On Jacoby Ellsbury’s Power

Jacoby Ellsbury has shown the ability to be one of the league’s most dynamic offensive players in the cost-controlled portion of his career.  No one would dispute his ability to hit for average or his base running prowess.  Add on top of this his ability to play center field, and you have a marquee player that would make any MLB team better.  As Jeff Sullivan pointed out a couple weeks ago, the perceived disparity between Ellsbury and other speedsters like Michael Bourn lies in the history of his power tool and its potential going forward.  

To me, the questions that must be answered for prospective employers are: 1. Can Ellsbury stay healthy? 2. Is the power still there? and 3. Is the power predicated on getting consistent at bats, or did something change in his body or swing to cause the sudden loss (and appearance) of power?.  I will not try to predict the future of Ellsbury’s health; that’s the job of the trainers and doctors who can see him in person.  Here I would like to analyze the chances of Ellsbury putting up another 30+ home run season by observing the subtle differences in Ellsbury’s swing this year compared to his last fully healthy season in 2011.

First, let’s look for some clues in the batted ball data available for a comparison.  Below are the graphical representations of all the homeruns hit by Ellsbury in 2011 and 2013, courtesy of ESPN’s Hit Tracker:

Ellsbury_Jacoby_2011_scatter

Ellsbury_Jacoby_2013_scatter

Nearly all the homeruns hit in both seasons have been to the pull side, though you can see a few more to center field and two lonely dots in left center field in the 2011 graph.  Those two homeruns happen to be the only two that the speedy centerfielder has hit to the opposite field in his MLB career.  Perhaps some of his overall success was achieved by his greater ability to hit the ball hard toward the middle of the field.  Enough was said back in 2011 regarding Ellsbury’s career year, but it is important to note that only 5 of his 32 bombs in 2011 were categorized as Just Enough or Lucky according to Hit Tracker.  Only 1 of 9 homers from 2013 was labeled Just Enough.  So I think it is fair to say the drastic increase and subsequent decrease in homerun rate cannot be simply chalked up to dumb luck.  Something in Ellsbury’s ability to drive the baseball has either changed or become less consistent since 2011.

Beyond homeruns, the quality of contact has been drastically different in his platform year than in 2011.  Look at the comparison in batted ball type followed by the resultant production to each third of the field:

Season Split GB/FB LD% GB% FB% HR/FB
2011 Pull 2.31 19.0% 56.6% 24.4% 46.3%
2011 Center 1.23 21.4% 43.3% 35.3% 7.0%
2011 Opposite 0.45 31.2% 21.3% 47.5% 3.0%
2013 Pull 3.66 16.3% 65.7% 18.0% 28.1%
2013 Center 1.69 19.5% 50.6% 29.9% 0.0%
2013 Opposite 0.79 29.1% 31.3% 39.6% 0.0%

 

Season Split AVG SLG ISO
2011 Pull 0.378 0.802 0.423
2011 Center 0.360 0.500 0.140
2011 Opposite 0.400 0.614 0.214
2013 Pull 0.298 0.522 0.225
2013 Center 0.378 0.483 0.105
2013 Opposite 0.400 0.519 0.119

At the peak of his offensive output in 2011, he hit mostly ground balls to his pull side and mostly balls in the air to the opposite field.  2013 was similar in this general sense, but far more extreme toward the ground ball variety to all fields.  The sharp increase in ground balls was coupled with a decreased batting average to his pull side, as well as a decrease in slugging across the board.  To right field, his isolated slugging dropped from a ridiculous .423 to a more modest .225 in 2013.  As an aside, it’s pretty awesome that almost half of the flyballs he hit to right field in 2011 left the yard.

