Walks Key to Jacoby Ellsbury Becoming Premier Leadoff Man

Walks Key to Jacoby Ellsbury Becoming Premier Leadoff Man Three Days in October. It won't be the name of the 2009 Red Sox highlight video, but it's three days in October that we will long remember about the recently concluded season. Forget the 95 wins, forget the sixth playoff appearance in seven years. A quick three-and-out against the Angels has fans looking for an on-field overhaul.

Theo Epstein has hinted about using creative means to tweak the lineup for 2010, but one place he doesn't need to look for an improvement is at the top of the order. That's because Jacoby Ellsbury, over the second half of the season, blossomed into the leadoff hitter we have waited to see since he burst onto the scene in 2007.

It's hard to believe he was knocked out of that role for more than a month late in the first half of the season. He was bumped from the top spot after an 0-for-4 performance on May 30, and suddenly found himself batting seventh, even eighth in the order. He wouldn't regain his spot atop the order until July 20. Once he did, he went on a tear, boasting an OPS that was 50 points higher in the second half of the season than it was before the All-Star break.

So, the simple question remaining for Ellsbury is this: How does he take that next step to become an even better leadoff hitter next season? How does he become the proverbial "straw that stirs the drink" and set the bar as a young leadoff hitter who can hit, run and play the field?

Simple. He doesn't swing as often. Jacoby Ellsbury needs to walk more in 2010.

Ellsbury drew a mere 49 walks in 2009, tying him for 55th in the American League. For a man who led baseball with a club-record 70 stolen bases, it's simply not enough. Not for a leadoff hitter, not for any hitter with his kind of speed.

Seven Red Sox players drew more walks last season. Chone Figgins, who set the tone for Anaheim's sweep of the Sox, walked 101 times this past year, more than twice as many free passes as Ellsbury had issued to him.

There is certainly a lot to like about the development of Ellsbury since he grabbed the starting center-field job away from Coco Crisp in the 2007 postseason. Ellsbury's on-base percentage has improved steadily over time, and he responded well when he got the starting job (once Crisp was traded to Kansas City) this past season. He has turned in a number of highlight-reel catches, and he has used his speed to impact the game.

Now, a little more discipline at the plate would help him take the next step and join the short list of elite leadoff hitters in the game. With the likes of Dustin Pedroia, Victor Martinez and Kevin Youkilis hitting behind him, he should certainly get the opportunity to walk more in the years ahead.

After all, they say you can't steal first base — but with Ellsbury's speed, a walk is often as good as a double. A few more of those could only be good for the Red Sox.

NESN.com will be answering one Red Sox question every day in November.

Wednesday, Nov. 11: Do Red Sox fans take J.D. Drew for granted?

Friday, Nov. 13: Who's the No. 3 pitcher in the rotation?

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