Ellsbury’s Struggles and the Red Sox

Just a couple of years ago, Jacoby Ellsbury came out of nowhere of have one of the best seasons by a position player in years. He hit .321/.376/.552 (149 wRC+) with 32 home runs while playing center field that impressed both the Gold Glove voters and various fielding metrics. Although Ellsbury had been a first-round draft pick by the Red Sox in 2005 and had been a very good prospect in his minor-league days, it is unlikely many saw 2011 coming. While Ellsbury was amazingly fast — he stole 70 bases in 2009, one of only three players to steal 70 or more in a single season since 2000 — and had good contact skills, he had not shown anything close to that sort of power. In fact, he had never hit double digits in home runs in any major or minor league season prior to 2011.

It would have been unfair to expect Ellsbury to repeat his 2011 performance, but even so, he has been disappointing since then. His 2012 was derailed by an early shoulder injury and he ended up playing only 74 games while hitting just .271/.313/.370 (83 wRC+). Ellsbury is off to an even worse start this year at .242/.307/355 (72 wRC+), and while 212 plate appearances are not many, they are not nothing, at this point, either. The Red Sox are obviously in contention, and are arguably the favorites to win the East at this point. The divisional and playoff races look to be very tight, so contenders have to make every decision count. Figuring out what Ellsbury can offer or if they need to lessen his role is obviously a big decision for them. It is not that Ellsbury has to repeat his 2011 performance — far from it. He does not need to be a superstar for the Red Sox to have a chance. The questions are whether or not Ellsbury is going to keep flat-lining and how long Boston should wait to find out. The Sox are competing even with him hitting horribly now, but that is not something they want to live with if they do not have to do so.

The obvious place to look for influence of small samples on under- or over-performance is BABIP, of course. Ellsbury does have a low BABIP so far this year at .274, especially for fast, left-handed hitter. As Royals fans watching Mike Moustakas this year can tell you, not all low BABIPs are created equally, either, something to which I will return. It is also worth nothing, though, that Ellsbury had a .304 BABIP in 2012, and his line still was poor.

In some ways, Ellsbury might actually better at this plate in 2013 than in 2011. Ellsbury has never walked much, but his walk rate is currently the highest of his career. Ellsbury has always been good at making contact, and his strikeout rate is also the lowest it has been since 2010, and his contact rate is currently at a career high. Low strikeouts and high contact rate correlate pretty closely, as one would expect, and along with walk rate, they gain meaning pretty early relative to other metrics. Plate discipline is not everything, but it is a very big thing, and Ellsbury maintaining and perhaps even improving his approach is a good sign.

Nevertheless, it is clear that not all as well. One of the big culprits is something else that stabilizes pretty quickly: power, or, more specifically in Ellsbury’s case, home run power. Again, I doubt many expected Ellsbury to have another 30 home run season even in the immediate aftermath of 2011. Still, it was a pretty big leap forward for a player in his prime. Just a bit of power combined with Ellsbury’s contact skills could lead to good things, as witnessed in 2011. However, his isolated power the last two seasons has dropped even below his pre-2011 levels (I am excluding his 84 plate appearances from the injury-riddled 2010), to .099 and .093 respectively. In 2012 and 2013, Ellsbury has actually hit doubles and triples on balls in play at a greater rate than he did in his 2007-2009 seasons. The problem has been twofold: a) as mentioned above, he simply has not had as many hits on balls in play the last two years, and b) he is not hitting the ball out of play as much, i.e. home runs.

The home run issue is quite noticeable if one focuses on the differences between 2011 and the last two years. Ellsbury’s rate of home runs on contact has actually lower this year and last than his first two season in the majors, though, so it is not all just an issue of not living up to his monster 2011 season. His home runs per fly ball rate is also way down this year.

The home run issue may connect with the BABIP issue. I hesitate to say much about the impact of injuries, but it might be Ellsbury is still dealing with the aftermath of last year’s shoulder injury. Red Sox manager John Farrell has also mentioned Ellsbury is still working on his timing, and it is not crazy to wonder if the two issues (recovering from a shoulder injury and getting this timing back) are related. If Ellsbury simply is not making good contact as frequently despite more frequent contact, then it would be understandable if his batted balls do not go out of the yard or are more easily fielded than in the past. Ellsbury is currently popping up fly balls at a Moustakas-ian rate. Saying “Ellsbury is not hitting the ball as hard” may be so simple an answer as to be unilluminating, but perhaps given that he has had a shoulder injury in the relatively recent past, not totally uninteresting.

If that is the case, is it good or bad news? I have already gone outside of my comfort zone on injury recovery speculation, so I do not know. The question is what the Red Sox should do. As as been mentioned, the situation is complicated not only by the Red Sox being in contention, but by Ellsbury’s impending free agency. The Red Sox need to put their best team on the field, but the player wants to strut his stuff every day. The team could try and platoon Ellsbury if they have a suitable candidate, but it is not clear that they do.

