Crawford, Ellsbury the kings of steals
Rays left fielder, Sox leadoff man one-two in MLB in swipes
ST. PETERSBURG -- When Jacoby Ellsbury was building his reputation as a speedy prospect through the Red Sox's farm system, he'd watch basestealers across the Major Leagues and study their approach. Inevitably, he'd incorporate some of their styles and techniques into his form, too.
So in some deep recesses of the psyche of Ellsbury, who has 48 stolen bases this season, there may in fact be a little Carl Crawford, the only player in the baseball he's trailing.
Crawford, Tampa Bay's All-Star outfielder, has 51 stolen bases, which is the fifth 50-steal campaign of his career. He's also vying for his fifth American League stolen-base title -- if Ellsbury doesn't take it first.
"He can win it as far as I care," Crawford said. "I'm just trying to help my team win games. I don't go into the season saying I want to win a stolen-base title."
Crawford started this season on a record pace, something he has said can be attributed to his increased aggressiveness and being healthy after battling injuries last year. He had 10 steals in the month of April and then swiped an AL-record six against the Red Sox on May 3. He appeared on track to crack 100 steals for the first time by any player since 1989.
Lately, Crawford has cooled off. It's allowed Ellsbury to make up ground.
"It's a friendly rivalry," Ellsbury said. "That's the biggest thing. I wouldn't call it a rivalry, but it pushes you to do a little better."
The 25-year-old Red Sox center fielder said he doesn't check box scores at night but does keep informed about how close he and Crawford are in vying for the steals crown (unlike Crawford, who refuses to talk about statistics). Ellsbury's 50 steals in his rookie season in 2008 led the league and were four behind the Sox's team record by Tommy Harper in 1973.
"He's fast, he's very fast," Rays manager Joe Maddon said. "Even if he doesn't get a good jump, if he does everything else right, he can steal a bag."
Ellsbury said that he incorporates little pieces of every basestealer he observes -- part of his education as a player in his first couple seasons. Among those he has followed is Crawford, who has been prolific in the AL since he came up as a rookie in 2003.
Ellsbury noted that Crawford's stolen-base percentage is a key component of his ability.
"That's the biggest thing, not just stealing bases, but stealing with a high success rate," Ellsbury said. "Carl's done a great job of that this year."
With Ellsbury and Crawford meeting up for Tuesday's game at Tropicana Field, more than a few eyes will be drawn to each of them if they do reach base. With both players, there's usually little confusion about what they're going to do.
Crawford, whose shorter, choppy steps usually disguise his speed, entered Tuesday with a .317 batting average and 132 hits in what has been a career year. His 37 walks already this season is a career high, and he has taken advantage of more opportunities on base.
Ellsbury, Boston's slightly built leadoff hitter, has more steals than strikeouts this season, and his on-base percentage is up almost 20 percentage points from last season. He continues to thrive off his pure speed, even as he continues to grow in experience.
Both can provide for exciting moments in tense games as the season shifts into its final two months. And both will make it a rough couple of days for opposing pitchers and catchers, who have to try to keep them at bay, as futile as that task may be.
"I'll hear from guys, from the media, they told me the other day we were even," Ellsbury said. "It's inevitable -- I'll know what's going on. He's had a very good season. He's done a tremendous job for his team thus far."
Zach Schonbrun is an associate reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.