So now we have some information detailing how the ball came off his bat for the two years in question.  Let’s take a look at the swings that made these numbers happen, starting with 2011.  I pulled up a dozen swings from 2011 out of the MLB video archives, and would like to show two of them here as a composite representative of his swing.  First is a homerun from July 6th, 2011 off of Ricky Romero of the Blue Jays:

7-6-11 HR Pitcher 7-6-11 HR Front

Even though he pulls this pitch, his hands initiate the swing toward the ball with movement down behind his body and then very direct to contact.  There is very little movement across his body.  And here is another homerun, one of the two to the opposite field, from September 13, 2011 off of Brandon Morrow:

9-13-11 HR Pitcher

9-13-11 HR Front

There are a couple things to notice from both of these swings that will be reviewed later.  First is how stable the front leg is at contact and into the follow-through.  Ellsbury gets his front heel down which allows his hips to rotate with a strong anchor to the ground.  His back hip drives directly toward the pitcher, giving his hands the opportunity to take the shortest path to the ball without coming out and around.  Second and because of this, see how far out his arms get through the ball before the left hand rolls over the right hand.  This swing allowed Ellsbury to generate a lot of power from his relatively slight frame by being efficient in delivering the bat to the ball.

Now for the 2013 Ellsbury.  Here are some swings from the first week of the season.  First is a single on a tough pitch delivered by Phil Hughes from April 3:

4-3-13 1B Pitcher

4-3-13 1B Front

Ellsbury never gets the front heel down and rolls his hands very quickly after contact.  Now, here is the first homerun he hit this season on April 7:
4-7-13 HR Pitcher

There was no good side shot from this hit, but notice how unstable his front leg is.  Look how much more lateral movement his front knee undergoes to allow his hips to drive to the ball.  Ellsbury often rolls to the outside of his foot, even a bit in his 2011 swings, but he gets his weight down on the foot before that happens when he’s hitting well.  Look at the differences in the front leg between this homerun and the 2011 pulled homerun from earlier:

4-7-13 HR Knee

7-6-11 HR Knee

This greater side-to-side movement with the front leg makes the hip action longer and slower, forcing him to engage his upper body more to drive balls over the fence.  In Ellsbury’s case, he’s not strong enough to hit a wealth of homeruns with just his arms, complicated by the fact that he may have been dealing with some weakness in that front shoulder from his 2012 injury, as many suggested earlier this year.  This probably led to yanking balls to the pull side and rolling over earlier, particularly on off speed pitches, like here on a single to right field off Rich Hill:

5-24-13 1B Pitcher

Don’t get me wrong; that’s a tough pitch, and Ellsbury did well just to get the bat on it.  However, you can see again how he never gets his front leg stabilized having all of his weight on his toes, so his first move with the hands is out away from the body to counter the lateral movement of the lower half.  From that first move, he’s left to roll his hands around the ball and ground it weakly to the right side.

All was not lost this year, however, as a jump in his numbers in the middle and later portions of the season coincided with some swings that looked more similar to the 2011 clips.  Here is a double off Chris Archer from June 18 this year, on a day where he ended up a home run short of the cycle:

6-18-13 2B Pitcher

See here how the front heel gets down flat on the ground before his hands start to come through, allowing his hips to work efficiently to drive the ball off the Monster.  A much more balanced swing.  Here is a home run Ellsbury hit off the Astros on August 6, the second of the game for him:

8-6-13 HR Pitcher

Cisneros’ stupid leg gets in the way a tad, but you can still see Ellsbury get the heel down just before his bat comes into the line of the pitch.  The only small complaint I would have is that his bat plane is a little flat; it would be better to see the first move with his hands be down to create more natural lift like he did in the 2011 swings.  However, it is a high pitch, and the hand path will tend to be a bit flatter for every hitter on pitches up in the zone.  This does show up in swings of his from the Sox’ playoff run as well, though by then he was apparently dealing with an undisclosed arm injury and a broken navicular bone in his foot.  Since GIFs are fun, here is one of those swings:

Playoff single

Since the difference in hand path is a little bit subtle, here is the same clip cut from his load to contact followed by his 2011 swing on a similar pitch location:

Playoff single slow

9-13-11 hands

In the 2011 swing, the hands bring the bat on a slightly more vertical approach to the ball, allowing him to stay through it on a line that naturally produces loft.  The left elbow comes through much tighter to the back hip, and the hands do not shoot out away from the body as a result.  In the 2013 playoff swing, the bat comes into the zone much flatter, and that hands get away from the body quickly.  By the time the barrel gets to contact, the hands are pulling across the body causing him to hook it to right field.  This swing is not representative of the entire 2013 season, as a few of the other swings in this article prove.  However, it was a more common finding this year than in 2011.