The issue is not so much Ellsbury’s terrible performance against lefties this year, though. He has been bad overall, and his career platoon split is actually relatively small for a lefty. Ellsbury has made it clear that he likes leading off, although it is not obvious why, with signs pointing to Ellsbury taking off after 2013, the Red Sox need to go out of their way to cater to his desires. It would not make a huge difference, but the Red Sox might want to consider having Shane Victorino lead off against lefties, against whom Victorino is much better.

Hits may start to drop in (go over the wall) for Ellsbury at such a rate that two weeks from now this post and others like it seem like silly, early-season hand wringing. But both Ellsbury and the Red Sox have a lot at stake, and if there is more than just random variance underlying his inability to drive the ball effectively, they will probably want to do something other than just wait him out.



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Matt Klaassen reads and writes obituaries in the Greater Toronto Area. If you can't get enough of him, follow him on Twitter.


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Grohman
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Grohman
3 years 2 months ago

“In some ways, Ellsbury might actually better at this plate in 2013 than in 2011.”
huh?

Yolo1
Guest
Yolo1
3 years 2 months ago

His plate approach has actually been pretty good. He’s taking more pitches, walking more, striking out less, whiffing less, making more contact and chasing less stuff outside of the zone. Even the stuff he IS chasing out of the zone he’s making more contact with.

That’s what makes the whole thing so weird… you’re mostly just left with wild guesses

The BABIP piece is covered and I think it should be crystal clear that 2011 – from a power perspective – was a total aberration. Take out 2011 and he’s a below average hitter with like – a .310 wOBA on the button. Could just be that he’s declining at the rate that most poor hitters do.

He’s also never hit for much power early in the season… he usually starts racking up doubles and HR’s in July/August/Sept… his 1st half/2nd half splits in that regard say at least that.

So I dunno. To me – the Red Sox either just need to ride this out and hope for the best while moving him down the lineup…. OR begin to grapple with the possibility that there’s a real possibility that this is who he is..

But yeah, I’m totally non-committal here..

Synovia
Guest
Synovia
3 years 2 months ago

“Even the stuff he IS chasing out of the zone he’s making more contact with.”

Thats not necessarily a good thing, and frankly, I’d say its a good part of the problem.

In a lot of situations, missing a pitch off the plate is just a strike. In a lot of situations, hitting that pitch just leads to a weak grounder.

RaysFan
Member
RaysFan
3 years 2 months ago

Despite the fact making contact outside the zone is weaker, it is nevertheless a generally positive attribute.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 2 months ago

Hah.

My perfect world scenario is that he sucks this year, the Sox don’t make him a qualifying offer and he goes on to rebound somewhere else on a Boras pillow contract in 2014 and makes a lot of money in 2015 (after all, I root against teams, not people).

Atreyu Jones
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Atreyu Jones
3 years 2 months ago

Even if he sucks, he will get a qualifying offer.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 2 months ago

Well, yeah. That’s why it’s my “perfect world scenario.”

Judy
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Judy
3 years 2 months ago

FWIW, the popups don’t stand out anywhere near as much as all the groundouts to 2nd.

everdiso
Member
everdiso
3 years 2 months ago

J.Ellsbury (29)

AAA 2007: 401pa, 8.0bb%, 11.7k%, .337babip, .298/.360/.380/.740, .338woba, 106wRC+
Pre-2011: 1513pa, 6.7bb%, 11.8k%, .320babip, .291/.344/.405/.749, .330woba, 94wRC+
Big 2011: 732pa, 7.1bb%, 13.4k%, .336babip, .321/.376/.552/.928, .400woba, 149wRC+
Post2011: 535pa, 6.7bb%, 12.7k%, .292babip, .260/.310/.356/.666, .295woba, 78wRC+
Career: 2780pa, 6.8bb%, 12.4k%, .318babip, .293/.346/.433/.779, .342woba, 105wRC+

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 2 months ago

Yeah, he’s basically Shane Victorino with less patience, less power and a higher average.

Well, provided Shane Victorino spent a year doing his best Rickey Henderson impression.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 2 months ago

(steroid-era Henderson, that is)

Pastry Chef
Member
Member
Pastry Chef
3 years 2 months ago

Exactly.
Why people still assume 2011 has anything to do with his career in general is beyond me. He’s been a light-hitting centerfielder all his life with the exception of one freak season. I’ll take his entire non-2011 professional career as an indicator of what he is over 2011.

Jay Stevens
Guest
Jay Stevens
3 years 2 months ago

You know, I read this article and comments like this and I found myself really, really wanting to read actual scouting reports and analysis of swing mechanics from various points in Ellsbury’s career. The numbers tell a narrative that doesn’t seem to match Ellsbury’s various permutations as hitter.

In 2011, Ellsbury seemed to mature as a hitter. He seemed to be getting deeper into counts, had remarkable pitch recognition and ability to change his swing mechanics to put loft into the swing.

To give you an idea of development of the 2011 hitter, check out the SoSH thread on Ells from that season.

