Everything was in place for Jacoby Ellsbury to have a monster season. He was exceptional in 2011, when he hit .321/.376/.552, and finished second in the AL MVP voting. Ellsbury entered 2012 looking to turn in another solid season, and, at age 28, there was no reason to think he would experience a significant decline. While his power numbers seemed like a fluke, there were some signs that maybe Ellsbury had changed his approach, and that the power would remain.
None of those things happened. A shoulder injury put Ellsbury on the shelf early in the season. Once he returned, he hardly looked like the same player. His .271/.313/.370 slash line was pedestrian, and his power completely disappeared. Given that Ellsbury was one of the top fantasy outfielders coming into the year, his performance makes him a prime candidate for LVP.
Looking back at Ellsbury’s season, it’s tough to think he was ever fully healthy. Ellsbury injured his shoulder in mid-April, and missed three months. After immediately returning, he hit .304/.351/.406 in July in 74 plate appearances. It was a promising start. But things quickly spiraled from there. Over the last two months, Ellsbury hit just .269/.301/.370. That’s a far cry from his career .297/.349/.442 line. Not only did Ellsbury fail to hit for power, but he couldn’t even recapture his old form, when he hit for a high average, posted solid on-base percentages, and used his speed to dominate.
A look at Ellsbury’s plate discipline over the last two seasons doesn’t really tell us why Ellsbury failed to hit for average once he returned.
Ellsbury swung a bit more this season, but also put the ball in play more. Overall, very little about his ability to make contact changed due to the shoulder injury. His approach may have stayed the same, but Ellsbury clearly wasn’t completely over the injury.
Much of Ellsbury’s success in 2011 was due to his ability to pull the ball to right field. In 2011, Ellsbury had a ridiculous .378/.375/.802 slash line when he pulled the ball. While he only put 24.4% of pulled balls in the air, Ellsbury took advantage of Boston’s short right field porch with a 46.3% HR/FB rate. Ellsbury’s performance pulling the ball dipped quite a bit this season, but the lack of power was the big disappointment. After clubbing 25 home runs to right in 2011, Ellsbury only hit three there this year.
There’s a good chance Ellsbury’s loss of power can be attributed to his inability to get around on fastballs. In 2011, Ellsbury clobbered fastballs, producing a 31.4 pitch value against heaters. But in 2012, that number fell to just 1.7. There’s a decent chance Ellsbury’s shoulder injury may have altered his bat speed. At the same time, Ellsbury’s performance against fastballs in 2011 seems to be an outlier compared to the rest of his career. Either he was extremely lucky against the pitch in 2011, or he made a conscious approach to pull the ball more that season. In order to do that, he realized that he needed to get ahead of fastballs. It’s the same formula Jose Bautista has utilized with the Blue Jays.
Problem is, we can’t be sure if 2011 was an outlier, or if Ellsbury can dominate fastballs again. Based on his overall struggles this season, it’s safe to assume the shoulder injury did linger, or at least alter his performance in some way. While his numbers are sure to improve next season, he’ll need to retain his 2011 power surge in order to be a high draft pick. A return to the old Ellsbury would be fine, but it’s not the type of skill set that will single-handedly win fantasy match-ups. Ellsbury may have been the fantasy AL MVP in 2011, but in order to get back in that discussion, he’ll have to return to his pull-happy ways. Anything less than that, and he’ll probably disappoint again next season.