Prospect position changes have helped the Yankees boost their farm system in recent years

Birdman. (Presswire)
Birdman. (Presswire)

In an effort to improve roster flexibility, the Yankees have both Starlin Castro and Rob Refsnyder working out at third base this spring. It might work, it might not. The only way to find out is to try, and there is no better time to try than Spring Training. Well, except in the minors, where the player can play their new position every day and not worry about sharing playing time.

Over the last few years the Yankees have boosted their farm system and improved the stock of several individual prospects by changing their positions. I don’t mean the usual starter to reliever (Dellin Betances), shortstop to third base (Miguel Andujar), and center field to a corner (Aaron Judge) conversions. I mean moves to more challenging positions, with Jorge Posada going from second base to catcher the most well-known example. The Yankees have had some success with similar moves in recent years. Here are the most notable.

Greg Bird: C to 1B

Okay, moving from catcher to first base is a move down the defensive spectrum, but catcher is a unique position, and I think the Bryce Harper principle applies to Bird. Harper was a catcher as an amateur, yet the Nationals moved him to the outfield immediately following the 2010 draft. Why? Because it would reduce injury risk, it would allow them to keep his bat in the lineup every single day, and it would accelerate his development because he wouldn’t have to focus on the defensive aspect of the position.

Bird actually started his career as a catcher — he caught three games with the rookie Gulf Coast League Yankees in 2012 — before suffering a back injury, at which point the team said forget it, let’s put him at first base. That has allowed Bird to avoid the wear and tear of catching, focus on his offense, and reach the big leagues just three years later. Would Greg Bird be more valuable as a catcher? In theory yes. Except his offense would likely suffer because he’d wear down, he wouldn’t play as often, and he’d probably be a nightmare defensively. Moving from catcher to first made Bird a better prospect and allowed him to reach the big leagues sooner.

John Ryan Murphy: IF to C

Back in high school Murphy was primarily an infielder — a third baseman, specifically — who also dabbled in the outfield and caught once in a while. The Yankees moved him to catcher full-time after selecting him in the 2009 draft and Murphy took to the position well, well enough that he reached the show four years after being drafted and was able to settle in as a sturdy big league backup by age 23.

The Yankees received one full season of backup catcher work from the Serial Killer plus 48 other games scattered across two seasons before sending him to the Twins for Aaron Hicks this winter. Given his good but not great offensive potential, Murphy would have been just another guy at third base or in the outfield. The Yankees saw his potential behind the plate and were rewarded first with a quality prospect, and later with a quality big league player.

Peter O’Brien: C to OF

The Yankees are very willing to be patient with bad defensive catchers in the minors — Jesus Montero and Gary Sanchez, anyone? — but even they could not be patient with O’Brien. The team gave him 99 games behind the plate from 2012-13 before pulling the plug and moving him first to third base, then later to the outfield, where he has remained since. As with Bird, the move out from behind the plate has helped O’Brien blossom as a hitter.

In the span of two years, the Yankees turned O’Brien from a bad defensive catcher who might hit into a passable defensive outfielder who can mash taters, which made him good enough to fetch Martin Prado in a trade. They then turned Prado into Nathan Eovaldi. O’Brien was a lost cause behind the plate and keeping him there for a sake of being patient would have been a mistake. The Yankees stuck him where he was most likely to succeed and were rewarded with quality trade bait. (Tyler Austin, who also made the move from catcher to the outfield, didn’t work out quite as well.)

Rob Refsnyder: OF to 2B

Ref. (Presswire)
Ref. (Presswire)

In perhaps the most notable prospect position change, the Yankees moved Refsnyder back to send base after he played the outfield for three years at Arizona. (He played some second in high school.) Similar to Murphy, Refsnyder would be just another guy in a corner outfield spot given his offensive profile. But, put him at second base, and suddenly he has a chance to be above-average at the position.

