Archive for Jacoby Ellsbury
The Yankees have officially signed outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year contract, the team announced. The deal will pay him $148M over the seven years and includes a $21M club option ($5M buyout) for an eighth year, so the total guarantee is $153M. Ellsbury will be introduced during a press conference at Yankee Stadium on Friday.
For years we’ve seen comparisons drawn between new Yankee Jacoby Ellsbury and entrenched Yankee Brett Gardner. Naturally, people speculated that the Yankees might trade the latter, given their $153 million commitment to the former. “Absolutely not,” according to an ESPN NY source. The source further speculated that both will bat atop the order, which might mean an ego hit for Derek Jeter (though Jeter could presumably hit second against lefties). It’s certainly an interesting approach, both atop of the order and in the outfield. Much of the success, I imagine, rests on the power that Mark Teixeira, Brian McCann, Alfonso Soriano, and hopefully Robinson Cano, generate behind these guys.
The Yankees made their second huge splash of the offseason last night, landing Jacoby Ellsbury with a seven-year contract worth $153M that could wind up paying him $169M thanks to an eighth year club option. He still has to take a physical and all that before the deal becomes official, but apparently that could happen as soon as today. Here are some thoughts while we wait for things to wrap up.
1. Might as well come right out with it: I am not a fan of the signing at all. Don’t get me wrong, Ellsbury is a very good player when he’s healthy and he will be an enormous upgrade next season, but the Yankees are paying him like he’s an elite player and I just don’t see it. His one truly elite skill is stealing bases and best base-runners in the game provide maybe one win of value with their legs (Ellsbury was at ~1.2 WAR base-running in 2013). That’s nothing. His glove is very good but the net defensive upgrade from Ichiro Suzuki (who I assume is losing his starting outfield spot as a result of the signing) to Ellsbury is small. The offense isn’t anything special at all, especially when you treat that 2011 season like the giant outlier it is. Ellsbury is a ~.350 OBP leadoff guy who will hit single-digit homers. That ain’t elite. That’s pretty good. Ellsbury is going to help the Yankees a ton in the short-term but there’s no way I view him as a $150M+ player. Not even close.
2. As for Yankee Stadium boosting Ellsbury’s power output, yes it will help some. There will inevitably be a fly ball or two that sneaks over the wall each summer that otherwise would have been caught for an out, just like some of those routine fly balls turned into doubles thanks to the Green Monster over the last few years. Ellsbury is not the kind of hitter who can really take advantage of the short right field porch though. He’s a classic speedster, hitting the ball on the ground and using his legs. He also does most of his hitting the opposite way to left:
Going the other way is not a bad thing. The Yankees could use someone who can hit for a relatively high average, but be careful not to make the blanket assumption that his power output will improve just because he’s a left-handed hitter moving into Yankee Stadium. Ellsbury would have to change his hitting approach to seem meaningful uptick in power and … no. Stick to what works. The idea of having two powerless hitters in the outfield full-time is not appealing at all, especially if they can’t retain Robinson Cano.
3. Speaking of Cano, you know all that talk about holding a hard-line with him? Pretty worthless right now. Refusing to budge off that seven-year, $165M-ish offer after bending over backwards to give Ellsbury all that money is borderline insulting. Cano’s the far superior player and he’s the homegrown star. He deserves more. A lot more. Maybe his rookie agents will botch these negotiations and the Yankees can bring him back at something far below fair value, but the team set the market by giving the second best free agent that huge contract. The gap between Cano and Ellsbury is a lot bigger than the gap between Ellsbury and the third or fourth best free agent and he should look to be paid accordingly. The Yankees might be trying to put the pressure on Robbie but I think there’s a chance they’ll wind up pushing him away, and if they lose him after spending all this money on Ellsbury and Brian McCann … I would not be pleased. Losing an actually elite player after giving a non-elite player elite player money would really suck.
4. The plan to get under the $189M luxury tax threshold is obviously not happening. I mean, I guess it still could if Alex Rodriguez gets suspended for the entire 2014 season, but that’s pretty much the only way it happens. It seems like the Yankees decided to spend as if A-Rod is getting banned for the year and if he doesn’t, oh well, then they’ll go over the limit. It’s hard not to notice the timing – his appeal hearing ended on a Thursday and the McCann deal was struck on Saturday. Maybe the Yankees know something is up. I guess the plummeting television ratings and overall decline in attendance could have spooked them into changing course as well. Either way, staying under the luxury tax limit almost certainly isn’t going to happen after the Yankees spent the last two years making sure they had as much flexibility under the threshold as possible.
