Jacoby Ellsbury: League Leader

Right now, Jacoby Ellsbury is presumably focused on helping the Red Sox, but a few months from now, Ellsbury should become a free agent. He probably isn’t thinking too much about that right now, but you could forgive other people for giving it a lot of attention, fans of non-contending teams, and even high-ranking employees of them. Ellsbury looks like an impact player who’s going to hit the open market, like the kind of player who can turn a decent team to a good team, and those who feel like he had just one fluke season would be wise to consider what he’s done in 2013.

Any talk about Ellsbury as a free-agent acquisition has to begin with his statistics. It’s those statistics that explain what he is as a player, and it’s those statistics that give the best indication of what he might become as he ages. Ellsbury, this year, is the owner of a 112 wRC+, and for his career, he’s the owner of a 109 wRC+. He routinely posts positive base-running values, and he also routinely posts positive defensive values. Through Wednesday’s action, Ellsbury’s running a .358 2013 OBP. A lot of people are going to be looking at that OBP. But what would you say if I told you that’s not actually his 2013 OBP at all?

What you might say is, “I don’t understand, what is his OBP, then?” What you should say is, “yes it is.” By definition — by the official OBP formula — Ellsbury’s 2013 on-base percentage is .358. According to FanGraphs, it’s .358. According to Baseball-Reference, it’s .358. According to ESPN, it’s .358. According to MLB.com, it’s probably .358, but I don’t know for sure because I can’t stand trying to navigate their statistical pages. There is no disagreement on the matter of Ellsbury’s OBP.

But the point is that there are other times Ellsbury has reached base, times that aren’t included in the OBP formula, times that are virtually invisible. So far this season, there have been 20 instances of catcher’s interference. Sixteen different players have reached on catcher’s interference one time. Jacoby Ellsbury has reached on catcher’s interference four times. It is a small league lead, but given the overall infrequency of the event, it is a significant one.

Last November, we talked about Tyler Colvin‘s 2012 league lead in the same category. Colvin reached on catcher’s interference six times over 452 official plate appearances. Ellsbury’s at four and 567, so clearly, he’s off the Colvin pace, but a leader is a leader and I wasn’t about to let this pass by unacknowledged.

Not that it’s necessarily gone entirely unacknowledged. A control partial Google query:

ortizgoogle

Now, the same query, with Ellsbury instead:

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People have caught on. Hell, Pete Abraham has written about it, more than once. In July, Abraham wrote about Ellsbury and the catcher’s interference call, and then he reached the same way again on August 19. It isn’t often one thinks about catcher’s interference as a baseball play, but Ellsbury has made it happen just often enough. Ellsbury has made people ask Google about it.

Ellsbury’s actually reached this way ten times in his career, which almost certainly isn’t a fluke, given how rare it is. The active leader is Carl Crawford, having reached on catcher’s interference 13 times. I didn’t make .gifs of all ten of the Ellsbury instances, but here are .gifs of the four 2013 instances, with a couple slow-motion replays. I’ll list the dates and the catchers because why not?

June 8

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June 13

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July 6

  • Chris Iannetta(!)

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August 19

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Catcher’s interference occurs when the bat hits the glove during a swing. In one of the examples above, the catcher prepares to try to throw out a base-runner, and in so doing might have reached too far forward for the ball. In the other examples, there’s no such catcher movement, so there’s just accidental contact. Above are the only two times Iannetta has been called for interference in his career. Wieters has been called for interference two times in his career — once with Ellsbury in 2013, and once with Ellsbury in 2011. This, probably, isn’t just noise; this, probably, has to do with Jacoby Ellsbury.

And it — probably — would have to do with a few things. Historically, catcher’s interference has been called a lot more often with left-handed hitters at the plate. Ellsbury stands pretty far back in the box, and there’s also a lot of length to his swing behind the plate. Or at least sometimes there is, maybe when he’s trying to do something in particular. Abraham asked about this very thing, and from the link above, here are a couple of the responses he received:

“I know I get it called a lot. But I really don’t know why,” the Red Sox center fielder said in July. “It’s hard for me to give a reason behind it.”
[…]
“It’s not something I’m trying to do,” Ellsbury said. “It just happens. But I’ll take it. Nine more times getting on base is a good thing, right?”

Offering more detail, the manager:

“There’s some length to his swing. In his case, his length is not so much out front, it’s behind him,” Farrell said. “It’s a natural swing path.”

Farrell believes that the kind of pitch being thrown has something to do with it, too. He has noticed that when catchers reach for breaking pitches to frame them for the umpire, that’s when they tend to interfere with Ellsbury.

Farrell even said he warned his catchers about this possibility when he was in Toronto. Prior to this season, Ellsbury had reached on catcher’s interference just six times, so Farrell saw something where few others would’ve. Farrell noticed Ellsbury’s swing path and tried not to let it make a difference. Baseball managers have to worry about a whole lot of details. Or Farrell is just pulling our legs.

There’s not a lot to really learn from this exercise. One thing to learn is the frequency with which Ellsbury has reached base on catcher’s interference. Another thing to learn is that the signal for catcher’s interference is hilarious. “This guy right here. This guy messed up. This is the guy who just messed up.” A third thing to learn is that Ellsbury has done this often enough to make people aware of it. The usual response to catcher’s interference is confusion on the part of the fans and the announcers. With Ellsbury, now it’s familiar. For his career, he’s reached on catcher’s interference more often than he’s been intentionally walked. He’s reached on catcher’s interference more often than he’s stolen against the White Sox, Twins, or Mariners. With Ellsbury, the response now isn’t “was that catcher’s interference?” The response is “there’s catcher’s interference, again.” It’s weird that that’s not weird.

Whenever I look at this, I think there might be a way to make this happen intentionally. It’s along the same lines as the theory that sometimes hitters swing at wild two-strike pitches intentionally. I don’t think that happens — I think certain players are just more prone to it. Jacoby Ellsbury happens to be more prone to reaching base on catcher’s interference. Probably, it has a lot to do with his swing. It doesn’t really make a meaningful difference with regard to Ellsbury’s value as a player, and front offices around the league aren’t going to think about this when they prepare their free-agent contract offers. But like Ellsbury says, more times getting on base is a good thing, right? It doesn’t not matter.



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Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.


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