Refsnyder’s defense at second base has improved but is still rough overall, and now the Yankees have him working out at the hot corner. He did reach the big leagues as a second baseman though, and probably could have (should have?) spent a lot more time in the show last season than he actually did. At least one team wanted him in a trade — the A’s wanted Refsnyder and Adam Warren for Ben Zobrist last July — and the Yankees claimed they were willing to go into the season with Refsnyder as their primary second baseman. That won’t happen, but point is, the move to second has largely been a success.

Luis Torrens: IF to C

As with Murphy, Torrens was primarily an infielder when the Yankees signed him out of Venezuela in 2012, playing mostly third base but also some shortstop. The Yankees moved him to catcher immediately and he has reportedly taken to the position extremely well. Torrens was praised for his defensive work and baseball acumen earlier in his career, before shoulder surgery sidelined him for the entire 2015 season.

It remains to be seen how Torrens will return from the injury — shoulder surgery is no joke, especially for catchers since so much of their defensive value is tied up in their arm — but the early returns at catcher are very promising. “Managers and scouts alike rave about Torrens’ defensive skills, noting how advanced he is as a receiver and a blocker for someone his age and with his limited experience,” wrote Baseball America (subs. req’d) prior to last season. Torrens is still only 19 with a lot of career ahead of him. For now, the move to catcher looks like a smart one.

Chase Whitley: 3B to RP to SP

This one was pretty outside the box. Whitley was a two-way player in college, playing both third base and pitching out of the bullpen. He hit .364/.464/.564 with ten homers and more walks (31) than strikeouts (27) in 288 plate appearances his draft year while pitching to a 3.68 ERA with 65 strikeouts and 24 walks in 66 relief innings. Ace Whitley was one hell of a college player.

The Yankees drafted Whitley in the 15th round of the 2010 draft and moved him to the mound full-time. He was a rare three-pitch reliever (fastball, changeup, slider) who had a lot of success in the minors, so the team decided to stretch him out in Triple-A to see how he could handle a starting assignment. It worked well, and before you knew it, Whitley had made 16 starts for the Yankees from 2014-15.

Whitley wasn’t great (5.02 ERA and 4.23 FIP) and he eventually got hurt and claimed off waivers, but before all that the Yankees were able to develop him into a replacement level spot starter after acquiring him as a part-time third baseman/part-time reliever. All it cost them was a 15th round pick and a small signing bonus too. Considering the expected return for a 15th round pick is basically nothing, Whitley’s conversion(s) worked out very well.

2016 Spring Training Broadcast Schedule

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

In just two days Yankees baseball will be back. The Yankees open their 33-game Grapefruit League schedule Wednesday with a home game against the Tigers. No home-and-home games with the Phillies to open the exhibition season this year. Weird. Seems like that’s how they open the spring every year.

Anyway, 21 of the team’s 33 Spring Training games will be broadcast either on television or online, which is a bit fewer than previous years. Lots of regional networks scaled back their spring coverage this year. I guess those mid-week afternoon games haven’t attracted enough eyeballs the last few springs. YES will broadcast ten Grapefruit League games this year, down from 15 the last few years. (SportsNet LA is going from 31 Dodgers games to 16 this spring. Yikes!)

YES, MLB Network, MLB.tv, and ESPN have all released their Spring Training broadcast schedules, though MLB Network always seems to add a few games randomly throughout March. The Yankees are not making any sort of special trip this spring — they played two spring games in Panama two years ago and there was some chatter about playing in Cuba this year, but that won’t happen — other than two games at Marlins Park to close out the exhibition schedule.

Here is the club’s Spring Training broadcast information all in one convenient place. This post is linked in the “Countdown to Opening Day” widget in the sidebar for future reference. All times are ET.