5. This is worth exploring further in a full post, but the Bombers are going to be very vulnerable against left-handed pitchers next season if Mark Teixeira and Derek Jeter don’t rebound. Ellsbury and McCann have noticeable platoon splits and Brett Gardner‘s been up and down against lefties through the years. Their best weapon against southpaws right now is Alfonso Soriano, but it’s pretty much him and him alone until Cano re-signs and Jeter and/or Teixeira show they’re healthy. The AL East isn’t a lefty heavy as it once was but there’s still David Price, Matt Moore, Jon Lester, and maybe Felix Doubront to contend with. Another right-handed bat (Mark Reynolds?) or two is a necessity, and no, Vernon Wells doesn’t count.
On the same day they officially announced the Brian McCann signing, the Yankees made their second huge signing of the offseason (and it wasn’t Robinson Cano). New York has agreed to a seven-year contract worth $153M with former Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury. That’s a $21.9M luxury tax hit. The deal is pending a physical and includes both a club option for an eighth year that could push the total value to $169M and a full no-trade clause. Jon Heyman and Mark Feinsand originally broke the news.
Ellsbury, who turned 30 in September, is the 18th player to receive a $150M+ deal in baseball history. It’s the third largest contract ever given to an outfielder, behind the identical eight-year, $160M contracts signed by Manny Ramirez and Matt Kemp prior to 2001 and 2012, respectively. The Yankees will forfeit their next highest draft pick to sign Ellsbury — either their second rounder or the compensation pick they receive when Cano, Hiroki Kuroda, or Curtis Granderson signs elsewhere. Their first rounder was already surrendered for McCann.
In 134 games and 636 plate appearances this past season, Ellsbury hit .298/.355/.426 (113 wRC+) with 31 doubles, eight triples, and nine homers. He hit 32 homers in that giant outlier of a season in 2011 but has otherwise never managed double-digit homers in a single season. The short right field porch will help Ellsbury’s power output somewhat but not a ton unless he changes his approach — he’s a classic speedster who hits the ball on the ground (50.8% grounders) and slashes it the other way to left field. After seeing what’s happened with Mark Teixeira, let’s hope those approach changes are not made. Stick what what earned him that huge contract.
Ellsbury is baseball’s premier base-stealer, going 52-for-56 (!) in stolen base attempts in 2013. He provides both bulk steals and tremendous efficiency. I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say he figures to be the team’s best base-stealing threat since Rickey Henderson. Surprisingly, Ellsbury is not all that great at taking the extra-base (first-to-third on a single, etc.), doing so only 42% of the time this past season. That’s roughly league average. I suspect that’s at least somewhat attributable to funky orientation of Fenway Park, especially in left field. Outfielders can play shallower and prevent runners from taking that extra base. Ellsbury has a 70-steal season to his credit (2009) but I’m not sure if that will ever happen again.
In addition to being a great base-stealer, Ellsbury is a high-end defensive center fielder who has graded out exceptionally well in UZR (+29), DRS (+23), FRAA (+18), and Total Zone (+19) over the last three seasons. His arm is awful though, legitimately Johnny Damon-esque. The Yankees will play Ellsbury in center and shift Brett Gardner back into Yankee Stadium’s spacious left field while Alfonso Soriano moves to right, a position he has never played as a professional and doesn’t really have the arm for. Runners are going to be going first-to-third on Soriano like crazy. Outside of Ellsbury in center, the outfield alignment is a bit of question at the moment. The team could always sign another outfielder and make Soriano the full-time DH.
Injuries have been an issue for Ellsbury over the years. He missed 144 games in 2010 with fractured ribs suffered after colliding with a teammate and then missed 88 games in 2012 with a right shoulder injury after a fielder landed on him while sliding into second. Ellsbury played through a foot fracture this past September and some kind of left hand injury in the postseason. He had an MRI after the season but I’m not sure what the tests revealed. Ellsbury has played in only 384 of 648 possible games over the last four seasons so the Yankees will really have to check him out — the ribs, shoulder, foot, hand, everything — during the physical.
Obviously, given his time with the Red Sox and as an important player on two World Series winning teams, there is no concern about how Ellsbury will handle New York. The spotlight won’t be anything new to him. He’s a career .301/.361/.414 (104 wRC+) hitter in 38 postseason games, in case you’re wondering. The Yankees have placed a renewed emphasis on makeup and work ethic in recent years and I’m sure that is an especially serious consideration with a contract of this season. There are no concerns about Ellsbury in that department. He knows the big market/super high expectations routine by now.
