Yankees Sign Jacoby Ellsbury, Bet On Speed Aging Well

You’re going to hear Carl Crawford’s name a lot over the next 24 hours. Carl Crawford was a speed-and-defense outfielder heading into his 30s and the Red Sox gave him $142 million over seven years, only to see the deal become an albatross almost immediately. Everyone who was skeptical of aging speed-and-defense outfielders was instantly vindicated. Everyone who is still skeptical of aging speed-and-defense outfielders is going to instantly point to the Carl Crawford deal when they hear that the Yankees have agreed to pay Jacoby Ellsbury $153 million over the next seven years.

Crawford is a data point in their favor, absolutely. He was a similar player to Ellsbury, and he got a similar contract to Ellsbury, and it didn’t turn out to be a very good idea. Crawford is absolutely evidence that this contract could be a big mistake. Crawford is a reminder that big free agent deals often turn out badly. But if you’re going to use Carl Crawford as the sole data point in your belief that players like Ellsbury are bad investments, you’re simply ignoring the fact that history doesn’t actually agree with you.

I published a piece here on FanGraphs a few weeks ago entitled “The Slow Decline of Speedy Outfielders“. It is hardly the first article published to note that players like Ellsbury actually have aged well historically, but it’s one I wrote and recent, so it’s the one I’m linking to. Many others have written similar pieces before, and this is not a new idea, but it’s one worth repeating. Most players that have had Jacoby Ellsbury like skills have performed pretty well in their 30s. Players like this age better than other types of players, not worse.

For those not interested in reading that piece, I’ll just repost the two tables. These are outfielders who, over the last 30 years, showed similar skillsets to Ellsbury from ages 27-29.

Rickey Henderson 1788 14% 11% 0.165 0.285 0.387 0.450 0.374 133 28 99 6 17
Jacoby Ellsbury 1691 7% 14% 0.166 0.303 0.356 0.469 0.359 123 19 64 34 16
Ichiro Suzuki 2191 6% 8% 0.111 0.328 0.374 0.440 0.350 118 15 64 22 16
Kenny Lofton 1788 9% 11% 0.150 0.324 0.381 0.474 0.372 118 18 60 31 15
Tim Raines 1733 14% 8% 0.163 0.297 0.395 0.461 0.371 135 15 86 -8 14
Andy Van Slyke 1761 10% 18% 0.180 0.271 0.341 0.451 0.352 126 5 56 18 14
Devon White 1914 8% 20% 0.149 0.253 0.314 0.402 0.322 98 10 7 58 13
Derek Bell 1926 7% 18% 0.165 0.285 0.340 0.450 0.343 111 6 32 23 11
Aaron Rowand 1769 6% 18% 0.170 0.283 0.344 0.453 0.346 105 11 22 29 11
Steve Finley 1688 7% 11% 0.127 0.279 0.331 0.406 0.328 106 6 16 29 10
Marquis Grissom 1850 7% 11% 0.148 0.286 0.337 0.435 0.336 100 7 7 36 10
Average 1,841 9% 13% 0.153 0.289 0.354 0.442 0.349 115 12 45 24 13

And now, here’s how those players did from ages 30-36, the years guaranteed in Ellsbury’s new contract with the Yankees.

Rickey Henderson 869 3819 18% 11% 0.167 0.287 0.418 0.453 0.393 148 39 253 -10 38
Ichiro Suzuki 1115 5148 6% 10% 0.093 0.332 0.377 0.426 0.348 114 43 136 46 35
Kenny Lofton 940 4260 11% 12% 0.136 0.287 0.368 0.422 0.349 107 17 56 69 26
Tim Raines 834 3651 13% 9% 0.125 0.284 0.376 0.408 0.352 116 21 94 -38 18
Devon White 841 3640 7% 18% 0.163 0.272 0.332 0.435 0.336 100 12 11 48 17
Steve Finley 1041 4474 8% 13% 0.201 0.275 0.338 0.476 0.349 110 4 59 -25 17
Andy Van Slyke 557 2363 10% 15% 0.154 0.280 0.354 0.434 0.350 117 6 48 -8 13
Aaron Rowand 509 1865 5% 22% 0.142 0.253 0.310 0.394 0.309 88 -3 -29 12 4
Marquis Grissom 972 3952 5% 16% 0.149 0.264 0.304 0.413 0.311 84 2 -83 -5 4
Derek Bell 314 1373 10% 21% 0.135 0.241 0.323 0.376 0.311 82 0 -33 -17 0
Average 799 3,455 9% 15% 0.147 0.278 0.350 0.424 0.341 107 14 51 7 17

There are a few busts in there, and you can throw Crawford into that mix as well if you want even though we don’t technically know how his entire 30-36 span is going to go, but by and large, these guys held a large chunk of their late 20s value. Offensively, they hardly declined at all. Their defense got worse, but it didn’t become useless. They got slower, but were still better baserunners than most. They played fewer games, but most of them played enough to still be productive.