Ellsbury’s bat path being slightly flat was no doubt related to the issue he had staying connected to the ground throughout the year.  The more side-to-side movement there is in the legs, the more there will usually be in the hands.  I believe this is what caused the spike in ground balls, and it also may have been the cause in his greater platoon split this year – 222 OPS point difference versus only an 80 point career split.  The unstable legs and flatter path make it  difficult to make late adjustments to changes in ball flight, which is more of an issue when facing same-sided pitchers.  Besides the point here, but I thought it was an interesting connection.

We wanted to see what evidence there was for or against another power outburst from Ellsbury going forward.  My impression of his 2013 season is that he was never 100% healthy, and that was what disabled his power from showing up earlier and more frequently.  Not even necessarily because of one specific physical problem, I don’t think he ever was able to get comfortable this year because of the nagging injuries.  These mechanical issues were not big enough to ruin his season, but just enough to limit his power.  

If he can get a few months of clear-minded at bats where he’s not worried about pain, I think he settles down enough to get his front foot down and let his hands work, bringing with it the home run power.  That said, it’s not  reasonable to expect perfect health based on his recent history, and because of that I would bet money on not seeing 30 home runs again.  If he is able to get a few full seasons of plate appearances, I feel comfortable betting on a 20+ home run season or two, with the floor of a high AVG guy who plays great defense and steals a bunch of bags.  Sign me up.



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Dan is Fangraphs Lead Prospect Analyst, living in New York City. He played baseball for four years at Franklin & Marshall College before attending medical school. Follow him on Facebook and Twitter @DWFarnsworth.


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Terrible Ted
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Terrible Ted
2 years 8 months ago

Clearly his power is down from a lack of PAs vs Romero and Morrow.

Terry
Guest
Terry
2 years 8 months ago

This is a great read. I’d love to see more swing-analysis articles in the future.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 8 months ago

I would love to. Any requests?

Fred
Guest
Fred
2 years 8 months ago

Chris Davis

Terry
Guest
Terry
2 years 8 months ago

I think Dioner Navarro would be an ideal candidate. He’s supposed to have changed his swing significantly so maybe you could do a before-after?

Doug
Guest
Doug
2 years 8 months ago

Joey Votto.

Danny Knobgobbler
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Danny Knobgobbler
2 years 8 months ago

Anthony Rizzo

redsox1
Member
redsox1
2 years 8 months ago

I’d love to see an analysis on Evan Gattis. How does his offensive game project? Opinions are all over the place. 2014 is setting up to be a make or break year, in terms of establishing himself as a full-time or part-time player, with Christian Bethancourt close.

BMarkham
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BMarkham
2 years 7 months ago

I enjoyed the article and it’s premise as well. As for other suggestions for players, Allen Craig could be fun for a couple reasons. Compare his swing with RISP and without RISP to see if he actually takes a different approach or whether it was just noise. Also Craig lost a lot of power in 2013 compared to before so you could look at his swings from last year too.

I can’t think of other individual players, but maybe players with really high or really low BABIPs (or HR/FB rates) and make judgements based on if they can keep that up in the future or if it’s lucky. Or players that had a year where they really outperformed or underperformed their career rates at those stats and assess whether it was luck or an adjustment.

Ricky Romero
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Ricky Romero
2 years 8 months ago

Ugh…

anonynous
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anonynous
2 years 8 months ago

The guy is on the wrong side of 30 and has exactly 1 big league season with more than 9 home runs. You may be willing to beat he’s got multiple 20+ homer seasons yet to come but I wouldn’t put my money on that proposition.