The Yankees had their worst offense since 1991 this past season and have made two pretty huge upgrades in McCann and Ellsbury already this winter. McCann replaces one of the game’s least productive catching situations while Ellsbury essentially replaces the mess New York had in right field last year. I have to think the signing moves Ichiro Suzuki and/or Vernon Wells that much closer to the chopping block, so hooray for addition by subtraction. Even though they still need to figure out third base and take care of the Cano situation, the Yankees need to start focusing on their pitching staff. They still need to dig up two starting pitchers and a reliever or three. Ellsbury did not exactly come at a reasonable price, but will he will be an enormous upgrade next season and should give the club another few years of high-end production in center.
3:56pm: According to Jon Heyman, the Yankees are “currently engaged” in talks with Beltran, Drew, Kuroda, Jacoby Ellsbury, Shin-Soo Choo, and various unnamed mid-rotation starters. Matt Garza and Ubaldo Jimenez are not in the mix at the moment.
1:12pm: Via Buster Olney: The Yankees still have offers out to various free agents even after agreeing to sign Brian McCann last night. He says there is currently no traction in talks with Robinson Cano and the team doesn’t want to sit around and wait. I dig it. In addition to Cano, I’m guessing they have offers out to … Carlos Beltran, Stephen Drew, Grant Balfour, and Hiroki Kuroda. Whaddya think?
Via Jon Heyman: The Yankees are discussing free agents Jacoby Ellsbury, Brian McCann, and Matt Garza as they look for ways to improve their team this offseason. They’ve also been connected to Stephen Drew, Paul Maholm, Shin-Soo Choo, and Masahiro Tanaka in recent weeks. Free agents can start signing with new teams on Tuesday (Tanaka has to be posted).
Ellsbury, 30, hit .298/.355/.426 (113 wRC+) with a league leading (and ridiculous) 52 steals in 56 attempts this summer. He dealt with a compression fracture in his foot in September and played through a hand injury in the postseason. Ken Rosenthal says he’ll have an MRI in the coming days. McCann hit .256/.336/.461 (122 wRC+) with 20 homers in 2013 and showed no ill effects from offseason shoulder surgery. He turns 30 in February. The 29-year-old Garza had a 3.82 ERA and 3.88 FIP in 155.1 innings split between the Cubs and Rangers this year. He missed the start of this season with a lat strain and the end of last season with an elbow fracture.
Ellsbury and Garza both have plenty of experience in brutal AL East races and McCann is an elite player at a position of great need. The appeal is obvious. The Yankees already have two no power outfielders on the roster and I’m not sure what they’d do with a third, especially since Ellsbury is likely to require a nine-figure contract and forfeiture of a first round pick. McCann is worth the draft pick and simply makes a ton of sense. Garza will not require giving up a pick since he was traded midseason. The team could be considering him an alternative to Tanaka more than Plan A, so to speak.
Got four questions for you this week. Remember to use the Submit A Tip box to send us your questions or anything else throughout the week.
Mark asks: If Jacoby Ellsbury stays healthy and has a productive 2013, should the Yankees consider signing him as Curtis Granderson‘s replacement in the unlikely event Robinson Cano signs elsewhere this offseason? Even though he is a Scott Boras client, I cannot imagine he will get anything close to the 7-10 guaranteed years Cano likely will get from some desperate team given his past injury history.
Ellsbury, 29, desperately needs to have a strong season in 2013. He was a monster in 2011, but otherwise has only played 92 games with four DL trips in 2010 and 2012 combined. I’m pretty sure the Red Sox will let him walk — or even trade him at the deadline — after the season because Jackie Bradley Jr. is coming, so Ellsbury really needs to have a good healthy season if he wants to cash in next winter.
Here’s the thing though: if Ellsbury does stay healthy and has a strong year, Boras will be looking for $100M+. No doubt about it with an MVP-caliber season so close in the rear-view mirror. If he gets hurt again, then you’re talking about signing an injury prone player and expecting him to play everyday. Not the wisest idea. Ellsbury is a good player but I don’t thing he’ll ever repeat his 2011 effort, so I don’t like the idea of signing him to replace Granderson. Even if he stays healthy this summer, there’s still a long injury history there and it would make me wary considering his likely asking price.
Kevin asks: What about Francisco Rodriguez? He isn’t is former self obviously but I refuse to believe he is useless. He could give us insurance with closer experience if Mariano Rivera has a set back.
K-Rod, 31, pitched to a 4.38 ERA (3.83 FIP) in 72 innings for the Brewers last year, his worst season in the big leagues. His strikeout (9.00 K/9 and 23.6 K%) and walk (3.88 BB/9 and 10.2 BB%) were right in line with his career rates, but his swing-and-miss rate (7.9%) was by far the worst of his career (career 12.4%). His homerun rate (1.00 HR/9 and 12.3% HR/FB) were his worst since he first broke into the show. On the bright side, Rodriguez’s fastball velocity spiked back up last summer after a steady multi-year decline.