Date Start Time Opponent Broadcast Info
Wednesday, March 2nd 1:05pm vs. Tigers YES, MLBN, MLB.tv
Thursday, March 3rd 1:05pm vs. Phillies
Friday, March 4th 1:05pm @ Tigers
Saturday, March 5th 1:05pm vs. Red Sox YES, MLBN, MLB.tv
Sunday, March 6th 1:05pm @ Phillies MLB.tv, MLBN (tape delay)
Monday, March 7th 1:05pm vs. Astros
Tuesday, March 8th 1:05pm @ Marlins
Wednesday, March 9th 1:10pm @ Mets SNY, MLBN, MLB.tv
Thursday, March 10th 1:05pm vs. Blue Jays (ss) YES, MLB.tv, MLBN (tape delay)
Thursday, March 10th 1:05pm @ Orioles (ss) MLB.tv
Friday, March 11th 1:05pm vs. Orioles UPDATE: YES, MLB.tv
Saturday, March 12th 1:05pm @ Rays MLB.tv, MLBN (tape delay)
Sunday, March 13th 1:05pm vs. Phillies YES, MLB.tv
Monday, March 14th OFF
Tuesday, March 15th 6:05pm @ Red Sox MLBN, MLB.tv
Wednesday, March 16th 6:35pm vs. Blue Jays YES, MLB.tv, MLBN (tape delay)
Thursday, March 17th 1:05pm @ Pirates MLB.tv, MLBN (tape delay)
Friday, March 18th 6:35pm vs. Orioles YES, MLB.tv, MLBN (tape delay)
Saturday, March 19th 1:05pm vs. Braves UPDATE: YES, MLB.tv
Sunday, March 20th 1:05pm @ Twins MLB.tv
Monday, March 21st OFF
Tuesday, March 22nd 6:35pm vs. Mets
Wednesday, March 23rd 5:05pm @ Nationals MLBN, MLB.tv
Thursday, March 24th 6:35pm vs. Rays
Friday, March 25th 1:05pm @ Orioles YES, MLB.tv
Saturday, March 26th 1:07pm @ Blue Jays MLB.tv
Sunday, March 27th 1:05pm vs. Twins YES, MLBN, MLB.tv
Monday, March 28th 6:35pm vs. Tigers
Tuesday, March 29th 1:05pm vs. Pirates (ss) YES, MLB.tv
Tuesday, March 29th 1:05pm @ Phillies (ss) MLBN, MLB.tv
Wednesday, March 30th 1:05pm @ Braves
Thursday, March 31st 1:05pm vs. Cardinals (ss) YES, MLBN, MLB.tv
Thursday, March 31st 1:05pm @ Tigers (ss) MLB.tv, MLBN (tape delay)
Friday, April 1st 7:10pm @ Marlins (Marlins Park)
Saturday, April 2nd 1:10pm @ Marlins (Marlins Park)

Open Thread: February 29th Camp Notes

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

The Yankees begin Grapefruit League play Wednesday, so tomorrow the team is taking the day off and holding their annual team bonding exercise. No idea what they’re doing, but apparently it will be something hosted at George M. Steinbrenner Field. I’m sure we’ll get the details tomorrow. Here are today’s photos and here are today’s notes from camp:

  • As always, Chad Jennings has the day’s workout groups. Michael Pineda threw a bullpen session while CC Sabathia, Aroldis Chapman, Dellin Betances, Andrew Miller, Chasen Shreve, and James Kaprielian all threw live batting practice. It might be worth noting Rob Refsnyder was paired with the big leaguers during infield drills today, not the Triple-A guys.
  • Nathan Eovaldi has been limited by a minor groin issue the last few days. He has been throwing on flat ground and did go through full drills today, though the Yankees pushed his next bullpen session back to Wednesday as a precaution. “It feels fine. Just being really cautious about it,” said Eovaldi. [George King]
  • In other injury news, Brett Gardner (wrist) will take full batting practice Wednesday following a scheduled light day today and the team bonding activity tomorrow. Also, Aaron Hicks hit Shreve in the back with a line drive during live batting practice. The Yankees ended the session but Shreve is fine. [Jennings, Bryan Hoch, Ryan Hatch]
  • Kaprielian will pitch in Friday’s game, which stinks, because it won’t be broadcast anywhere. Nick Goody and Nick Rumbelow will follow Luis Severino in Wednesday’s Grapefruit League opener and Branden Pinder will come out of the bullpen Thursday. Wednesday’s game will be on YES. [Jennings, Hatch]
  • And finally, for you video gamers out there: the MLB 16: The Show folks had people in Yankees camp scanning faces for this year’s game over the weekend. Here’s a photo.

