Mystery of Jacoby Ellsbury's 32-homer season

Jacoby Ellsbury of the Yankees looks on against

Jacoby Ellsbury of the Yankees looks on against the Baltimore Orioles at Yankee Stadium on Monday, April 7, 2014. (Credit: Jim McIsaac)

3, 9, 8, 0, 32, 4, 9, 1.

That's not a losing Lotto ticket. It's Jacoby Ellsbury's home runs by season dating to 2007 and entering this weekend.

It brings up a question for the Yankees centerfielder: What the heck is the deal with his 32-homer season for the Red Sox in 2011? And where did the power go once it apparently switched back off?

"I've always had the same power," Ellsbury said on May 1 after hitting his first home run as a Yankee. "I've always had the same power as I did when I had 32. It's just a matter of just lifting the ball in the air. I think that's the biggest thing: lifting more balls."

Ellsbury's 32-homer season is one of the great out-of-context power seasons in baseball history.

Two others come to mind: Wade Boggs hitting 24 for the Red Sox in 1987 and never hitting more than 11 any other year, and A's shortstop Bert Campaneris hitting 22 in 1970 and never more than eight before or after.

There are other examples, and of course the steroid era was filled with scrawny hitters becoming muscle-bound sluggers virtually overnight.

Ellsbury's 2011 was his best all-around season. He hit .321 with an OPS of .928. He drove in 105 runs and stole 39 bases. He won a Gold Glove and finished second in the American League MVP voting.

But it was those home runs that got people talking. If 30-homer power was going to be Ellsbury's new normal, he would take his place among the best players in baseball.

A shoulder injury in 2012, though, limited Ellsbury to 74 games. He hit four home runs. He was healthy last season but hit only nine for the Red Sox.

Still, the Yankees were sufficiently impressed with Ellsbury's overall game to give him a seven-year, $153 million contract, and his first six weeks in pinstripes have been productive, if not powerful.

"No one's expecting me to hit 40 homers," said Ellsbury, who went into the weekend batting .317 with an .843 OPS and 10 stolen bases.

Looking at Ellsbury's 2011 numbers shows he's right: He did hit the ball in the air more. And more of his fly balls left the yard than ever before or since.

A comparison of 2011 and 2013 -- his next full season -- shows how he hit more home runs (but not why):

In 2011, Ellsbury's fly-ball rate was 34.1 percent, and 16.7 percent of those fly balls were home runs.

In 2013, his fly-ball rate was 28.2 percent, and only 6.6 percent of those fly balls were home runs.

Same person, same home ballpark. Vastly different results.

"It was funny," Ellsbury said. "In the beginning [in 2011], they weren't too happy I was hitting homers. It's like, 'Why don't you hit homers?' And then it's like, 'Why are you hitting homers now?'

"So it's always been a back-and-forth, a fine line between 'Hey, maybe hit more, but why are you hitting homers . . . you're a leadoff hitter.' So I just go out there and try to hit the ball hard."

He did: Ellsbury had a line- drive percentage of 22.9 percent in 2011, which is his full-season career high. This season, it's a whopping 28.7 percent, with a low fly-ball rate of 24.8.

So Ellsbury is hitting the ball hard, but not in the air. So much for him trying to take advantage of Yankee Stadium's short rightfield porch. He said that's not on his mind.

"I can run, so a lot of people want me to hit it on the ground," he said. "I think at the end of the day, as long as I'm putting together good at-bats, getting on base, making things happen, that's part of my game. I can hit it out, but I'm not trying to pull off the pitch and hit it out."

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