The Premature Reports of Jacoby Ellsbury’s Demise

In the winter of 2013, the Yankees faced a decision on star second baseman Robinson Cano, and after years of getting burned with big contracts for aging players, the team drew the line in the sand when Cano asked for a 10 year deal. After maxing out their offer to Cano at $175 million over seven years, the Yankees let Cano leave for Seattle, but then promptly reallocated most of the money earmarked for their second baseman to center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury; he signed with New York for $153 million over seven years a week after Cano signed with the Mariners.

Because of the similarities of the offers and the timing of when they occurred, Ellsbury is always going to be linked to Cano, and comparisons between the two have become a frequent source of conversation. That was especially true back in April, when Cano got off to a blistering start to the season while Ellsbury struggled tremendously. A few days into the season, ESPN ran this story from Andrew Marchand.

Similar stories followed over the next month, as Ellsbury limped to a .235/.278/.341 line over the first month of the season. The slow came on the heels of a miserable second half to the 2015 season, and by the time April ended, Ellsbury had hit just .241/.293/.338 (a 71 wRC+) over the past calendar year, spanning a total of 498 plate appearances. It was pretty easy to write Ellsbury off as a washed-up and overpaid mistake.

But on May 1st, Ellsbury went 2 for 5 with a couple of doubles, and then a few days later, he went 3 for 3 with a double and two walks. His hot streak was halted when he missed a week with a hip problem, but he returned to the line-up on May 15th and started a six game hitting streak, which included another 3 for 3 game, with a double and two more walks, on May 18th. And he hasn’t really slowed down since.

Ellsbury, 2016
Ellsbury BA OBP SLG wOBA wRC+
April 0.235 0.278 0.341 0.271 65
Since May 1st 0.333 0.402 0.495 0.385 144

Of course, a nice five week hot stretch doesn’t eliminate the fact that Ellsbury really was lousy for most of a year. But as Owen Watson noted during Ellsbury’s second half slump last year, it seemed pretty likely he was playing hurt, or at least at a diminished level of health.

The classic Ellsbury tools were on display during this stage of the season. He was hitting lots of line drives, showing great speed on the base paths, and playing sound defense in center field. The 32-year-old was even walking at a much higher clip than his career norm (11.2% vs. 7.0%) in April and the first two weeks of May. The caveat with those stats, of course, is that six weeks is a small sample size, so whether he would have continued his early season production is hard to gauge.

The reason we don’t know whether those improvements would have stuck is part of a familiar trend for Ellsbury: he sprained his right knee during a swing on May 19th, eventually spending almost two months on the disabled list. Apart from any talk about his potential injury proneness (we should remind ourselves that most of his major injuries have been due to freakish impacts with other players), it’s difficult to miss two months in the middle of the season and come back without any rust.

When Ellsbury went on the DL last year, he was hitting .324/.412/.372, good for a 124 wRC+. As Owen noted, it was a weird mix of performances, as his power had disappeared but he was drawing a bunch of walks, which had not been a significant part of his game in years prior. Ellsbury didn’t return from the DL until July 8th, and from that point through the rest of the season, he hit just .230/.274/.341. The walks went away, his BABIP cratered down to .267, and his strikeout rate was pushing up towards the league average mark, never a good thing for a guy without much power.

It’s never a good idea to throw data out entirely, as we simply don’t know how much Ellsbury’s knee issue affected his second half performance, and discarding the whole performance is an overly extreme reaction to the idea that he probably wasn’t at 100% last year. But the context of his health is worth knowing, especially when the breakdown of his performances as a Yankee are so stark.

Screen Shot 2016-06-07 at 12.22.01 PM

2014, the first six weeks of 2015, and the first five weeks of 2016 are all mostly on the same level, though with the normal variance between hot streaks and slumps. But with the exception of the second half of last year, Ellsbury’s been a .330 wOBA hitter in New York, and given that the league average is around .315, that makes him a valuable-if-not-spectacular hitter. Add in the defense and baserunning value, and Ellsbury is a quality player, worth something like +3 to +4 WAR over a full season. Let’s do one more table, showing Ellsbury’s overall production split, by half years, since joining New York.

Ellsbury, Half Seasons as Yankee
Ellsbury PA WAR WAR/600
2014, 1st Half 297 2.5 5.1
2014, 2nd Half 238 1.5 3.8
2015 1st Half 193 1.2 3.7
2015, 2nd Half 308 -0.4 -0.8
2016, 1st Half 208 1.3 3.8

Splitting data up into half-season samples can be misleading, especially given that several of those half seasons are really more like a month and change, but this table makes the point pretty clear; outside of Ellsbury’s post-DL performance last year, he’s actually been quite good as a Yankee.

And right now, Ellsbury looks plenty healthy. He’s already racked up five triples this year after only getting two all of last year, and perhaps more tellingly, he’s already attempted 18 stolen bases this year, running on 22% of his stolen base opportunities, the same rate at which he attempted steals back in 2014; last year, he only ran 13% of the time when he had the chance to swipe a bag. Since Ellsbury isn’t a big home run guy, one of the primary ways he helps his team offensively is by advancing himself on the bases, turning singles into doubles and doubles into triples, and he’s doing that again this year, just as he did in his first year in New York.

Ellsbury is still a 32 year old who relies on his speed for a significant part of his value, and he’s been battling knee and hip problems for the last year now, so there’s certainly a lot of risk for early decline here. It would be foolish to think Ellsbury was going to keep playing at a +4 WAR level going forward, but it’s equally silly to believe that a healthy Ellsbury is washed up just because he couldn’t hit with a bum knee last year.

Is the contract going to work out over the remainder of the deal? No, probably not. But it’s also an overreaction to start talking about Ellsbury as “the worst contract in New York”, as ESPN just did this morning. Ellsbury is a solid player making a bit more money than he’s worth, but the idea that he’s the problem with the Yankees right now is simply unsupported by the facts.

And if the Yankees do fall out of the race and decide to sell, there should be a market for Ellsbury this summer. Yeah, New York would have to pick up some of the remaining money left to move the contract, but he’s not some kind of Matt Kemp-style albatross. Ellsbury remains a productive player, and if he hadn’t gotten hurt last May, the narrative around him would probably be pretty different right now, because when healthy, Jacoby Ellsbury has been as good as the Yankees hoped he would be.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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London Yank
6 years ago

As someone who watches Ellsbury every day, my eye tells me he is not a good defensive center fielder. He cost them a run last night, for example, by letting a pretty catchable ball fall for a double. The problem is he doesn’t read the ball well and takes bad routes, and slow jumps.

6 years ago
Reply to  London Yank

He had that problem with the Red Sox as well, he just masked it with insane speed. I suspect he’s just a lot less confident in his ability to out-run bad decisions now (probably due to injury, but also possibly because his speed really has declined), so he’s playing conservatively and cratering his range.

6 years ago
Reply to  London Yank

Your skill assessment is pretty on point, but your overall verdict is a bit off. Ellsbury is at least a solid/average CFer, and is probably still a bit above average. He isn’t the strong plus CFer he was with Boston (likely for the exact reason kbn outlined), but he is good enough at a valuable position to sill be a plus defender overall.

6 years ago
Reply to  London Yank

He made a couple of nice plays and would have had that ball Trout let fall in front of him that cost the Angels the game. His biggest problem is his arm