Last week Jon Heyman reported K-Rod will pitch in the upcoming World Baseball Classic and use the event to showcase himself to teams. The Yankees have a good amount of bullpen depth behind right-handers David Aardsma, Joba Chamberlain, David Robertson, and Rivera, but K-Rod would be the first guy I’d call if one of them got hurt in camp. He’s had continued off-the-field troubles and I doubt the makeup-loving Yankees would go for that, however. Rodriguez isn’t what he once was, but he’s still a useful reliever and someone New York should keep tabs on during the WBC.
David asks: Just happened to be surfing during a boring part of SNL and took a look at the MLB list of players with no options. What do you think of Conor Gillaspie? If the Giants don’t keep him, I’m sure someone will claim him, but I’m wondering if it makes sense to try to work out a trade? Yankees would use a young lefty bat who plays third with good minor numbers. Could be a useful left-handed bat on the bench to pinch-hit for a catcher or someone to spell Youk.
I’m willing to bet you are able to do a whole lot more than skim the out-of-options list during the boring part of SNL these days. Ba-dum ching!
That was my attempt at humor. Anyway, the Giants drafted the 25-year-old Gillaspie with the 37th overall pick in the 2008 draft and rather than give him a Major League contract, they promised him a September call-up. He made his big league debut that September and has since burned through his four minor league options (he qualified for a fourth because he used his original three during the first five years of his pro career).
Over the last two seasons, Gillaspie has hit .289/.368/.447 (~107 wRC+) with 25 homers and strong walk (11.1%) and strikeout (13.7%) rates in nearly 1,000 Triple-A plate appearances. He’s had three big league cups of coffee but hasn’t hit (60 wRC+) in 48 total plate appearances. Gillaspie is primarily a third baseman but the Giants have tried him out at first and in left field in the past. Baseball America did not rank him as one of the 30 best prospects in a brutal San Francisco farm system — system ranked 26th by Keith Law and 28th by BA — in their latest Prospect Handbook, which gives you an idea of how farm his stock as fallen. At this point he’s more of an organizational player than anything.
The only locks for Bruce Bochy’s bench right now are backup catcher Hector Sanchez, infielder (and former Yankees farmhand) Joaquin Arias, and outfielder Andres Torres. That leaves two spots open, one of which figures to go a left-handed hitting pinch-hitter. Given the names on their 40-man roster and non-roster invitee list, it sure looks like Gillaspie has a great chance to make the team. If he doesn’t, then I doubt he’s good enough to crack anyone’s bench. The “former (supplemental) first round pick” stuff means he still has a little bit of prospect shine, but I’m not sure Gillaspie is a legit big leaguer. He might be worth a minor trade or waiver claim, but I wouldn’t offer up much of anything even though he appears like a nice fit for the Eric Chavez role on paper.
Update!: The Giants just announced that they traded Gillaspie to the White Sox for a fringy minor league pitcher. I suppose the Yankees could look to acquire him from Chicago, but meh.
Sal asks: Who is the best player the Yankee farm system EVER produced? I’m guessing Derek Jeter or Mickey Mantle?
Without looking, I’m guessing Mantle. Now here are the top five position players and top five pitchers in franchise history according to bWAR…
Yogi Berra (56.2 bWAR) was a distant sixth behind Jeter and Lefty Gomez (39.5 bWAR) was right behind Ruffing, in case you’re wondering.
Ruth obviously wasn’t homegrown, so he’s not relevant in this discussion. Gehrig and Mantle are essentially tied — a difference of 3.0 bWAR spread across nearly 10,000 plate appearances is nothing. Gehrig is the best first baseman in history by a not small margin (Albert Pujols is second at 88.5 bWAR) while Mantle is “only” the fourth best center fielder (behind Willie Mays, Ty Cobb, and Tris Speaker). Is that enough to say Gehrig is the greatest homegrown Yankee over Mantle? Eh, sure. Why not.
Now, we have to remember that back in Gehrig’s and Mantle’s day, every amateur player was a free to sign with whatever team. The draft and international free agency as we know it (more or less) were implemented in 1965. The best homegrown Yankee during the draft era is Jeter by a mile. Rivera is the second best, then you’ve got Bernie Williams (45.9 bWAR), Thurman Munson (43.3 bWAR), Pettitte, and Guidry essentially tied for third. Fred McGriff was a Yankees draft pick who was traded away before reaching the big leagues, and he managed to rack up 48.2 bWAR. He’s the second best player the team has ever drafted with the caveat that Pettitte could pass him in 2013. Pretty crazy.
