We are in year five of the Jacoby Ellsbury Experience, the end of which is kind of in sight if you squint just a little bit. There are three years, including this one, left on the deal, plus a $5 MM buyout for a 2021 team option that has a less than zero percent chance of being picked-up. The Yankees have all but openly acknowledged that Ellsbury’s place on the roster is solely a product of that contract, given that his name was bandied about in salary dump talks throughout the off-season (as well as the fact that the team’s given every indication that he isn’t a part of the starting lineup), and that’s perfectly reasonable. There may be other reasons to keep him around, but that’s largely a function of pessimism, as opposed to a means to construct the best possible roster. And, regardless of the sentiment about his place on the roster or the nature of his contract, he’s here to stay (for now).
Is He Still Good?
Ellsbury was, on a rate basis, a league-average center-fielder in 2017. He slashed .264/.348/.402 (101 wRC+) in 409 PA, which is a virtual doppelganger of the positional average of .262/.333/.426 (101 wRC+) in 2018. He was also a genuine weapon on the basepaths, with 22 steals in 25 attempts, and 4.7 BsR; and that latter stat, an all-encompassing base-running metric, is a counting metric – and it ranked 18th in baseball.
Those base-running numbers have ranged from good to great throughout Ellsbury’s career, so it stands to reason that we can expect that facet of his game to remain strong. However, we can’t overlook the fact that he hit .260/.324/.361 (87 wRC+) in 1127 PA between 2015 and 2016; nor can we ignore his age – he’ll be 34 for the entirety of this season.
The metrics didn’t like Ellsbury’s defense last year (-3 DRS, -8.0 UZR/150), which isn’t great. But he still flashes elite running speed on the offensive side of the game, and his defensive numbers were much better as recently as 2016. Defensive metrics are notoriously fickle, so taking the long view and factoring in that speed might be the way to go, pragmatically speaking. And that could point to him being a competent defender in center.
Was He Doing Anything Different In 2017?
Ellsbury’s walk rate jumped to a career-high 10.0% last year, up from 8.6% in 2016 and 7.4% for his career. He also struck out in 15.4% of his plate appearances, the second-highest mark of his career, and 1.7 percentage points above his personal norm. Walks and strikeouts did increase league-wide last year, but Ellsbury’s gains in both outstripped those bumps. And he was at least a bit more patient last year, too, with his 3.82 pitches per plate appearance representing his highest mark since 2013; though, to be fair, that’s only slightly above his career rate of 3.77 (a difference of 32.5 pitches every 650 PA).
His batted ball profile was basically the same, though, with one exception: he pulled the ball more than ever before.
As one may expect, almost all of Ellsbury’s power came when he pulled the ball, as he had a .236 ISO on pulled balls. However, his wRC+ was just 88 to the pull side, as opposed to a 141 wRC+ to center, and a 116 wRC+ to left. That’s the opposite of his career norms, though – so if he continues to pull the ball maybe, just maybe, there’s more left in the tank offensively than we might suspect.
Does It Matter If He’s Still Good?
Again, the answer is maybe.
In an ideal world, Ellsbury is not on the Yankees right now. In an ideal version of the real world that we live in right now, Ellsbury is not playing all that much. He is currently behind Aaron Judge, Giancarlo Stanton, Aaron Hicks, and Brett Gardner on the depth chart, and I suspect that he’d be behind Clint Frazier if all things were equal, as well. And I don’t think the Yankees are moving him ahead of anyone based on the merit of his performance in Spring Training, nor are they likely to make a panic move based on Hicks or Gardner struggling for a couple of weeks.
That being said, having a competent big league outfielder on the bench isn’t the worst thing in the world.
The Projection Systems
- Steamer: .258/.328/.389, 6 HR, 10 SB, 8.7% BB, 16.1% K, 274 PA
- ZiPS: .265/.331/.385, 8 HR, 20 SB, 8.2% BB, 15.2% K, 390 PA
- PECOTA: .258/.318/.368, 3 HR, 7 SB, 8.1% BB, 15.7% K, 180 PA
The mathematical powers that be effectively see 2017 as a blip on the aging and declining radar, and also see Ellsbury garnering significantly less playing time. That last bit is both a product of his place on the depth chart, as well as his own lengthy injury history. Ellsbury has missed 50-plus games in two of the last three years, and has a laundry list of maladies dating back to his age-26 season. That doesn’t bode particularly well for an aging center-fielder.
I don’t know if this is a product of me buying into 2017 too much, or some natural urge to go against the grain … but I think Ellsbury has something to offer to this team. He shouldn’t be the starter, and it probably means something went terribly wrong if he is – but I could see him being a good hand in the event the Yankees need someone to fill-in around the outfield. It’s difficult to predict the shape of this sort of expectation, given that it requires guessing what happens to at least another player or two, so I won’t throw any sort of numbers on it. Suffice it to say that I could see him being the same guy in 2018 as he was in 2017, with the only variable being playing time.