This is the nightly open thread. The (hockey) Rangers and new trade deadline pickup Eric Staal are playing tonight, as are the Nets and a bunch of college hoops teams. Have at it, folks.

2016 Draft: Draft Order, Agents, Scouting Bureau

(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)
(Jeff Zelevansky/Getty)

The college season started a week or two ago, which means soon it’ll be time to ramp up our 2016 draft coverage. Until then, here are some scattered draft notes.

Draft order final: Yankees picking 18th overall

The 2016 draft order is final now that Ian Desmond has signed with the Rangers. All 20 qualified free agents are off the board. The Yankees went into the offseason with the No. 22 pick but managed to move up to No. 18 as teams forfeited picks to sign qualified free agents. Moving up four spots is pretty sweet. The Yankees picked James Kaprielian 16th overall last year, and prior to that, they hadn’t picked as high as 18th since taking C.J. Henry with the No. 17 pick in 2005.

We recently learned the Yankees will have a $5,768,400 draft pool this year, though that will increase a bit because they have since moved up a spot thanks to the Yovani Gallardo signing. Last year the No. 18 pick had a $2,333,800 slot value. It should be a little larger this year. The Yankees neither gained nor lost any picks to free agent compensation this winter. Their first pick is 18th overall, then they don’t pick again until 62nd overall, their second round pick. Here are MLB.com’s top 50 draft prospects if you want to start looking at possible targets. Our Draft Order page has the complete draft order.

High schoolers permitted to use agents

Last month, the NCAA announced high school baseball players will be permitted to use agents without losing their college eligibility. An agent can negotiate with a team on the player’s behalf before the signing deadline, then the player must sever ties with the agent to retain NCAA eligibility. In the past high schoolers who were found to have used an agent were declared ineligible by the NCAA.

Chalk this one up to common sense. High schoolers — and college kids, for that matter — have been using agents for years. They simply called them “advisors” to skirt the NCAA’s rules. It’s unrealistic to expect a high school kid to negotiate a contract worth thousands and sometimes millions of dollars with a pro baseball team. Hopefully the NCAA lets their athletes hire agents soon too. This shouldn’t change much with the draft — it’s not like high schoolers suddenly have more leverage or anything — but at least now kids can be open about their representatives.

MLB Scouting Bureau being restructured

According to Michael Lananna, the Major League Baseball Scouting Bureau is being restructured under director Bill Bavasi, who took over in 2014. The MLBSB has essentially acted like a 31st team in that they have their own scouts who put together scouting reports and follow lists for draft prospects each year. All of that information is then shared with the 30 clubs.

Going forward, the MLBSB will move away from scouting current year draft prospects and instead focus on identifying prospects in future draft classes. The info will be shared with the 30 teams so they can scout and evaluate the prospects themselves. The Bureau will also take on an administrative role and compile high-quality video and medical information for draft prospects.

“(Clubs) seem to prefer earlier identification on younger players, guys eligible for ’17, ’18, ’19, as early as we can possibly identify them, without reports, without evaluation,” said Bavasi. “We’ll hunt the guys who are eligible in subsequent years and just identify them as guys clubs should look at, and then clubs will go out and evaluate them and form their own opinions on guys.”

The MLBSB is also going to ramp up their involvement internationally, specifically in Europe and Asia. “There’s more of a growth situation in Europe and Asia and Australia and Africa, and so I’m more focused on raising the level of the game there and making sure that we’re tracking down the players there,” he said. That may be another indication MLB is pushing for an international draft.