As it stands, there are likely five strong candidates for the American League MVP award. Three of them play on the Boston Red Sox: Adrian Gonzalez, Jacoby Ellsbury and Dustin Pedroia. The fourth is Jose Bautista. The last one is New York’s own Curtis Granderson. With a little more than forty games to go it’s looking increasingly like it will be a close race. Indeed, despite the fact that Bautista has hit the cover off the ball this season, a confluence of factors may open the door open for other candidates and create a real voting free-for-all.
Bautista’s offensive production really stands head and shoulders above the rest of the class. He’s batting .307/.444/.627 with 33 home runs, 76 RBIs and 83 runs scored. The batting average is nice, sure, but it’s really his on-base percentage (bolstered by a nearly 20% walk rate) and slugging percentage that stand out. Bautista currently has a wOBA of .447, tops in the American League by over 35 points, and a wRC+ of 188. By UZR‘s reckoning he’s 1 run below average on defense, but despite that his overall fWAR is 6.8, only one tenth below his 2010 mark. This is a reflection of a better BABIP (.233 in 2010), more walks and better defense this year as opposed to last year.
Despite the fact that he’s the preeminent offensive producer in the American League, Bautista’s case for the MVP award may be handicapped by several factors. For one, his RBI total is low. This isn’t his fault, but it’s still a statistic many voters will consider. The second is that there’s been a bit of controversy surrounding him last year with steroids and this year with sign-stealing. A lot of that is tremendously unfair, particularly the steroids accusations (and the sign-stealing accusations, if you ask Drunk Jays Fans), so it’s hard to know the extent to which voters will penalize him. Thirdly, Bautista is going through a bit of a slump right now. Since the All-Star Break he’s hitting .205/.355/.342, meaning that his early season heroics may fade in the minds of some voters by the time voting comes around, provided he doesn’t go on another hot streak. Lastly, he plays on a non-contending team and some voters will bizarrely refuse to vote for players on non-contending teams. For this reason there may be a some daylight for some of the other candidates to make their way to the top of the ballot.
One of those players is Jacoby Ellsbury. Ellsbury is hitting .313/.367/.504 with 19 home runs, 72 RBI and 84 runs scored. Ellsbury has swiped 31 bases, most amongst American League MVP candidates. He’s sporting a .386 wOBA and a wRC+ of 143. His BABIP is .339, which explains his high on base marks despite a relatively meager 7.2% walk rate. Ellsbury also looks great in the field, scoring 7.5 runs above average by UZR’s reckoning. Overall, Ellsbury has accrued 5.7 total fWAR, bolstered no doubt by a high defensive score and his skill on the base paths. Since he’s not likely to lead the league or his fellow MVP candidates in any other category but stolen bases, Ellsbury doesn’t seem like a likely candidate to knock off Bautista, especially considering the possibility that other Boston candidates will syphon off votes from his candidacy.
Another member of the Red Sox in contention is Adrian Gonzalez, currently batting .350/.411/.553 with 18 home runs, 92 RBI and 79 runs scored. Gonzalez has a wOBA of .411, second only to Jose Bautista amongst the five potential candidates, and his wRC+ is 160. Gonzalez is currently rocking a .390 BABIP, which explains the inflation throughout his batting line. In fact, he’s actually posting the lowest walk rate and ISO since 2006. This isn’t meant to diminish his production. Like the Cy Young, awards should be given out based on what’s actually happened, not what one would expect to happen if given another 162 games. However, there is plenty of time for Gonzalez to see some regression on balls in play, which would make his batting line look a little less impressive. UZR grades Gonzalez well, 7.1 runs above average,which is the highest mark of his career, and his total fWAR is 5.3. Gonzalez’s case for MVP likely rests on his prodigious offensive production, whereas players like Ellsbury, Pedroia and Granderson bring a very well-rounded profile to the table. This isn’t to say that Gonzalez doesn’t play good defense, just that he would seem to need to go toe to toe with Bautista on offense to have a chance at knocking him off. Gonzalez is in the midst of a power outage by his standards (.427 SLG since the All-Star Break), so he’ll have to get going quickly if he’s going to make a move on Bautista.
The strongest MVP candidate on the Red Sox has won the award before. Dustin Pedroia is currently in the midst of a career year, batting .311/.403/.478 with 15 home runs, 60 RBI and 76 runs scored. His wOBA (.390), wRC+ (145), stolen bases (23), on-base percentage and walk rate (13.6%) all represent career highs for the second baseman. He’s also grading out very well by UZR’s standards, 14.6 runs above average. Pedroia has always been regarded as a good fielder, so this isn’t a surprise. All told, Pedroia has accrued 6.8 fWAR. Last night he passed Jose Bautista and currently holds the lead in the American League. As such, he probably has the best chance of anyone in the American League to beat out Bautista for the award. He has a lot going for him: his offensive game is superb and well-rounded, he runs the bases well and he plays great defense. He’s also won the award before and is currently getting loads of media attention from national publications like Sports Illustrated. If voters are willing to buy into the all-around aspect of Pedroia’s game, and they’ve done so before, and are looking for someone other than Bautista to support, he may take home the award for the second time.