Dan
Guest
Dan
2 years 8 months ago

Where do you think the over/under is on his highest HR season from now through the next 5 years?

octelium
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octelium
2 years 8 months ago

17.5

Damn my torpedo
Guest
Damn my torpedo
2 years 8 months ago

How quaint. So the same fangraphs crowd who once deemed Jacoby a terrible fielder, even though his history showed otherwise, has now deemed him unable to produce HR’s, even though Theo and 2011 say otherwise.

Fangraphs: Where what you’ve done lately is a demand.

Billy
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Billy
2 years 8 months ago

I think Brett Gardner and Shane Victorino could join that group as well. I feel like we could take those five and do some kind of sadistic experiment where we have broken glass, beds of spikes, and pools of flesh-eating acid in the outfield. We’d tell them it’s the World Series and start hitting balls out to them and see to what extent they’ll go to catch a baseball. I’m not sure any of them would survive.

Cisnero's stupid leg
Guest
Cisnero's stupid leg
2 years 8 months ago

Sorry!

RC
Guest
RC
2 years 8 months ago

“or did something change in his body or swing to cause the sudden loss”

How about the 2nd baseman who fell on and dislocated his shoulder. Power tends to take a while to come back after shoulder injuries. I’m not sure what the confusion is here.

james wilson
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james wilson
2 years 8 months ago

Ellsbury’s power surge was no fluke, but he is so injury prone that his great year well never repeat itself. More than a lingering shoulder problem, his left hand was almost incapacitating by itself. There may also be wrist issues. I watched the Sox all season and you could almost see him talking to himself to not roll over, to go the other way. If he were actually healthy he would repeat ’11 routinely, but if anything he is becoming even more injury prone.

Nuj
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Nuj
2 years 8 months ago

According to mlbtraderumors, the Yankees have put a priority on Beltran. They have shown a willingness to spend money this off-season. Based off of the homeruns he’s hit to to right field, Ellsbury would be a beast in Yankee Stadium – I don’t understand why they wouldn’t be aggressive in signing him (As a Boston fan, I’m ok with this of course).

gtb
Guest
gtb
2 years 8 months ago

Several thoughts. First, in watching his front hip position-wise and comparing with the sign boards under the backstop, the hip appears to barely move from left to right in 2011 but noticeably moves to the right in 2013.
Second, in 2013 he appears to keep more weight on his trail left foot than he did in 2013. The 2011 GIF’s also appear to show him rotating almost entirely on front heel with little or no weight staying behind. To me this showed great balance in 2011 with him essentially swinging from the heel. I wonder with this technique is really sustainable consistently over time, particularly as a player ages. Borrowing from golf, as players get older, their ability to swing from the heels and consistently make powerful contact inevitably diminishes. If Elsberry mirrors the same pattern as golfers, I am doubtful that his power days will return.

Jim
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Jim
2 years 8 months ago

Swing analysis is seductive, but dozens if not hundreds of at bats would need to be analyzed to determine the correlation.

In truth, in most parks Ells has mid teens HR power, which given the rest of his game makes him a very good player. Let’s chalk the 32 dingers up to a very focused player that had something to prove and who got into the best physical conditioning of his life.

psualum
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psualum
2 years 8 months ago

I wish the Mets would stop being cheapos and give this a guy a 5yr 90mill or 6yr 105mill contract offer.. I’m pretty sure somthing in that area would get him to sign on the dotted.

Zen Madman
Guest
2 years 8 months ago

That might get Choo. Ellsbury probably gets more from someone.

coldseat
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coldseat
2 years 8 months ago

HGH? HR’s are down all across the league. I look forward to the return of 1980’s baseball.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 8 months ago

HR are still well above the 70’s and 80’s with the exception of the juiced ball year in 1987 when ball production moved from Haiti to Costa Rica and QC was off.

In fact, 1/2 of the HR reduction in recent year is due to increased strikeouts from the expanded zone. In fact, adjusted for K’s, HR’s are only down 5% from the juiced era.

This could be called the Toradol era where pitchers can pitch without any discomfort with a pregame injection, helping them keep their 95 K FB all year long and with the help of the strike zone spiking K’s to historical highs.

