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In their 2007 world series run, the Boston Red Sox got great contribution from rookie Jacoby Ellsbury and youngest Jon Lester. Ellsbury hit .353 /.394 /.509 in his September callup and then went on to hit a wooping .360 /.429/.520 in the playoffs, most of his ABs comming in the world series, where he was basically unstoppable with a .438/ .500/ .688 line.
Lester, on the other hand, started the clincher for Boston and shutdown the Colorado Rockies for 5.2 innings.
Impressive clutch performance, no doubt. combining with great personal stories on both individual (Ellsbury being one of the very few Ind....ahem, NATIVE AMERICAN players in the game, and Lester fought back from cancer) prompted a great buzz around the two players, and with the upcomming (or rather already begining in the Red Sox's case) season, both are counted on for a vital role on the Red Sox. and they're part of the reason why many in the mainstream media and online fans, bloggers, and "experts" predict the Red Sox to take the AL East again (and in many prediction even running away with the division).
Zealous Sox fans have even gone on to compare Ellsbury to Grady Sizemore and think Lester will be a front line starter starting this season.
Are those expectation on the two players just? I'm having a hard time seeing it. Here are a few questions I'm going to raise on the two players. I love to see some input.
First, let's get to Lester. He was drafted out of high school in 2002, he had a decent 2003 season in A ball (good ERA, but a rather iffy K/BB ratio). And injury stifled him from progressing in 2004, but he bounced back and had a great 2005 campaign in AA Portland, rocketing him up to a high prospect status. He had great strikeout rate that year with an average (but improving) walk rate.
He started the 2006 season in AAA Pawtucket, where his periphals all slipped backward despite having a good ERA (2.70). Then, during the midseason, he got called up, as the Red Sox were locked into a tight race against their division rivals, the New York Yankees, and competing for a wild card as well. Lester held his own (4.76), and actually had a good record (7-2), but his periphals were now in ugly territory, as he posted a WHIP of 1.65 and only a K/9 of 6.6 to back it up (obviously, the higher the WHIP, the weaker the K/9 becomes, as the pitcher obviously faced more batter per 9 inning to get those strikeouts). He wasn't doing anything particularly well. His velocity was down compared to the scouting reports (fan graph had him barely over 90 mph in 2006 with his fastball), his command was shaky, was fairly hittable, and wasn't missing many bats. The only good news was that he didn't allow many home runs, but the GB rate doesn't back up that stat too well either.
As the Red Sox faded down the stretch. horrible news hit as Lester was diagnosed with a mild form of cancer and had to go into treatment. He survived and was amazingly back in the majors by mid July. From then on, he posted a 4-0 record with 4.57 ERA in 11 starts before his heroics in the World Series.
My concern is that his fastball last year still just averaged around 90 (89.9 actually according toe fangraphs). His periphals improved from 2006, but not considerablly so (though the HR part caught up to him as he gave up 10 bombs in his 11 starts). The numbers simply don't suggest he'll be a good pitcher at this point. He's only 24, so there's obvious room for improvement, but the question is...
A) Will his velocity climb back?
B) will his command return to average level or will he continue to be below average?
At the moment, the we're are looking at a pitcher who's not missing a ton of bats, has below average command, and is a flyball pitcher. That's clearly not a recipe for success, let alone front rotation pitching. These combinations leave a lot of questions to be answered, and I find the hype to be a little overboard at this point until he proves he can get his command back to managable level and/or regain some stuff. he's never had GOOD command in his professional career, so I'm having trouble seeing him succeed in the Jamie Moyer / Mark Buerhle / Tom Glavine mode. Jarrod Washburn / Al Leiter seems like a good comparison, but I doubt that's what Boston fans envision in him. (despite both pitcher having dominant years during their career)
Now on to Chief Ellsbury. He was selected in the 1st round in 2005, he moved quickly, never spening a full season at any level. During that span, he threw up a combined .313/.389/.425 line before ripping it up late in the season with the big league team.
So what's the problem? Well, the .112 ISOP is concerning. He hit a combined 10 HR in the minors in 250 games. That about 1.5 seasons worth in the majors, and his lowest SLG was in Pawtucket where he slugged a pedestrian .380 (with a .082 ISOP!)
While his power is clearly not in the Juan Pierre territory, he does seem to possess below average power at best, and such type of prospects tend to see their MILB go down in their transition to the majors, particularly if they're not amazingly young for their level (Ellsbury is 24 this season. While young, that's not exactly significantly so). The 44 doubles and 10 triples in that context is also not exaclty high particularly considering that he has obvious blazing speed.
The Red Sox brass seem to suggest he can be a 12-15 HR hitter sometime down the line. I just don't see where he gets that sort of power without significantly altering his game (or taking you-know-what). He did jack 3 in September for the Sox, but that's a pretty small sample size. Looking at hittracker all 3 homers were pulled though the average distances was quiet decent, so there's some mix signals here.
I think the basic questions going foward are:
A) Which way will Ellsbury's power go in the majors? His MILB power numbers translate to a 5-7 dinger guy in a full season, which is pretty weak, and its implication is pretty big because most of the time if a guy's power is surpressed so will his OBP. Ellsbury had a very good .389 OBP in the minors. If he could carry that AND steal baess like he should that would be a big asset regardless of the power, but in many cases, great speed / low power prospect we see their average / OBP take a tumble if their power gets surpressed in the majors. Juan Pierre and Joey Gathright are two pretty extreme examples of that. While Ellsbury clearly posses more power than those two, it's still hard to see wether he fall into this catagory.
B) Grady Sizemore? Really? First of all, Grady Sizemore was a full time player in the big leagues by the time Ellsbury was drafted. Hell, Grady Sizemore is 1 year older than Ellsbury, and he's already played 3 full season in his career. Sizemore's prospecting case is vastly different from Ellsbury, he was a raw talent out of high school that was very young at each level. Just because their minor league lines look somewhat similar (never mind that Sizemore put up those lines from age 17-21 instead of 21-23) doesn't mean that a comparison to those two players is right. In fact, I believe it's completely wrong in this case, for now.
Personally, I can't see how either of these players live up to their hype right now, at least in the shorter term. I could definitely see Lester having a couple of great seasons in his career, though having a consistently good one is quite questionable. Ellsbury seems like he'll be pretty solid, but by that, I mean a .300 /.370/ .410 guy with a lot of steals and a good defense: NOT Grady Sizemore. He doesn't seem like he'll struggle too much to adjust, but I highly doubt he'll hit more than 12-15 HR as a CEILING. It's hard to read out significantly more than 10 home runs average out of his lines. He didn't have the power in NCAA (with metal bats!), he didn't have it in the minors, and he didn't hit a lot of 2B/3B either, which suggest he's not exactly a gap power guy either. He's not exactly overly young at any particular level to suggest making further progress later on in his career (ala Miguel Cabrera / Grady Sizemore / Robinson Cano types).
So what am I overlooking here?