What Do You Do with Jacoby Ellsbury?

After this past offseason’s lack of oomph, the winter between the 2013 and 2014 seasons feels like a different time. In the span of two months, Robinson Cano, Jacoby Ellsbury, Clayton Kershaw, and Masahiro Tanaka signed $150 million-plus contracts. It’s not the last time that’s happened: the 2015-16 offseason featured the same number of deals — to Chris Davis, Zack Greinke, Jason Heyward, and David Price — above the $150 million threshold. But there’s enough distance between that earlier offseason and now that it’s possible to review the performances of the relevant players and reconsider the years ahead for them. And as a competitive Yankees club prepares for the second half of the season, it’s worth wondering what will become of former star center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

When Ellsbury first signed his deal, Dave Cameron examined (not for the first time) how well fast outfielders with good defense tend to age and noted that it would be dangerous to lump Ellsbury in with Carl Crawford. This was a fair and calm assessment of Ellsbury’s value. He noted that Ellsbury was projected to be a four-win player in 2014, and that over the life of his seven-year deal, Ellsbury was projected to be worth 17.5 WAR. The first part absolutely came true — Ellsbury tallied 4.1 WAR in 2014, his first with the Yankees. The latter projection, however, isn’t working out quite so well.

Ellsbury is now in his fourth season with New York, and he has been worth 7.5 WAR to date. Our depth charts peg him for another 0.5 WAR for the remainder of the season, which would bring him to 8 WAR in four years. As a straight average, obviously that’s two wins per season, but the drop-off following the 2014 campaign has been significant. From 2015 to now, he’s been worth 3.4 WAR. Whether you think he’s a 1 WAR or 2 WAR player going forward, it seems that he’ll be hard-pressed to reach that initial 17.5 WAR figure. Ellsbury has become an albatross far earlier than expected.

Or has he? Judging Ellsbury’s performance is far from simple. Let’s take a look at his defense, for example, as measured both by Defensive Runs Saved (DFS) and Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR).

Jacoby Ellsbury, CF Defense Splits
Season Team rARM DRS ARM RngR ErrR UZR
2007-2009 Red Sox -6 -13 -5.3 2.7 1.3 -1.4
2010-2013 Red Sox -6 25 -10.3 39.3 1.1 30.3
2014-2017 Yankees -6 9 -10.6 4.9 2.1 -3.6
Career -18 21 -26.2 46.9 4.5 25.2

If you just look at his career DRS and UZR, you’d think they’re basically in agreement. But if you break it down by his last four years in Boston vs. his first four years in New York (with some early career Boston years left over at the front), you see that the agreements are not universal. Both systems agree he has a terrible arm, but UZR hasn’t given him nearly as much credit for range in New York as it did his last four seasons in Boston. As such, that negative UZR with New York has knocked down his WAR. But perhaps there’s more to the story.

For one thing, we know that he hasn’t slowed down. When we head over to the new Statcast tool, Sprint Speed, we can see that he is not only firmly above average, but faster this year than in the past two years.

Jacoby Ellsbury, Sprint Speed, 2015-2017
Year Sprint Speed (ft/sec) Rank
2015 27.9 119
2016 28.0 108
2017 28.2 63
SOURCE: Statcast
Average sprint speed is 27 ft/sec

Visually, we can see that he is holding his own both league-wide and among his position group. (Ellsbury’s circle is to the left of his name.)

All of that is positive and good news. His speed metrics here on FanGraphs are in agreement as well. His BsR, Spd, UBR, wGDP, and wSB stats all show that, while not at his peak, Ellsbury is still plenty useful with his legs. The 1.1 runs he’s produced on the bases ranks fourth on the Yankees this season.

And in stretches, Ellsbury has shown that he is still capable of hitting well. Dave wrote about this last year, and he broke out a 30-game rolling wOBA graph that documented Ellsbury’s improvement. As both he and Owen Watson had before him documented, Ellsbury is still a pretty good hitter when he’s completely healthy.

Therein lies the rub, though: Ellsbury is rarely completely healthy. Let’s update that graph.

Ellsbury, as you can see, was doing well this season, until he ran into the Yankee Stadium wall on May 24th and suffered a concussion. The injury kept him sidelined for a month, and he hasn’t been the same since returning.

Jacoby Ellsbury, 2017 Splits
4/2-5/24 153 0.281 0.349 0.422 0.141 0.335
6/26-7/9 48 0.214 0.298 0.262 0.048 0.256

Now, it doesn’t take much of a leap to say that Ellsbury probably still isn’t back to 100%. But since he was activated from the disabled list, he has played in 11 of 13 games. Will that change? Let’s go back to June 10 for a second. In the New York Daily News that day, Daniel Popper quoted Joe Girardi as saying the following, about Ellsbury and Aaron Hicks:

“He’s going to play a lot. That’s the bottom line, when (Ellsbury) comes back,” Girardi said of Hicks. “I know that at some point I’m going to have to give Gardy a day off. I’m going to have to give Judge a day off. I’m going to have to give Hicks a day off. But he’s going to continue to get a ton of at-bats.”

