Celebrating Jacoby Ellsbury by Brendan Gawlowski November 25, 2019 Last Wednesday, the New York Yankees released Jacoby Ellsbury, cutting ties with the oft-injured outfielder even though he still had a year and more than $26 million left on his long-term deal. The Yankees are trying to worm their way out of that commitment, on the somewhat dubious premise that he received treatment from an unapproved physician, so the drama isn’t quite over yet. Either way though, he’s played his last game in New York. Along with Greg Bird and Nester Cortes Jr., Ellsbury was released in order to clear roster space for younger prospects. By any measure, Ellsbury’s time in the Bronx was a disappointment. He played 120 games only twice, topped the three-win mark just once, and started four playoff games during his tenure. His first season was promising: He took advantage of Yankee Stadium’s short porch in right and parked 16 homers, the second-highest total of his career, en route to a 3.6 WAR season. But injuries and age soon caught up with him. While he retained most his speed and wits on the bases, starting in 2015, his production at the plate dipped noticeably. After falling out of the lineup in 2017, Ellsbury missed the entire 2018 season recovering from an oblique strain and a torn labrum in his hip, and then all of last year while batting plantar fasciitis. He was not expected to contribute significantly to the 2020 Yankees had he remained part of the roster. In the wake of his release, there have been a few pieces speculating about where Ellsbury ranks on New York’s list of biggest free agent busts. That’s as unfair as it is uncharitable for a player who was pretty good in pinstripes before injuries kept him away from the field. More to the point, there’s far more about Ellsbury’s career to celebrate than to lament. At his best, he was a breathtaking center fielder and one of the most exciting baserunners in recent memory. His 343 career steals are the seventh-most of any player this century, an impressive total even without considering that he stole successfully more than 82% of the time. He was a big part of two World Series winners and his out-of-nowhere power spike in 2011 fueled one of the best individual seasons of the decade. He stole home not once but twice, and set a major league record by reaching base 30 times on catcher’s interference. He was good, he was fun, and if this is the end for Ellsbury, we’re lucky to have seen him play. A first-round pick back in 2005, Ellsbury burst onto the scene down the stretch in 2007, hitting .353/.394/.509 in 33 games, and helping the Red Sox to their first divisional crown since 1995. After starting the postseason on the bench, he cracked the starting lineup for Games 6 and 7 of the ALCS, notching a hit in each game as Boston overcame a 3-1 series disadvantage against Cleveland. He stayed in the lineup for the World Series, where he hit .438 with four doubles in a sweep against the Rockies. More importantly for his long-term notoriety, he also stole the base in Game 2 that gave everyone in America a free taco, temporarily earning him the moniker “Tacoby Bellsbury.” The first phase of Ellsbury’s career was characterized more by his legs than his bat. He led the American League in steals in 2008 with 50 and then paced the majors with 70 in 2009 – a mark nobody has topped since. Alongside, he played good defense in a cavernous outfield while reaching base often enough to provide value at the plate. In 2010, he suffered the first of many significant injuries when he crashed into Adrián Beltré and fractured four ribs. The damage and subsequent recurring rib problems limited him to 18 games. Healthy again in 2011, Ellsbury put together his finest campaign. He hit .321/.376/.521, good for a 150 wRC+. That, 39 steals, and tremendous defense in the outfield fueled a 9.5 WAR season, the seventh-best anyone had in the 2010s. The only other players to top 9 WAR over a single season this decade are Mookie Betts, Jacob deGrom, Bryce Harper, Buster Posey, and Mike Trout. It was also an odd season. Ellsbury socked 32 homers that year, twice as many as he hit in any other campaign, and 23 more than his previous career high. But Ellsbury’s career season was ultimately just a footnote for Boston, a preseason World Series favorite that collapsed down the stretch. The Red Sox entered the final month with a small lead in the AL East and held a nine-game cushion for a Wild Card spot as late as September 3, but went 6-18 the rest of the way and missed the playoffs entirely. None of it was Ellsbury’s fault: He hit .358/.400/.667 with eight homers in September, including a memorable 14th-inning three-run shot in Game 159 that seemed like it would help Boston save face and sneak into the playoffs. Alas, it wasn’t to be. After an injury-shortened 2012, Ellsbury rebounded to post his second most productive season in 2013. He produced a 112 wRC+ and again led the AL in steals, swiping 52 bags in 56 tries. That May, he set a franchise record by stealing five bases in a single game against the Phillies. As in 2007, he played a big role in the playoffs, batting .343 as the Red Sox rolled to their second title of Ellsbury’s tenure. Barely a month after winning the World Series, Ellsbury signed with the Yankees. His arrival dovetailed with a transitional period for the Bombers, as 2014 was New York’s first season without Robinson Canó and last with Derek Jeter. His time in the Big Apple wasn’t without its bright spots: In his first game back at Fenway, he doubled, tripled, and made a diving catch. He also stole home for the second time in his career in 2016: And then a month later, in the play that perhaps best encapsulates Ellsbury’s signature combination of speed, instincts, bravery, and knack for arriving milliseconds ahead of a tag, he took two bases on a pitch that went to the backstop. Ultimately though, Ellsbury’s tenure in New York was defined less by what he did on the field than how much time he spent off of it. A knee sprain in 2015 and a concussion two years later sidelined him nearly 40 games apiece, the latter of which effectively pushed him out of a starting role. Had he played in 2018 or 2019, it’s hard to imagine he’d have seen the field a whole lot. The perception that Ellsbury’s production fell short of his talent was not unique to his time in New York. As is the curse for many graceful athletes, Ellsbury’s seemingly effortless movement belied extraordinary athleticism and intelligence on the field, and often left observers expecting more. Fairly or (mostly) not, his career is defined by a series of ifs and whys: How many bases he could have stolen if he stayed healthy? Why did such a great athlete spend so much time on the shelf? And why didn’t he hit for power more often? Most star athletes have a knack for sparking enthusiasm and wonder; Ellsbury seemingly belongs to a different group, the kind of players who dazzle any number of ways and yet are asked why they couldn’t just do it all a bit more regularly. Wherever Ellsbury goes from here, he’s pretty clearly in the December of his career. At 36, he’s not too old to play, but he hasn’t featured in a major or minor league game since 2017, and the list of players who have returned from two years of inaction at his age is quite short indeed. He could certainly get an invitation to spring training from someone, though it’s hard to imagine him turning that into anything more than a bench role. Regardless, if this is the end it’s been a good ride. He wasn’t the best player of his generation, but at his best he was one of them, and he left us with a diverse and extensive highlight reel. The game will be worse without a little Jacoby Ellsbury in it.