ValueArb
Guest
ValueArb
2 years 7 months ago

If HGH caused HRs, it would be the first noticeable effect of taking HGH, so uh no.

jdbolick
Member
Member
2 years 8 months ago

Outstanding work, Mr. Farnsworth.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 8 months ago

Ellsbury likely tore a labrum when he dislocated the shoulder. He may never get to 100% w/o surgery, even with it. Look at Adrian Gonzalez. He had a few good months after surgery and then reinjured his shoulder in the HR Derby and 3 years after surgery has not recovered his power 100%.

The best place for Ellsbury would be NY. He might hit 40 HR there if he gets close to 100%, and 30 HR at 80%

John C
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John C
2 years 8 months ago

He’ll never hit 40 anywhere, unless he becomes friends with A-Rod’s dealer.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 7 months ago

People laughed at me when I said Youk would be able to hit close to 30 HR. Didn’t have the swing for it they said. See what happens, but like I said, he has to be healthy and in the right park to do it.

gnomez
Guest
gnomez
2 years 8 months ago

All I’ll say to this is

“Good news, Yankees fans!”

Gewehr
Member
Gewehr
2 years 8 months ago

This is fascinating, as a new fan. Watching him all year, Ellsbury was probably playing in more pain than we know about, as many have pointed out (walk year motivation?). And, I would love to see Chris Davis analyzed before and after the break. As a layman, he seemed so free and easy before and pressing afterwards. Good job, great comments.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 7 months ago

Davis 2nd half problems were due to the HR Derby. He hurt his hand in the derby (torn callous) and had a long stretch without a HR after the break.

mookie
Guest
mookie
2 years 8 months ago

Outstanding and compact hip turn cause him to generate enormous power on contact and his hands follow through at the end to guide the ball through the gap. A masterpiece of fluid contact. His swing is like a metronome.

james wilson
Guest
james wilson
2 years 7 months ago

A metronome has no rhythm. And sho ’nuff, Ellsbury has a stiff swing.

Ben
Guest
Ben
2 years 7 months ago

I’ve got 2:

What about David Freese? His power got zapped this past year – along with Allen Craig.

Thanks.

JasonBVT
Guest
JasonBVT
2 years 7 months ago

In the first half of 2011 he hit 11 HRs in 361 ABs for an 11.3% HR/FB rate. In the second half of 2011 he hit 21 HRs in 299 ABs for a 22.1% HR/FB rate.
In the first half of 2013 he hit 3 HRs in 377 ABs for a 3.4% HR/FB rate.
In the second half of 2013 he hit 6 HRs in 200 ABs for a 12.5% HR/FB rate.
In 2009 (last full season) he hit HRs at a 4.6% HR/FB rate.

An argument could be made that the first half of 2013 he was still recovering from his shoulder injury and that he needed to “find” his swing again. From the first half of 2013 to the second half his LD% increased, his GB% decreased, his FB% increase and his IFFB% drastically decreased. You could make a pretty strong argument that he’s a true talent 11-13% HR/FB hitter. Over 600 PAs that’s about 21 homeruns.

ValueArb
Guest
2 years 7 months ago

May I be the first to say there is little difference in the swings in these GIFs that isn’t caused by different location/speed of the pitched ball, and that this article is wishcasting based on what you think you see in them?

Ken
Guest
Ken
2 years 7 months ago

Well Jacoby is a hometown boy so I’m probably not real objective. I think the analysis was good. I have to agree with the statement relative to golf, the reserve weight rotation or rocking back on your heels hurts distance as you get older, at least in golf. I love to see him go to Seattle.

Tony
Guest
Tony
2 years 7 months ago

Why are you wondering if a guy who is going to hit .300 as your leadoff, lead the league in steals, potential runs scored, and be among the leaders in triples and doubles while playing near flawless centerfield, can hit either 15 or 25 home runs? Kinda like a National League team wavering on David Price due to fear he can’t drive in runs. Ells’ 2011 was one of the best offensive seasons any player has had in MLB history. Guess what: he probably won’t repeat it. Guess what else: he is still among the best overall outfielders, offensively and defensively, in the game.

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