They Wore Pinstripes? Esteban Loaiza

So recently, I started to have fun looking at Baseball Reference pages of older Yankee teams, and I get a kick out of it whenever I see a forgotten recognizable name on the roster. I’m going to look back at some of these acquisitions. First up: Esteban Loaiza.

(Getty)
(Getty)

Esteban Loaiza was a special case. The Yankees got him in the 2004 trade deadline – less than a year after he was voted second in AL Cy Young. Loaiza’s 2003 was pretty special in many ways. Before that season, his best year was with the Pirates in 1997, going 11-11 with 4.13 ERA, good for a 105 ERA+. But overall, he was quite mediocre in 8 ML seasons, compiling a 69-73 record with 4.88 ERA. During that span he had a slightly league-below average 95 ERA+ while allowing 10.6 hits and 1.2 HR’s in 9 IP. So there you go, nothing special.

All that changed when he signed with the Chicago White Sox as a free agent during the 2002-03 offseason. No, he didn’t get a guaranteed ML contract – White Sox pretty much picked him up with a Spring Training invite with a $500,000 contract if he made the team. From there, he just became a totally different pitcher. Not only did he have a shiny 21-9, 2.90 ERA, his peripherals also jumped significantly. He struck out 8.2 hitters in 9 IP after not cracking 6.3 his entire career. He also allowed fewer hits (7.8 in 9 IP) and homers (0.7 in 9 IP).

Many attributed his success to his new pitch, the cutter. Loaiza had learned the cutter from ex-Yankee Gil Patterson (then-Blue Jays pitching coach) when he was with Toronto but avoided throwing it because he thought it may be harm his elbow.

In 2004 though, the out of nowhere career path stalled. After starting decently with a 3.71 ERA in first 12 starts, Loaiza fell into a funk the next 9 starts leading up the to trade deadline, pitching to a 6.63 ERA in 55.2 IP while allowing .923 OPS against, elevating his season ERA to 4.86. At the time, the South Siders had a pretty mediocre rotation. Their staff ace was Mark Buehrle, who finished the year with a 3.89 ERA (121 ERA+) in 245.1 IP. Besides him, there were underachieving Loaiza, Jon Garland, Scott Schoeneweis, and guys like Felix Diaz (6.75 ERA in 18 games) and Jason Grilli (7.40 ERA in 8 starts) getting looks.

Meanwhile, in Bronx, the Yankees also needed rotation help. The 2004 Yankees started with the rotation of Mike Mussina, Kevin Brown, Javier Vazquez, and Jose Contreras, with Jon Lieber and El Duque joining later. That collection of pitchers looked pretty darn good on MVP Baseball 2004 but weren’t all they were cracked up to be. Here’s where they stood by July 31, 2004:

Mussina: 9-6, 5.20 ERA, .803 OPS against. Was on DL for sore right elbow.

Brown: 8-1, 3.91 ERA. Had just gotten off 15-day DL after suffering lower back strain. Cooled off (5.13 ERA in previous 7 starts) after being named the AL Pitcher of the Month in April.

Vazquez: 12-6, 4.16 ERA. Pitched in the All-Star Game after a nice 10-5, 3.56 ERA but cooled off afterwards (7.36 ERA in 4 starts)

Contreras: 8-5, 5.64 ERA. Allowed a whopping 22 home runs in 95.2 IP, which is good enough for a 2.1 HR/9 rate. Yeesh.

Lieber: 7-6, 4.75 ERA. Had missed the entire 2003 season with TJ surgery. He pitched nicely down the stretch (3.75 ERA in next 11 starts) but at the time, he was, well, middling.

Hernandez: 2-0, 2.37 ERA. Only had 4 starts on the season at the time. He had a nice year to rebuild his stock after missing the entire 2003 season but I don’t think he had that rotation savior status.

