Three years ago, amid all the talk about getting under the luxury tax threshold, the Yankees committed over $400M to a quartet of free agents following the team’s disappointing 2013 season. I’d say three of the four free agents have been worth the money so far. Masahiro Tanaka, Brian McCann, and Carlos Beltran have done — or did, in Beltran’s case — more or less exactly as expected. Tanaka’s been hurt a few times, but pitchers do that.
Jacoby Ellsbury, the fourth of those four free agent signings, has not come particularly close to meeting the expectations that come with a massive seven-year contract worth $153M. The deal was market value at best and a gross overpay at worse, and right now it leans clearly towards the latter. Coming into the 2016 season, the hope was Ellsbury would rebound from a disappointing 2015 that seemed to get thrown out of whack by a May knee injury. It didn’t happen.
A Poor April, Then A May To Remember
Prior to last season’s knee injury, Ellsbury was a dominant leadoff man who was actually worth his contract for a short period of time. He hit .324/.412/.372 (125 wRC+) with 14 steals and nearly as many walks (11.2%) as strikeouts (13.5%) in his first 37 games before tweaking his knee taking a swing. Ellsbury landed on the DL, then returned in July to hit .224/.269/.322 (62 wRC+) in his final 74 games of the season before getting benched in the wildcard game.
Rather than come out of Spring Training hot this year like last year, Ellsbury hit a soft .235/.278/.341 (64 wRC+) in April, which was basically a continuation of what he did following the knee injury in 2015. At one point in April he went 4-for-27 (.148) with more doubles play grounded into (two) than extra base hits (one, a homer). Think about that. A speed guy getting doubled up twice as often as getting a hit for extra bases. Not even a hustle double or anything mixed in there.
To be fair, Ellsbury delivered one of the biggest highlights of the season on April 22nd, when he pulled off a straight steal of home against the Rays. There was no funny business here. No ball in the dirt, nothing like that. Ellsbury just took off for home and beat the throw. Check it out:
May was, by far, Ellsbury’s best month of the season. Maybe his best month as a Yankee. He has a tendency to get on insane hot streaks — I’m talking 15-for-25, 20-for-30, 25-for-40, stuff like that — and he got on one as soon as the calendar flipped to May, hitting .340/.410/.534 (155 wRC+) with two homers and seven steals in 30 games. (The hot streak carried over into early-June.)
The May (and early-June) hot streak brought Ellsbury’s season batting line up to .293/.353/.447 (116 wRC+) through 52 games and 214 plate appearances, and hey, that’s pretty awesome. The season was one-third complete and Ellsbury’s overall numbers were comfortably above-average. The production was a little uneven (poor April, great May), but that’s baseball. Day-to-day consistency doesn’t exist.
Another Fade, This Time Without The DL Stint
The hot start didn’t last. It never really does. Ellsbury went into the All-Star break with a .279/.347/.398 (103 wRC+) batting line and that’s not terrible. It’s not great either. It just kinda … is. In the game immediately prior to the All-Star break, Ellsbury smacked a big three-run home run against the Indians, one pitch after what should have been ball four was called strike two to extend the at-bat. Rookie ump Ramon DeJesus did the Yankees a solid there.
Weirdly enough, Ellsbury did go on a bit of a power binge in late-August and early-September, swatting five home runs in the span of 22 games. That’s a 37-homer pace across a full 162-game season. The most notable of those five home runs came on September 13th against the Dodgers, and it was an seventh inning go-ahead blast. That was a fun game.
Anyway, after that home run, Ellsbury went 12-for-58 (.207) to close out the regular season. He finished the year with a .263/.330/.374 (91 wRC+) batting line and nine homers in 626 plate appearances. His walk (8.6%) and strikeout (13.4%) numbers were nice, and he did steal 20 bases, but it took 28 attempts (71%). The Yankees paid Ellsbury a whole lotta money for league average offensive production in 2016.
No Longer A Speed Threat
At his peak, Ellsbury was an elite baserunner who created havoc every time he reached base. Just his presence on the basepaths changed the game. Pitchers had to pay attention to him and I’m sure that led to a few more fastballs for the guys at the plate. That’s the Ellsbury the Yankees thought they were signing. Someone who could diversify their offense by creating runs with his legs.
Nowadays Ellsbury is beyond his base-stealing prime — he turned 33 in September and stealing bases is not a skill that ages gracefully — and that’s not his fault. That’s just the normal aging process. If anything, blame the Yankees for giving a speed guy a seven-year contract (!) after his 30th birthday. What did they think would happen? Here are some baserunning numbers over the last few years.
Ellsbury’s stolen base success rate has slipped the last few years and he’s also attempting fewer steals (SBA%) overall. It’s important to note a 10.7% steal attempt rate is actually really good — the league average is 5.5% — but it’s not what it was a few years ago. Top stolen base threats should be in the 10-15% range, ideally. Ellsbury was higher than that at his peak. This season he attempted steals half as often as just two years ago.
The stolen bases stand out the most because they’re the easiest aspect of baserunning to see, but to me the scariest number in that table is the extra-bases taken (XBT%). That’s going first-to-third on a single, scoring from second on a single, stuff like that. Ellsbury was at 32% this year. 32%! Beltran was at 30% this year. The MLB average is 42%. I mean, omgwtf. Why is it so low? Ellsbury didn’t just steal fewer bases, he took the extra base at a below-average rate too.
Injury could play a factor in this. Ellsbury missed a few days with a hip issue in mid-May and a lingering hip problem could easily explain any hesitation on the bases. We never heard that Ellsbury’s hip was aching all year, but who knows. He has a history of getting hurt and staying hurt, after all. Whatever it is, Ellsbury was not much of a weapon on the bases. Not stealing and not even taking the extra 90 feet on base hits. That’s a problem three years into a seven-year contract.
Still Strong In The Field
His bat and baserunning may be in decline, but Ellsbury remains a very good center field defender. I can’t imagine many folks will disagree with me there. Ellsbury actually had a rough start to the season in the field (remember all this?), but he shook all that off and turned in another comfortably above-average season in the field. That all the defensive stats spit out different numbers (+8 DRA, +0.7 UZR, +1 Total Zone, -14.5 FRAA) says more about the reliability of the numbers than it does Ellsbury.
Believe me, piling on Ellsbury would be very easy, but I can’t do it defensively. The stats — well, most of them, anyway — and the eye test tell me he remains a very good gloveman who saves the Yankees runs. Is he as good defensively as he was three or four years ago? Of course not. No player is. Age has sapped some of his speed. But he remains an asset out there. Defense is Ellsbury’s best attribute at this point, I’d say.
Outlook For 2017
Unloading Ellsbury and his contract should one of the team’s top priorities this offseason. It just seems so very unlikely the Yankees will be able to do that, not without eating a ton of money or taking on a bad contract in return. They’ve really painted themselves into a corner with this contract, which is a shame, because they have so many young MLB ready or near MLB ready outfielders.
There’s a non-zero chance the inability to move Ellsbury means the Yankees will have to instead Brett Gardner this offseason to clear roster space for younger players, which would be a shame, but what can you do? I went into this season hoping Ellsbury would rebound with good health after the knee injury last year. It didn’t happen. Now I don’t really know what to think. Maybe Ellsbury really is nothing more than a 90 wRC+ and +2 WAR player now.