In case that wasn’t succinct enough for you, the title of the article was, “Aaron Hicks will keep getting consistent playing time even when Jacoby Ellsbury returns from DL.” Now, this isn’t an issue with which the Yankees have had to deal just yet. Ellsbury came back from the DL as Hicks was entering it. There’s a chance Hicks may miss a good portion of the second half. He’s not scheduled to partake in any baseball activities until “at least July 25.” Nevertheless, the Yankees will face the crunch eventually. Ellsbury is under contract through 2020. Brett Gardner and Hicks are under contract through 2019, and Aaron Judge and Clint Frazier (and Dustin Fowler and Tyler Wade) will be under contract well past 2020. Not counting Fowler and Wade — who may be good players — the Yankees are going to have five starting-caliber outfielders for the foreseeable future.

Maybe this won’t be a problem long term. Maybe this winter, the Yankees will finally make the long-discussed Brett Gardner trade, and one of the outfielders will rotate through as a DH every day. But for this season, it seems like an issue, especially when Matt Holliday comes back, and that should be any day now. When Holliday was healthy, he was the starting DH most every day.

Given the Yankees’ embarrassment of riches, one would think that this might be Ellsbury’s tough luck. It stinks to be a $150 million bench player, but those are the breaks, right? Except, he’s not the sort of player the Yankees generally bench. Yeah, the Yankees cut bait on Alex Rodriguez a year early, but everything about Rodriguez’s situation was unique. I think a better parallel for Ellsbury would be Mark Teixeira. Last season, Teixeira had a hard time hitting. He posted a 12 wRC+ last May. But the Yankees stuck with him. It wasn’t until he announced his retirement toward the end of the season that they put him in a job share. The same is true of Derek Jeter or Jorge Posada. The Yankees generally stand by their man.

Now, you may not think of Ellsbury in the same light as Teixeira or Posada (and especially Jeter), and you wouldn’t necessarily be wrong in that. But he’s been worth 30 WAR for his career. He finished second in the 2011 AL MVP voting. His contract is the 29th richest in MLB history. He’s one of just 50 players all time to rack up 100 homers and 300 stolen bases. He’s not a player to be cast aside. And yet, given his contract, he probably isn’t tradeable. So the Yankees have some hard decisions to make.

Jacoby Ellsbury was probably overpaid. He’s been worth only 7.5 WAR since coming to New York. But his WAR figure may be lower than it could be thanks to a disagreement between DRS and UZR, and it’s definitely tamped down by the various injuries he has incurred. When completely healthy, he’s still capable of producing at a league-average rate or better, but he isn’t always completely healthy, even when he’s playing. What do you with a player like that? This is a tough question that is exacerbated by the fact that the Yankees have a plethora of outfielders who are qualified to play every day. It’s certainly something you file under the “good problems” header, but it’s going to be a problem for the Yankees nonetheless.

Paul Swydan used to be the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com and The Boston Globe. Now, he owns The Silver Unicorn Bookstore, an independent bookstore in Acton, Mass. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan. Follow the store @SilUnicornActon.

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5 years ago

And Cano is at an even 15 fWAR over the same period, 2014 – today. That 15 fWAR has cost $5.6M per WAR. Ellsbury (with $76.5m in pay so far) is around $10.2M per WAR. I’m excited to come back to this one every year until 2024.

5 years ago
Reply to  Easyenough

Health is a fickle mistress. At the time of signing, Ellsbury’s was a mixed bag – he had missed time, but it was due to injuries of the fluke variety (he seemed to have trouble recovering from injuries, but didn’t actually look to be prone to injuries). Since then, he appears to have actually become injury prone, or else his recovery issues now prevent him from keeping up day-to-day maintenance. It’s a shame…

5 years ago
Reply to  redsoxu571

Concussion from crashing the wall this year and in 2015 he had a knee injury when his spikes got caught swinging. Pretty healthy in 2014 and 2016. He was never known to recover quickly in Boston.

5 years ago
Reply to  redsoxu571

If ‘injury prone’ is a thing, Jacoby is certainly it. He built up quite the reputation in Boston for being a “club med” guy. IE he loved being on the DL.

Rex Manning Daymember
5 years ago
Reply to  Easyenough

Some day I hope we get an Oral History of the Yankees’ Ellsbury/Cano Decision.