- FanGraphs Baseball - http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs -

The Case for Jacoby Ellsbury

Today, we’re writing up affirmative arguments for each of the three primary MVP candidates, and I get to make the case for Jacoby Ellsbury‘s candidacy. On the surface, arguing for Ellsbury is something easy case to make – after all, he led the majors in WAR, and even though it is not a precise measure of value that should be taken as gospel, the guy with the best WAR in baseball is obviously a serious candidate for the award. That said, you don’t have to buy into WAR to see that Ellsbury was probably as good as anyone else who played the sport this year.

Let’s start with his offense. Ellsbury’s offensive production was outstanding across the board. His .321 batting average was fifth in the AL and tops among center fielders, his OBP of .376 was tied for 11th in the AL and tops among center fielders, his .552 slugging percentage tied him for fifth in slugging with Curtis Granderson.

The knock on Ellsbury coming into 2011 was his durability. He took a lot of heat from the media and his teammates in 2010 for playing in only 18 games due to a variety of rib and trunk injuries. In 2011, Ellsbury quieted the critics who labeled him “soft” by playing in 158 games and accumulating a MLB best 732 plate appearances. His high rate stats combined with durability to produce a great set of counting stats. Ellsbury hit 32 home runs (fifth in AL), stole 39 bases (fourth in AL), scored 119 runs (3rd in AL), and even drove in 105 runs (t-6th in AL) despite hitting leadoff for most the year. Ellsbury was also the only player in either league the AL to hit 30 or home runs, steal more than 30 bases, and accumulate more than 100 RBIs.

Moving onto more advanced offensive statistics we more evidence of Ellsbury’s dominance, he was fifth in the league with a .402 wOBA and 150 wRC — in both cases finishing behind Jose Bautista and three 1B/DH types (Miguel Cabrera, David Ortiz, and Adrian Gonzalez).

Ellsbury hit like an All-Star level corner player, and did so while playing center field — one of the most demanding defensive positions on the diamond. Ellsbury not only played center field, he played it at a very high level no matter how you measure defense. He made 0 errors on the year for a perfect 1.000 fielding percentage and led the AL with 388 putouts. Single year advanced fielding metrics can bounce around some, but Ellsbury 2011 UZR of 15.6 was fourth best in the AL and only the Yankees’ Brett Gardner rated as a better defensive outfielder in 2011.

Ellsbury’s 2011 does not look to be a fluke performance either. His BABIP of .336 was only slightly above career average of .325. Hit saw a slight increase in his line drive percentage, but by far the biggest change in his performance is that he saw his power stroke develop, which is not unusual for a player in his prime. Ellsbury’s flyball rate was unchanged in 2011, but more of them left the building (16.7) compared to previous high of 10.3% in his rookie season. Defensively, he has made 2 errors in over 4200 innings and has a UZR/150 of 9.6.

How does Ellsbury’s 2011 compare to the other top contenders? A good case can be made for either Justin Verlander or Jose Bautista, but I think Ellsbury’s case is the strongest. Verlander was clearly the best pitcher in the AL last year, but he only played in 21% of his team’s games. Verlander no doubt affected other games by taking pressure off the Tiger bullpen during his starts, but I prefer MVPs candidates to play more than 34 games.

That leaves us with Jose Bautista. Bautista continued to be one of the most dangerous hitters in MLB. His .302/.447/.608 triple slash line is outstanding and he led MLB with a .441 wOBA and 181 wRC. While his offensive performance was slightly better than Ellsbury’s, he could not match Ellsbury in terms of durability or glove work. He played in 9 fewer games than Ellsbury and had 77 fewer plate appearances. In the field, he made 6 errors and continued to be a below average defender, compiling a -4.8 UZR to give him -46.2 for his career. Ellsbury more than makes up the offensive difference between himself and Bautista with his durability and his above average defense at a premium position.

In total, Ellsbury’s 2011 was worth almost 2.5 more wins that the second best AL center fielder (Curtis Granderson) and more than doubled the WAR output of the third place finisher (Peter Bourjos). Ellsbury’s 2011 season was the best performance by a center fielder since Ken Griffey Jr.’s 1997 season (also 9.4 WAR)—-a season that ended with Griffey Jr. unanimously winning the AL MVP award.

Red Sox fans will forever have a bitter taste in their mouths at the way the 2011 season ended, but perhaps seeing Ellsbury win the MVP will remind them that not all was lost as their home-grown centerfielder developed into one of the best players in baseball.