The final candidate for MVP is Curtis Granderson. After last night’s game, Granderson was hitting .273/.364/.577 with 32 home runs, 93 RBI and 105 runs scored. His wOBA is .405, his wRC+ is 157, and he’s swiped 22 bases. Not that it really matters, but his BABIP stands at .306 and his walk rate is 11.7%, the latter a touch above his career average of 9.8%. One of the weaknesses in Granderson’s candidacy is the way the fielding metrics grade his fielding. This year he has a poor -8.0 UZR, which explains why his fWAR is only 5.2. His career total UZR is 17.0, and for most seasons of his career he’s graded out average or above. In 2008 his marks were bad, and in 2009 he was essentially even. Not to be that guy, but a poor fielding score for Granderson doesn’t really pass the smell test. Granderson is fast, athletic, seems to get great reads on the ball and throws the ball well. Jay Jaffe at Pinstriped Bible had some choice analysis on this very subject:
Given the nature of defensive statistics, it’s tough to take any one of these too seriously, particularly given that they can be 10-15 runs apart in a given year; last year Granderson was at -1, +6.4, -12 according to the aforementioned trio, and +1.8 according to FRAA. The consensus of the numbers is more compelling, as it does raise some eyebrows about Granderson’s defense, particularly given that the Yankees have a choice of center fielders between him and Brett Gardner, whose numbers over the past two seasons have been off the charts: +16 FRAA, +42 TZ, +41 UZR, +32 DRS. There’s always an issue with defensive stats when it comes to adjacent fielders; if both of them can get to the ball but one routinely lets the other handle it, that will skew the stats, but so long as one of them does the job, everything is copacetic from a team defense standpoint. That may be what’s happening here, but in any event, it could be worth revisiting the choice of which of the two outfielders plays left field and which plays center field, if not now, then next spring. Until then, it’s worth keeping an eye on who gets those balls in the left-center gap.
The race for the top appears to be shaping up to be quite the dogfight. Jose Bautista has been the front-runner for the American League MVP all season is probably the premier offensive threat in all of baseball. Yet there are a lot of reasons voters could turn elsewhere. Some of those reasons are unfair, or they could just prefer the excellence of Pedroia’s all-around game. Pedroia does seem to be the primary threat to Bautista. Every part of his game is excellent, and he’s a well-known player on a contending team. Curtis Granderson could be the darkhorse in this race. It’s conceivable that he could finish with some very nice round numbers – 40 home runs, 30 stolen bases, 125 RBI and a wOBA north of .400 – and like Pedroia he is a well-liked player on a contending team. The MVP ballot is going to be very tricky for voters, and will be fascinating to watch. There are a lot of different scenarios that could play out. Bautista could finish strong and win the award easily. He could continue to sputter and Pedroia could continue to shoot his way up the fWAR leaderboard and gain more and more momentum. In another scenario, the superb seasons of Ellsbury and Gonzalez could actually syphon off votes from Pedroia, helping the candidacy of someone like Curtis Granderson. With six weeks or so to go on the season, it promises to be a very interesting race.
As Spring Training warms up and baseball season approaches, it is easy to find plenty of “busts and sleepers” columns around the baseball community, particularly for fantasy baseball. I’ve done the same thing here for the American League East using Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA system. First I used PECOTA and calculated the projected wOBAs for every offensive starter in the American League East. Then I subtracted each player’s 2010 wOBA from the projection. The players with the largest differences are projected to do better than they did in 2010, and the players with negative values are projected to perform worse than they did in 2010. Today we’ll look at the “sleepers”, the players that PECOTA sees doing better this year than last year. I’ve selected one player from each team because Orioles and Blue Jays fans need love too.
Boston Red Sox: Jacoby Ellsbury
2010 wOBA: .237. 2011 projected wOBA: .333.
Given how poorly Jacoby Ellsbury’s 2010 campaign went, it’s a bit odd to include him on this list: repeated injuries to his ribs kept him from staying on the field and producing at anything resembling a normal level of production. While it might be more interesting to examine another Red Sox player, the next highest wOBA-gainer on the list is JD Drew (.346 2010 wOBA; .355 2011 projected wOBA) and, frankly, JD Drew is boring.