The Yankees just couldn’t really count on anyone in the staff. George Steinbrenner & Co. were looking at Randy Johnson for the longest time while the lefty ace himself was “believed to pushing a trade to the Yankees“, according to Tyler Kepner. However, the Diamondbacks weren’t really impressed with what they saw in the Yankees farm system and the two sides couldn’t come to an agreement. The Yankees were also looking at Mariners RHP Freddy Garcia but he was traded to another team that needed a rotation upgrade: the White Sox.

“We couldn’t match that deal,” Cashman told The Associated Press, adding that New York’s prospects were not as close to being ready for the major leagues as Chicago’s are.

Instead of crafting a familiar prospects-for-veteran trade, Cashman and White Sox GM Kenny Williams got creative. They started to talk a SP-for-SP swap. Esteban Loaiza intrigued the Yanks and for White Sox, it was Jose Contreras.

Jose Contreras, nicknamed El Titan de Bronze, saw his record get shattered by inconsistency up to the trade deadline. After being signed by New York in late 2002 to a 4-year, $32-million deal, the righty mostly pitched out of bullpen in 2003 because the rotation was already crowded. After Roger Clemens, David Wells and Andy Pettitte left, they slotted Contreras into the rotation with big expectations for 2004. Instead, they got a pretty awful 7.11 ERA in his first 8 starts. He settled down a bit for the next 8 with a 6-1 record with 3.46 ERA. However, he got demolished by Red Sox and Orioles in the two starts before deadline to the tune of 15 ER’s in 14 IP, raising his season ERA to 5.64. It’s one thing to be inconsistent – being shelled by division rivals made him stick out even more.

Just a minute before the 4 p.m. deadline, New York and Chicago finalized the deal. Yankees would get Esteban Loaiza and White Sox would get Jose Contreras and $3 million. “The deal was done, but the paperwork didn’t go through until 3:59,” Cashman said. “That’s when the fax went through — and I have proof of that.”

At the time, swapping Contreras for Loaiza did not seem like a bad idea. In fact, both players had appealing upsides. For the Yankees, they were getting a starting pitcher who had a Cy-caliber year the previous season while the White Sox got a pitcher with great stuff who had yet to fully tap into his potential. For the Yanks, Loaiza meant a lottery ticket with a possible big short-term success who would help them into the postseason and maybe beyond. The Mexican righty was actually having a good year before falling into the mid-season funk. If he were to regain his 2003 form, it would have been a big add for consistency all-around.

Loaiza did show consistency in Bronx – on being bad, that is.

After joining the Yankees, he was booted to the bullpen after five starts, in which he logged 24.2 IP, allowing 37 hits, 20 ER (7.30 ERA), 6 HR’s and a whopping .976 OPS against. In his first appearance out of the bullpen, Loaiza allowed 6 ER’s in 3 IP against the Indians in that infamous 22-0 buttwhoopery in the Bronx. Instead of regaining his Cy Young-caliber form, he was looking much worse than how he was as a journeyman No. 5 starter.

Loaiza did have one decent start though – it came against the Blue Jays (opposing starter being none other than Roy Halladay, the 2003 AL Cy winner) in September 21, 2004. In 5.1 IP, he allowed only 2 hits and 2 ER’s while striking out 5. That also happened to be Loaiza’s 100th career victory, so that’s also that. He made two more appearances in the regular season, allowing 9 ER’s in 6.1 IP against Boston and Toronto.

Despite his shortcomings as a Yankee, Loaiza did get to pitch in postseason. In three relief appearances, he allowed only 1 ER in 8.1 IP but that one earned run made him the losing pitcher of the Game 5 of 2004 ALCS. After tossing three scoreless innings in Game 7, Loaiza’s time in pinstripes was history.

