Jacoby Ellsbury has shown the ability to be one of the league’s most dynamic offensive players in the cost-controlled portion of his career. No one would dispute his ability to hit for average or his base running prowess. Add on top of this his ability to play center field, and you have a marquee player that would make any MLB team better. As Jeff Sullivan pointed out a couple weeks ago, the perceived disparity between Ellsbury and other speedsters like Michael Bourn lies in the history of his power tool and its potential going forward.
To me, the questions that must be answered for prospective employers are: 1. Can Ellsbury stay healthy? 2. Is the power still there? and 3. Is the power predicated on getting consistent at bats, or did something change in his body or swing to cause the sudden loss (and appearance) of power?. I will not try to predict the future of Ellsbury’s health; that’s the job of the trainers and doctors who can see him in person. Here I would like to analyze the chances of Ellsbury putting up another 30+ home run season by observing the subtle differences in Ellsbury’s swing this year compared to his last fully healthy season in 2011.
First, let’s look for some clues in the batted ball data available for a comparison. Below are the graphical representations of all the homeruns hit by Ellsbury in 2011 and 2013, courtesy of ESPN’s Hit Tracker:
Nearly all the homeruns hit in both seasons have been to the pull side, though you can see a few more to center field and two lonely dots in left center field in the 2011 graph. Those two homeruns happen to be the only two that the speedy centerfielder has hit to the opposite field in his MLB career. Perhaps some of his overall success was achieved by his greater ability to hit the ball hard toward the middle of the field. Enough was said back in 2011 regarding Ellsbury’s career year, but it is important to note that only 5 of his 32 bombs in 2011 were categorized as Just Enough or Lucky according to Hit Tracker. Only 1 of 9 homers from 2013 was labeled Just Enough. So I think it is fair to say the drastic increase and subsequent decrease in homerun rate cannot be simply chalked up to dumb luck. Something in Ellsbury’s ability to drive the baseball has either changed or become less consistent since 2011.
Beyond homeruns, the quality of contact has been drastically different in his platform year than in 2011. Look at the comparison in batted ball type followed by the resultant production to each third of the field:
At the peak of his offensive output in 2011, he hit mostly ground balls to his pull side and mostly balls in the air to the opposite field. 2013 was similar in this general sense, but far more extreme toward the ground ball variety to all fields. The sharp increase in ground balls was coupled with a decreased batting average to his pull side, as well as a decrease in slugging across the board. To right field, his isolated slugging dropped from a ridiculous .423 to a more modest .225 in 2013. As an aside, it’s pretty awesome that almost half of the flyballs he hit to right field in 2011 left the yard.
So now we have some information detailing how the ball came off his bat for the two years in question. Let’s take a look at the swings that made these numbers happen, starting with 2011. I pulled up a dozen swings from 2011 out of the MLB video archives, and would like to show two of them here as a composite representative of his swing. First is a homerun from July 6th, 2011 off of Ricky Romero of the Blue Jays:
Even though he pulls this pitch, his hands initiate the swing toward the ball with movement down behind his body and then very direct to contact. There is very little movement across his body. And here is another homerun, one of the two to the opposite field, from September 13, 2011 off of Brandon Morrow:
There are a couple things to notice from both of these swings that will be reviewed later. First is how stable the front leg is at contact and into the follow-through. Ellsbury gets his front heel down which allows his hips to rotate with a strong anchor to the ground. His back hip drives directly toward the pitcher, giving his hands the opportunity to take the shortest path to the ball without coming out and around. Second and because of this, see how far out his arms get through the ball before the left hand rolls over the right hand. This swing allowed Ellsbury to generate a lot of power from his relatively slight frame by being efficient in delivering the bat to the ball.