As mentioned, Ellsbury had a rough go of it in 2010, injuring his ribs in April, and then reinjuring them when he attempted to return. 2010 was a lost year for those attempting to ascertain what Ellsbury’s true talent level is. In 2009 he had taken a step forward, increasing his on-base and slugging percentages by about twenty points apiece and bumping his OPS to .770. Ellsbury isn’t the type to hit for power, but his relatively decent ability to get on-base in 2009 and his blindingly fast speed led many to expect him to take another step forward in 2010. Many were the fantasy players who took Ellsbury in the first round of a standard 5×5 league, and great was their disappointment.
All fantasy owners and the Boston Red Sox got from Ellsbury was a measly set of 83 plate appearances, and all Ellsbury got was older and more expensive to the Sox. In 2011 he looks to get back on the horse with fellow speedster Carl Crawford behind him, yet PECOTA isn’t very bullish on Ellsbury’s ability to advance past his 2009 statistical line. The projection of .281/.337/.381 is nearly identical to his relatively inferior 2008 season.
Even with an OPS of barely over .700 Ellsbury has good value to the Red Sox. He’s relatively inexpensive, he plays good defense and he runs the bases well. However, unless he can outperform PECOTA’s meager expectations for his ability to get on base and hit for power he will fall well short of his solid 2009 season. Whether this makes him a true “sleeper”, then, is an open question.
Toronto Blue Jays: JP Arencibia
2010 wOBA: .232; 2011 projected wOBA: .331.
Like Ellsbury, JP Arencibia’s presence in this list is largely the product of an unnaturally low 2009 line in limited playing time: Arencibia hit .143/.189/.343 in a mere 37 plate appearances. Yet Arencibia has an impressive minor league pedigree, and should get a decent shot at holding down the Toronto catching job now that John Buck has departed for greener pastures. Arencibia doesn’t profile to take a lot of walks; his career minor league OBP is .319. However, he has exhibited some serious power potential, albeit in the hitter friendly Pacific Coast League. Howard Bender of Fangraphs recently wrote up Arencibia as a “catcher on the rise” over at Fangraphs:
If the growth that we’ve seen in the minors is any indication, the power potential here is massive. He progressed nicely from Single-A to Double-A and the little hiccup he experienced his first year in Triple-A (increased K% with a major decrease in BA) was thoroughly wiped away with his follow-up season in 2010. His ISO numbers are fantastic and you can tell that his hitting prowess is more than just luck as evidenced by his relatively normal BABIP numbers. One caveat that I should point out is the .228 average vs lefties with a .284 OBP in his two seasons in Triple-A. Those numbers could translate even worse in the majors. There will also be questions as to whether or not he can handle the rigors of catching full time in the bigs as well as how he can handle the pitching staff, but those will certainly be answered this season as the Jays will afford him every opportunity to succeed this year. Consider him a middle round pick who should, if he keeps his head on straight, put up early round pick numbers.
In a refreshing exhibition of clear expectations, PECOTA is strikingly bearish on Arencibia’s ability to get on base (.290 OBP) and strikingly bullish on his ability to hit for power (.483 SLG). It’s probably not the well-rounded game the Jays are looking for long-term out of the catcher position, but it’s not far off from the level of production they got out of John Buck last year (.281/.314/.489 with a .345 wOBA). If Arencibia can stick behind the plate for the season and hit to his projected .331 wOBA the Jays would be happy campers.
Tampa Bay Rays: Dan Johnson
2010 wOBA: .339; 2011 projected wOBA: .367
Dan Johnson is exactly the kind of player that Rays’ management loves to sign, and he’s exactly the kind of player to take AJ Burnett deep at an inopportune time, leaving most Yankees fans saying “wait, who?”. It’s just so typical.
Johnson has bounced around in his career between the Athletics, the Rays, and the Japanese club Yokohoma Bay Stars. He hasn’t exhibited the typical power one would expect from the first baseman, but boy can he take a base on balls: he had the highest walk rate of any 1B with at least 100 plate appearances in 2010.
In 2010 Johnson, the victim of an absurdly low BABIP of .188, hit .198/.343/.414 (.339 wOBA) in 140 plate appearances. PECOTA sees his walk-heavy ways continuing in 2011, but also projects him to add some power, predicting a line of .244/.368/.465. Ultimately this isn’t going to measure up to the standard set by Adrian Gonzalez and Mark Teixeira, but Johnson will only cost the Rays $1M in 2011. They would certainly be thrilled (and smug) if they got a 0.367 wOBA from a $1M first baseman.