To assume a player is some kind of “fixed” asset with a static value, I think, is the wrong way to look at Ellsbury, and baseball players in general.

thomas
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thomas
3 years 2 months ago

Just look at the ground balls and line drives. He has a 17.8% line drive percentage and 51.5% ground ball percentage. Compare that to 2011’s 22.9% line drive percentage and 43.0% ground ball percentage. Jacoby is clearly not squaring up on the ball. Pretty simple explanation.

O's Fan
Guest
O's Fan
3 years 2 months ago

He’s a latter-day Brady Anderson. Speedy, contact-hitting CF with lots of walks and some but not much power. We all know how Anderson had his 50-HR season. Just sayin.

65Kyle08
Member
65Kyle08
3 years 2 months ago

Pathetic post…

Balthazar
Guest
Balthazar
3 years 2 months ago

Except it’s the obvious comparison for the obvious hypothesis to an otherwise completely incomprehensible, one-season, non-repeated spiked in power followed by a slump to less ISO then previously. Much as I appreiciate Matt K’s lengthy discussion, the entire story of ‘Ellsbury, what gives’ could be dispatched in the single obvious sentence.

And I’m with Donut3 above, buy the pre-2011 if you’re buying at all. That’s worth something, if you price it right . . . .

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 2 months ago

True.

Brady Anderson showed a lot more power before and after his steroid year than Ellsbury showed before and after 2011.

Dirck
Guest
Dirck
3 years 2 months ago

Baseball lends itself to mathematical analysis better than any other sport ,yet it produces so many mathematically impossible outcomes . Before the season started ,what would you have calculated the odds would be after 7 weeks and at least 150 at bats for all,that Matt Kemp,Josh Hamilton,Adrian Gonzalez,Paul Konerko,Albert Pujols,Matt Holliday,Ryan Howard ,and Joey Votto would all have less home runs than YUNIESKY EFFING BETANCOURT ? Is a million to one unreasonable ? 100 million to one ?

Simon
Guest
Simon
3 years 2 months ago

Really, it’s much more likely than that. Calm down a bit. Betancourt has always had some power, so you’re just asking what the chances of him going on a tear for a while is, combined with the chances that nobody else on your cherry-picked list went on a bigger tear.

Jason B.
Guest
Jason B.
3 years 2 months ago

“Is a million to one unreasonable ? 100 million to one ?”

Yes, those are both very unreasonable, given that we’re choosing names after-the-fact. If you had said “one lightly regarded hitter has more home runs than several hitters held in higher esteem after a month and a half” then it’s a near certainty.

(Basically what Simon said.)

Rufus T. Firefly
Guest
Rufus T. Firefly
3 years 2 months ago

C’mon now. There’s just no doubt Ellsbury was and is a very talented ballplayer. You can’t do what he did in 2011 and not be. And the idea that you can “take out” 2011 and then know “who he really is” is very messy in that he suffered major (freakish) injuries that killed two of his seasons. You could just as easily say something like “when healthy, he’s a star.”

It seems very reasonable that being in his walk year has him pressing. Baseball is (of course) really, really hard and when your head’s not in the right place you’re in trouble. I’ll bet he bounces back nicely soon.

JM
Guest
JM
3 years 2 months ago

On behalf of everyone who stated that his 2011 season was the flukiest of all fluke seasons:

Called it.

Nick
Guest
Nick
3 years 2 months ago

You mean he’s not a 10 WAR player? Damn dude, you’re a seer.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 2 months ago

Or a 5 WAR player, for that matter.

Cus
Guest
Cus
3 years 2 months ago

It’s gotta be the shoulder injury. Less confidence means less confident swings and tentative contact, not to mention tat he may not have, nor ever regain the same power or swing without pain or awkward ‘looseness’.

Synovia
Guest
Synovia
3 years 2 months ago

He hasn’t played real baseball for 2 years. He played hurt for most of 2012, and missed the rest.

Kyle
Guest
Kyle
3 years 2 months ago

It’s the injury and time he’s missed. This guy looked like a superstar not that long ago. Maybe the fact that he hit his prime later than most guys is part of the problem. He’s almost 30 years old, right?

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 2 months ago

Yeah, there’s really no other explanation for him playing like the guy he’s always been.

NS
Guest
NS
3 years 2 months ago

This year’s wRC+, relative to years past:

2007 -59 (short season)
2008 -14
2009 -21
2010 injured
2011 -72
2012 -7 (injured)

“Being what you’ve always been” is now defined as being an average of about 30% worse than you’ve always been.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
3 years 2 months ago

Sorry, with a much lower BABIP that should correct eventually, considering Ellsbury’s speed.

Patrick
Guest
Patrick
3 years 2 months ago

Random thought:

I was just looking at his plate discipline numbers, and what I noticed was that his out of zone contact numbers have gone way up. Another interesting fact was that his swinging strike rate in 2011 was the highest of his career.

It would appear that he was chasing just as many pitches out of the zone in 2011; he was just lucky enough to not be making contact.

Interesting random effect. No idea what it means.

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