Now for the 2013 Ellsbury. Here are some swings from the first week of the season. First is a single on a tough pitch delivered by Phil Hughes from April 3:
Ellsbury never gets the front heel down and rolls his hands very quickly after contact. Now, here is the first homerun he hit this season on April 7:
There was no good side shot from this hit, but notice how unstable his front leg is. Look how much more lateral movement his front knee undergoes to allow his hips to drive to the ball. Ellsbury often rolls to the outside of his foot, even a bit in his 2011 swings, but he gets his weight down on the foot before that happens when he’s hitting well. Look at the differences in the front leg between this homerun and the 2011 pulled homerun from earlier:
This greater side-to-side movement with the front leg makes the hip action longer and slower, forcing him to engage his upper body more to drive balls over the fence. In Ellsbury’s case, he’s not strong enough to hit a wealth of homeruns with just his arms, complicated by the fact that he may have been dealing with some weakness in that front shoulder from his 2012 injury, as many suggested earlier this year. This probably led to yanking balls to the pull side and rolling over earlier, particularly on off speed pitches, like here on a single to right field off Rich Hill:
Don’t get me wrong; that’s a tough pitch, and Ellsbury did well just to get the bat on it. However, you can see again how he never gets his front leg stabilized having all of his weight on his toes, so his first move with the hands is out away from the body to counter the lateral movement of the lower half. From that first move, he’s left to roll his hands around the ball and ground it weakly to the right side.
All was not lost this year, however, as a jump in his numbers in the middle and later portions of the season coincided with some swings that looked more similar to the 2011 clips. Here is a double off Chris Archer from June 18 this year, on a day where he ended up a home run short of the cycle:
See here how the front heel gets down flat on the ground before his hands start to come through, allowing his hips to work efficiently to drive the ball off the Monster. A much more balanced swing. Here is a home run Ellsbury hit off the Astros on August 6, the second of the game for him:
Cisneros’ stupid leg gets in the way a tad, but you can still see Ellsbury get the heel down just before his bat comes into the line of the pitch. The only small complaint I would have is that his bat plane is a little flat; it would be better to see the first move with his hands be down to create more natural lift like he did in the 2011 swings. However, it is a high pitch, and the hand path will tend to be a bit flatter for every hitter on pitches up in the zone. This does show up in swings of his from the Sox’ playoff run as well, though by then he was apparently dealing with an undisclosed arm injury and a broken navicular bone in his foot. Since GIFs are fun, here is one of those swings:
Since the difference in hand path is a little bit subtle, here is the same clip cut from his load to contact followed by his 2011 swing on a similar pitch location:
In the 2011 swing, the hands bring the bat on a slightly more vertical approach to the ball, allowing him to stay through it on a line that naturally produces loft. The left elbow comes through much tighter to the back hip, and the hands do not shoot out away from the body as a result. In the 2013 playoff swing, the bat comes into the zone much flatter, and that hands get away from the body quickly. By the time the barrel gets to contact, the hands are pulling across the body causing him to hook it to right field. This swing is not representative of the entire 2013 season, as a few of the other swings in this article prove. However, it was a more common finding this year than in 2011.
Ellsbury’s bat path being slightly flat was no doubt related to the issue he had staying connected to the ground throughout the year. The more side-to-side movement there is in the legs, the more there will usually be in the hands. I believe this is what caused the spike in ground balls, and it also may have been the cause in his greater platoon split this year – 222 OPS point difference versus only an 80 point career split. The unstable legs and flatter path make it difficult to make late adjustments to changes in ball flight, which is more of an issue when facing same-sided pitchers. Besides the point here, but I thought it was an interesting connection.
We wanted to see what evidence there was for or against another power outburst from Ellsbury going forward. My impression of his 2013 season is that he was never 100% healthy, and that was what disabled his power from showing up earlier and more frequently. Not even necessarily because of one specific physical problem, I don’t think he ever was able to get comfortable this year because of the nagging injuries. These mechanical issues were not big enough to ruin his season, but just enough to limit his power.
If he can get a few months of clear-minded at bats where he’s not worried about pain, I think he settles down enough to get his front foot down and let his hands work, bringing with it the home run power. That said, it’s not reasonable to expect perfect health based on his recent history, and because of that I would bet money on not seeing 30 home runs again. If he is able to get a few full seasons of plate appearances, I feel comfortable betting on a 20+ home run season or two, with the floor of a high AVG guy who plays great defense and steals a bunch of bags. Sign me up.