Baltimore Orioles: Matt Wieters
No one will soon forget the occasion when PECOTA, in a seeming fit of spasmodic optimism, spit out the following line for Matt Wieters, the rookie, prior to the 2009 season: 649 PAs, 31 HR, 102 RBI, .311/.395/.544. Despite a minor league track record befitting the finest thoroughbred in all the land Wieters missed this projection and missed badly, hitting .280/.340/.412. This is an impressive line for a rookie 23 year-old catcher debuting at the major league level, but it certainly fell well short of the incredibly lofty expectations PECOTA had laid out for Wieters. In 2010 expectations were tempered but Wieters still fell short, undergoing the dreaded sophomore slump with a line of .249/.319/.377. The difference can largely be traced to a seventy point drop in Wieters’ BABIP. In his debut he averaged .356; in 2010 the mark was .287.
Aside from the fluctuation in BABIP, there are reasons for optimism for Wieters in 2011. Last year he increased his walk rate from around 7% to 9%, and managed to reduce his strikeout rate by a solid 3%. In other words, despite a worse batting line he actually made some small positive steps forward at the plate. His ISO increased ever so slightly, again indicating that the decrease in his batting line was largely related to a difference in fortune on balls in play. PECOTA sees Wieters’ BABIP normalizing at .311 this year. It’s a safe bet, but it’s hard to know whether he’ll settle in 20 points lower or higher than that on his career. As a result, the system projects a line of .268/.341/.419, very similar to what he produced in his rookie debut.
When PECOTA made the Wieters projection, there was a lot of confusion. Sure, there were the typical troglodytes who take every opportunity possible to mock the concept of a “computer” predicting baseball, but it’s always easy to ignore them. The more serious questions came from people who didn’t understand how in the world PECOTA came up with that: if PECOTA is in essence conservative, how could it produce a statistical line that looks like it was ripped straight off a fanboy’s message board posting? At the time Baseball Prospectus’ Steven Goldman sought to answer this question, contextualizing it within a discussion of the structural design of PECOTA and what it seeks to accomplish. His words are just as relevant now as they were then:
PECOTA is an essentially conservative program. Its player-performance projections are neither wildly optimistic nor pessimistic, but built purely from the data, and from its own understanding of the way that player careers progress based on literally thousands of antecedents. Thus, when it proposes that Orioles catching prospect Matt Wieters, a rookie-to-be who has never played above Double-A, could hit .311/.395/.544 in the majors this year, we took notice: this was the first time that PECOTA had looked at a prospect and predicted an MVP-caliber, Hall of Fame-level season right off the bat…
Of course, as we’ve often said in our annual book, PECOTA is not destiny. Much stands between a young player and the achievement of his projection, whether that projection is as boldly put as Wieters’ is, or merely average. Injury is a particular risk for a young catcher, as an errant foul tip can mangle a finger, or a contact play at the plate can mangle an entire body. What makes Wieters’ projection all the more impressive is that PECOTA is aware of the toll that catching can take on a backstop’s offensive skills, and yet it still sees such impressive short-term results for the Orioles tyro
Perhaps, then, it is wrong to say that PECOTA lacks optimism, that it doesn’t rave. In its own way, Wieters’ projection is its way of saying, “Hey, I think I spot a very rare talent here; you might want to pay attention.”
Given his words, and Wieters’ super minor league track record, and the fact that he’s settling into his third season in the American League East, many would be forgiven for taking the “over” on Wieters’ modest batting line this season. Yet this serves as a reminder, both for Wieters and for the Yankee sleeper who follows Wieters below, that no matter how much evidence, statistical research and historical comparisons you have you simply never know what’s going to happen next.
Yankees: Jesus Montero
2010 wOBA: N/A; 2011 projected wOBA: 0.346.
Everyone’s favorite prospect has been every projection system’s favorite golden boy this February, and PECOTA is no exception. PECOTA sees a line of .285/.331/.471 in 2011 for Montero with 18 HRs in 480 PAs. This would quite obviously be a tremendous level of performance for a 21 year-old in his first season in the bigs.
Jesus Montero has been the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow for so long now that it’s hard to imagine him actually putting up an OPS of over .800 in Yankee pinstripes. It doesn’t seem right. Shouldn’t something go wrong? Shouldn’t he have been traded by now? Despite lingering questions about his defensive ability, and despite multiple near-misses in trade talks, Jesus Montero is on the precipice. The greatest Yankee hitting prospect since Derek Jeter is ready for the bright lights of New York.
The last few years have been exciting times for prospect watchers. We’ve seen players like Jay Bruce, Evan Longoria, Clayton Kershaw, Colby Rasmus, David Price, Tommy Hanson, Matt Wieters, Stephen Strasburg, Jason Heyward, Buster Posey and Carlos Santana get hyped and then promoted to the bigs. Some like Wieters and Bruce struggled at first; others like Posey and Heyward became immediate game-changers for their club. The Yankees have the luxury of patience with Montero this spring, but they certainly will hope that he falls into the latter category of game-changer. For its part, PECOTA is expecting great things. We all are.