stronger.
He wants to be the guy that youve got to respect that. His speed can help. He can get to a ball quicker, so his throws can become shorter. One of the things we talked about, and I think its five out of six of not allowing that potential stolen base guy to advance on a ball thats thrown or kicked off, not to let him get to third base. So hes doing some things that dont show up in the books. But its a compliment from his teammates, coaches.
While Ellsbury has been among the league leaders in stolen bases all season, he is off the pace of his AL-best 50 in 2008 and 70 in the 2009. That doesnt matter, though, with Adrian Gonzalez hitting behind him leading the league in RBI. And, just the threat of Ellsbury stealing can impact the opponents defense.
Consciously hes been very good at his all-around game, Hale said. I tip my hat to him. Hes worked himself into being an All-Star.
And proving something?
Theres a maturity factor but there is nothing to prove, Hale said. Its the challenge of playing this game at a high level and its the challenge of being your best. Hes an All-Star. Thats a good foundation for him to keep building his career, not just this year but the years to come.
Maureen Mullen is on Twitter at http:twitter.commaureenamullen