Jacoby Ellsbury doesn’t like money.
That’s essentially what you’re saying if you think Ellsbury is acting like a prima donna, withholding effort and refusing to play through a playable injury this weekend in New York. But as much flak as Ellsbury has taken in recent years because of his injury issues, the outfielder doesn’t deserve to be ripped for his latest setback.
Ellsbury has had an up-and-down season. His on-base ability became so poor in May, in fact, that John Farrell didn’t rule out moving him down in the lineup if things didn’t change. It was difficult to watch, as we’ve all seen how dynamic Ellsbury can be in the leadoff role when he’s at his peak, and it was difficult to figure out. The only logical explanation took into account the elephant in the room — his impending free agency. That elephant is also why it’s hard to envision any scenario in which Ellsbury isn’t pushing to get back onto the field as soon as possible.
Players can downplay the impact of an uncertain contract situation, but knowing that next offseason’s payday relies heavily on this season’s production undoubtedly creates a huge mental burden. That’s especially true in the case of Ellsbury, whose rollercoaster career has made his future ceiling difficult to predict.
Ellsbury hasn’t helped his stock this season, but he was in the midst of turning his year around before he injured his groin. He hit a huge walkoff double against the Indians on Sunday and enjoyed a historic game on Thursday, during which he reached base five times and set a Red Sox single-game record with five stolen bases. Unfortunately for Ellsbury, the injury bug bit, and he lost his momentum as quickly as he had gained it.
Questioning Ellsbury’s toughness has always been pretty sketchy. He’s had two major injuries, and both occurred on plays that could be described as flukes. He suffered broken ribs when he violently collided with then-teammate Adrian Beltre on a popup in 2010, and he separated his shoulder when Reid Brignac fell on him during a play at second base last season.
Those are both unavoidable occurrences, and few would debate otherwise, so the big question instead has been whether Ellsbury nurses his injuries a bit too much. It’s a question that simply can’t be answered because, unless we’re physically living in Ellsbury’s body, we have no idea the exact pain — or lack thereof — that he’s feeling. When it comes to this latest issue, though, it just seems foolish, given the circumstances, to think that Ellsbury would sit out if he wasn’t truly injured.
Ellsbury was hitting .478 (11-for-23) with four doubles, four RBIs, four runs and eight steals over his last five games, he was finally finding a rhythm, and he seemed to play with an edge in Thursday’s win over the Phillies. You don’t simply throw that momentum away, especially when you’re trying to prove your worth to all of baseball before hitting the open market.
The extent of Ellsbury’s current injury, which he suffered while pushing the envelope on the basepaths, isn’t fully known. And unfortunately for Ellsbury, it doesn’t matter to some knee-jerk reactors. Just the idea of Ellsbury missing two straight games against the Yankees in the Bronx is enough to spark up the polarizing subject of toughness.
Hopefully, those over-the-top skeptics will soon take a step back and put themselves in Ellsbury’s cleats for a minute. If they do, they’ll realize that each missed game is as costly for him as it is for the Red Sox.
Ellsbury isn’t just looking for a day off.