On the flip side, Contreras turned out to be a solid get for Chicago. For the rest of 2004, he had a pretty mediocre 5.30 ERA in 13 starts but he blossomed like a butterfly the next season. For the World Series-winning 2005 Sox, Contreras went 15-7, 3.61 ERA in 204.2 IP. That alone was good enough for Yankees to regret the trade. He was never as solid as he was that season again but White Sox got a heck of a rotation bounty for their World Series title run.

In the end, Yankees tried for an upgrade and ended up with a starter worse than Contreras. That series of trades/free agent signings to bolster the rotation was truly something to watch – it just seemed like none of the big investments truly worked out to their potential. While the Yankees didn’t have any trouble winning 90+ games in that era, the lack of rotation and playoff success was a demon that fan base endured annually.

Jacoby Ellsbury and the Need to Raise Hell as the Leadoff Hitter [2016 Season Preview]

(Presswire)
(Presswire)

Two years into his seven-year contract, Jacoby Ellsbury has been more solid contributor than difference maker for the Yankees. He had a very good 2014 season while being miscast as the No. 3 hitter, then his 2015 season was totally derailed by a mid-May knee injury. Ellsbury was great to start the year, got hurt, and was awful thereafter. It earned him a spot on the bench in the wildcard game.

“Obviously I knew my team needed me to play. When I came back, you convince yourself that you’re 100%, you’re ready to go,” said Ellsbury to reporters when he reported to Spring Training last week. “I thought I was pretty close, but it wasn’t until the offseason — when I started working out, training, getting back — (it was clear) maybe I wasn’t where I thought I was. But you don’t have time for that during the season to wait to get there. I tried to get back as soon as I could, but it wasn’t really until the offseason when I started working out, training that (I felt normal). Now I feel 100%.”

Early last season Ellsbury showed he can still be a game-changing leadoff man. Before the injury it felt like he was on base three times a night and driving pitchers crazy by dancing off first base. Ellsbury’s ability to be an impact leadoff hitter has never been in question. The question has always been health and his ability to produce in a meaningful way when less than 100%.

Ellsbury, now 32 and 33 before the end of the 2016 season, is entering the phase of his career when age-related decline becomes a legitimate concern. Jeff Zimmerman (subs. req’d) recently recalculated aging curves based on different player types and found fast players — guys who stole 25+ bases with 8+ triples early in their career — tend to fall off quickly around age 32.

Aging Curves

Every player is their own unique individual and they all age differently of course, plus Ellsbury is no ordinary speedster. He’s not, say, Willy Taveras or Chone Figgins. He has high-end contact ability, has historically held his own against lefties, and has hit for just enough power to keep pitchers honest. That ostensibly bodes well for Ellsbury’s ability to stave off a sudden descent into uselessness long-term.

In the short-term, Ellsbury’s importance to the 2016 Yankees is very high. He is arguably their best all-around player — I’d say it’s Mark Teixeira, but that’s just me — and the team invested an awful lot of money in his ability to drive an offense from the leadoff spot. We saw it last year. When Ellsbury fires on all cylinders, the offense is dominant. When he’s less than 100%, they struggled to manufacture runs.

It’s easy to understand how the knee injury could have affected Ellsbury’s offense last summer. Hitting starts from the ground up, and if he didn’t have a strong base, his ability to drive the ball would suffer. This all could have happened subconsciously too. Doctors declared the knee healthy, but Ellsbury could have altered his hitting mechanics to take pressure off the knee without even realizing it.

The interesting thing is Ellsbury’s batted ball profile didn’t change a whole lot after the injury. He did hit more fly balls, but not substantially so. Not enough to account for the 118-point difference in BABIP.

BABIP GB% FB% LD% Pull% Mid% Opp% Soft% Med% Hard%
Before Injury .379 47.2% 28.0% 24.8% 38.4% 34.4% 27.2% 23.2% 54.4% 22.4%
After Injury .261 44.3% 32.0% 23.8% 37.6% 35.5% 26.9% 24.1% 55.5% 20.4%

Ellsbury is neither a true talent .379 BABIP hitter nor a true talent .261 BABIP hitter. The real him is somewhere in the middle — he has a career .319 BABIP and set a career high with a .341 BABIP in 2013 — but it would be lazy to write this off as ball in play luck. The knee injury represents a tangible change. We just don’t know how exactly it impacted him.