One cannot be intellectually honest while citing Carl Crawford if you’re not also going to simultaneously cite Rickey Henderson, Ichiro Suzuki, and Kenny Lofton. There are examples of every single player type that have signed huge contracts and immediately imploded. If we’re just going to cherry pick recent examples of contracts gone terrible, we could argue that teams shouldn’t sign any player at any position with any skillset. Power hitters who scare opposing pitchers? Meet Albert Pujols. Up the middle guys who can hit like sluggers? Hi there Matt Kemp. Elite aces in the prime of their careers? Johan Santana, come on down.

Carl Crawford’s production is not Jacoby Ellsbury’s fait accompli; it’s one possible path of many. Every player’s future is a probability distribution, bottoming out at completely and utterly useless. Every single player could turn into a total dud tomorrow. And every single player could actually play better in the future than they have in the past. There is no single example that represents the expected outcome for any other player, no matter how similar they might appear to be.

So, we have two options. We can either throw our hands in the air and say “who knows what the future will bring, sign anyone for whatever you want and hope for the best” or we can try to make educated guesses based on reasonable assumptions and decent amounts of data. Those decent amounts of data suggest that players like Ellsbury age well, even if Carl Crawford did not. That data does not support the idea that speed-and-defense players fall apart after they turn 30. If anything, the data suggests just the opposite, and says that big boned first baseman are the ones you should be really afraid of.

I know the Carl Crawford comparison is the easy one, especially because Boston is tied to both players. That doesn’t make the conclusion about Ellsbury’s future value based on Crawford’s failure any more true, however.

With that very long caveat out of the way, let’s actually talk about what Ellsbury is. Steamer and ZIPS both see him as roughly a +4 WAR player in 2014. If we do the standard half WAR per season decay for aging, then Ellsbury would project out to +17.5 WAR over the next seven years. Interestingly, that’s an almost perfect match for what the average player in the list above did from ages 30-36, so +17 to +18 WAR seems like a perfectly reasonable expectation for the next seven years. At $153 million, that would mean the Yankees were paying about $8.7 million per expected win, about a 40 percent premium over the cost of the deals we’ve seen signed thus far. Relative to other contracts already signed, including the Yankees own signing of Brian McCann, this looks like an overpay.

But there’s a caveat on every free agent signing with the Yankees, because their financial situation is entirely different than every other team’s situation. The Yankees have a crazy amount of money. The Yankees don’t really need to spend money as efficiently as possible. The Yankees can easily afford to pay more than the market rate for players and still be just fine, because they have more resources than any other team in the game.

So, yeah, this deal wouldn’t make sense for a lot of other teams. For a team with a payroll of $100 million, $22 million per year for Ellsbury probably doesn’t work. Even at $125 to $150 million, it’s probably too much. The Yankees, though, can afford it. $22 million to them is roughly equivalent to $12 or $13 million to a franchise with an average payroll. Even if the Yankees stick to their guns and come in right under $189 million for 2014, Ellsbury’s AAV would account for something like 12% of their total payroll.

The Yankees paid a lot of money for a very good player. That very good player is probably going to remain a very good player for the next few years, and then, like nearly every free agent, he’ll be an overpaid albatross in the last few years of the deal. For the price, the Yankees probably overpaid relative to the going market rate of wins. But because they’re the Yankees, the fact that they overpaid by $20 or $30 million doesn’t matter all that much.

It would hurt the Yankees more to put another mediocre team on the field in 2014 and watch their built in financial advantage begin to dwindle. The Yankees have a resource advantage to maintain, and the best way to maintain that advantage is to keep putting good teams on the field.

And Jacoby Ellsbury will help the Yankees put a good team on the field again in 2014, because Jacoby Ellsbury is a good player, even if he’s a good player because he’s fast. Runs created with speed and defense count too.

Dave is the Managing Editor of FanGraphs.

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10 years ago

I can’t remember an offseason day as fun and eventful as this.

10 years ago
Reply to  Petruchio

What’s ironic is it’s hard to tell the Red Sox and Yankee fans apart…they’re all whining about this deal!

10 years ago
Reply to  Slats

That isn’t ironic.

Doug Lampert
10 years ago
Reply to  Slats

As a Red Sox fan, I’m not whining.

I wish he’d gone to someone other than they Yankees, but if they want to dump that ammount of money on him that’s their privelege, the Sox simply were not going to offer him anything comparable.

It’s a job, he’s expected to try to earn money at it.

The Yankees have a lot of income, they reinvest a lot of it in the team, if I whine about ownership it will be for the Marlins and their ilk who are simply parasites on the league taking money that’s supposed to go to the team and pocketing it. I might like a hard salary cap, but a hard FLOOR is far more needed.