More interesting to me than the batted ball data is the plate discipline data. Ellsbury has always been a low strikeout, middling walk rate hitter. He hasn’t drawn more walks because he’s always been good at putting the ball in play, not because he isn’t disciplined. After the injury, Ellsbury became something of a hacker and struck out more than he ever has as a big leaguer.

BB% K% O-Swing% Z-Swing% O-Contact% Z-Contact% Zone%
Before Injury 11.2% 13.5% 30.7% 64.8% 82.3% 90.6% 44.5%
After Injury 4.8% 19.0% 34.2% 64.3% 68.1% 90.9% 50.8%

When it came to pitches in the zone, Ellsbury swung (Z-Swing%) and made contact (Z-Contact%) at the same rate both before and after the injury. Pitches out of the zone was the problem. He swung at way more pitches out of the zone (O-Swing%) and failed to make contact far more often (O-Contact%) after the knee injury, which equals way more swings and misses. That explains the major decline is walk and strikeout rate.

Could the knee injury have affected Ellsbury’s plate discipline? I believe it’s possible. Altering his hitting mechanics could change the timing of his swing and even the way he reads the pitch out of the pitcher’s hand. I am going to again refer back to these screen grabs I made last season:

Jacoby Ellsbury foot

They both show the instant Ellsbury’s front foot touches down as part of his leg kick. (He hurt his right knee, so his front leg.) The screen grab on the right is from before the injury, and the screen grab on the left is from after the injury.

Before the injury, the pitch had traveled much deeper by time Ellsbury’s foot touched down. He is already starting his swing (look at how he’s “loading” his upper body, so to speak) when his foot hits. After the injury, his foot touched down when the ball was just out of the pitcher’s hand. He had yet to begin his swing. That’s a problem! Ellsbury’s swing became more reliant on his upper body, which may have caused him to lunge at the ball.

This isn’t about last season though. This is about the coming season, and the Yankees will need Ellsbury to again drive their offense like he did early last year. Given his history, these are the two big questions about Ellsbury heading into the new season:

  1. Is he healthy?
  2. Can he stay healthy?

These are the Ellsbury Questions™ for this season and every season going forward. It’s all about health. When he’s 100% physically, Ellsbury is a dynamic leadoff hitter who disrupts the defense. When he’s something less than 100% physically, he rarely has an impact. That has been the case his entire career.

Joe Girardi and the Yankees have said they plan to rest their regulars more often this season and that includes Ellsbury. At a certain point injuries are going to be out of everyone’s control — Ellsbury hurt his knee when he caught a spike taking a swing, it was a fluke little thing — so all the Yankees can do is give Ellsbury more time on the bench to manage the nagging day-to-day stuff every player deals with. There’s only so much the team can do.

The general thought behind these big money long-term contracts is you take the elite years up front and live with the ugly years on the back end. The Yankees have yet to get those elite years from Ellsbury. Give the brain trust a truth serum and I’m sure they’d tell you they’d like a do-over on Ellsbury’s contract. What’s done is done though. Ellsbury is with the Yankees and he’s an integral part of the offense (and defense). When he goes, the Yankees go. Getting him to go more often in 2016 may very well be the difference between a great offense and one that struggles to sustain rallies or create offense outside the long ball.

Fan Confidence Poll: February 29th, 2016

Spring Record: 0-0
Spring Opponents This Week: vs. Tigers (Weds. on YES, MLBN, MLB.tv), vs. Phillies (Thurs.), @ Tigers (Fri.), vs. Red Sox (Sat. on YES, MLBN, MLB.tv), @ Phillies (Sun. on MLBN, MLB.tv)

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