Jacoby Ellsbury: Now With Pinstriping

Well, that kind of came out of left field. I guess, more aptly, center field? Word broke last night the guy ranked 8th in Zach Sanders‘ end-of-season outfielder rankings is headed south on I-95. That’s right, Jacoby Ellsbury is following Johnny Damon‘s footsteps and leaving the Red Sox for the Bronx immediately after winning a World Series.

To figure out what this means for 2014, we need to look back a bit at 2013. There are three areas Ellsbury derived positive value from this year: runs, batting average, and, of course, stolen bases. He did provide net positive value in RBIs and home runs (accounting for positional scarcity), but they were far and away his two least important categories. Runs and RBIs are a function of opportunity, and we know what your lineup does around you (and where you are within your lineup) is the main driver. We won’t focus on those. However, we can break down the other three aspects of Ellsbury’s fantasy game and write a 2013/2014 narrative.

Stolen bases: When everyone was touting Ellsbury as a sleeper coming into 2013, there was stolen base upside built-in. However, few saw the 52 stolen bases and 93% success rate he ended up hitting. He posted an 8.2 Spd, arresting a consistent year-over-year decline that commenced in 2008. Subjectively, he looked fast and decisive once he got on and, while basestealers likely hit their physical peak in the mid-late 20’s (possibly earlier) when it comes to raw speed, his instincts and decision-making may be maturing as he grows older.

How this translates going forward is a matter of opinion. Dave Cameron recently posted work indicating speedy players who fit Ellsbury’s profile tend to age well, producing more value over their mid-30’s years than their non-speedy counterparts. However, Rotographer (aside: do we pronounce this “roto grapher” or like “cartographer?”) Mike Podhorzer looked at guys with high stolen base seasons and their age curves and found their bag swipes going forward drop more sharply than less effective guys on the basepaths. While this makes for an interesting discussion amongst deep dynasty players, Ellsbury is likely a few years away from falling (or not falling) off a hypothetical cliff. It’s probably safe to regress 2013 a bit, but still expect 40+ stolen bases at the top of an aggressive Yankee lineup.

Batting average: Another improvement was Ellsbury’s batting average. I hesitate to call this a leap forward, as his .298 mark was only slightly higher than his career average (.297). His BABIP ramped back up over .320 (where’s it been for every one except two of his 100+ plate appearance seasons). This was supported by a tidy .323 xBABIP. His batted ball mix has remained remarkably consistent, even through his injury-plagued seasons, so it’s not unreasonable to think this is his batting average baseline going forward.

Power: Here, Ellsbury still provided net positive returns among center fielders, but with only nine taters, those returns were rather minimal. He saw his ISO and HR/FB% tick up after a pedestrian 2012. They aren’t large gains, however, and his home runs/fly balls travelled a rather weak 268 feet on average in 2013, right in the same neighborhood as his 263 mark the year prior. Below, I have plotted (hattip to Katron) Ellsbury’s home balls in play (from 2013) onto Yankee Stadium. Home runs have been removed, so we’re only plotting doubles, flyouts, etc.


The above tells us a couple things. One, Yankee Stadium is much shallower in right field than Fenway park. Duh. The new home of the Bronx Bombers is the 2nd easiest park for lefties to leave (114 HR as lefty park factor) while Fenway is 6th hardest (92). Given that Fenway is easier on lefties when it comes to doubles and triples — the old adage of turning extra base hits into home runs might mean something.

However, we see that only seven extra balls were fielded at Fenway are beyond the fences at Yankee Stadium. This likely sets an upper bound on a prediction of an Ellsbury home run improvement in his new digs. I emphasize it’s an upper bound, since what is plotted is the Gameday data where a ball is fielded, not where it lands. Many extra base hits will appear to travel further than they actually did because they get past the outfielder and are grabbed near or on the warning track. Regardless, those hoping Ellsbury will return to the mid-30 homer days of 2011 are going to need to hope for a vast improvement in his skill set. Some homers are going to magically appear, but not 20 of them.

So where are we? Ellsbury broke through (again) in 2013, flashing top-10 outfield value for the first time in four years. He did so primarily with his legs, using his speed to dominate the stolen base category and help drive his BABIP (and batting average) up. The runs came and he chipped in with a few RBIs and homers. There is little to indicate the speed will disappear in 2014 (although it’s probably unfair to expect a repeat) and he should still score plenty of runs atop a Yankee lineup. Assuming reasonable BABIP luck, he should flirt with .300 again. Like the vast majority of lefties, he should see some increased power thanks to the short porch in the Bronx, although given his tepid batted ball distances, expecting him to re-emerge as one of the league’s elite power-hitting outfielders is likely misguided.

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There are few things Colin loves more in life than a pitcher with a single-digit BB%. Find him on Twitter @soxczar.

8 Responses to “Jacoby Ellsbury: Now With Pinstriping”

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  1. Lenard says:

    “He did provide net positive value in runs and home runs (accounting for positional scarcity), but they were far and away his two least important categories.”

    I believe you mean RBI instead of runs there. Otherwise good article!

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  2. Eric F says:

    I’ll plant my prediction at 15 homers this year. I believe he may try to “swing for the fences” a little more now, knowing he has that short porch to play with. Although, considering center fielders generally have to play deeper in the Bronx than at Fenway, he may try to hit more liners for doubles and triples to the right-center gap. It will be interesting to see how his approach at the plate changes.

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  3. redsoxu571 says:

    Let’s assume for a moment that all of those *only* 7 fly balls would have been turned into HRs. That gives Ellsbury 16 HRs…a pretty substantial increase given the other pluses he offers.

    Now, let’s remember that this has little to NOTHING to do with what Ellsbury will do next year…only what he would have done as a Yankee in 2013. It wouldn’t take a “vast” or “magical” improvement for Ellsbury to find a slightly (and slightly is all it would take) better power stroke. If you watched him last year, you’d see that he struggled for much of the year to find his swing, which isn’t surprising given his missed time in 2012. Also consider that the player might make a conscious change to his approach given his new park; Ellsbury surely tried to cut back at least a little on pulled fly balls in Fenway given how RF worked in that park, so perhaps he’ll actually try to take aim at the short porch.

    For a player who has been quite consistent in a number of ways, Ellsbury is still very mysterious when it comes to his HR power. Let’s try not to guess too much as to what he’ll be next year…as any “projection” really is more of a guess than anything else.

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  4. Jon L. says:

    Um, he only found that stolen base totals dropped more for elite base stealers because he looked at number of stolen bases lost. Obviously, Jose Reyes’ stolen base totals have further to decline than Prince Fielder’s.

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  5. jdbolick says:

    For anyone who missed this earlier piece: http://www.fangraphs.com/blogs/on-jacoby-ellsburys-power/

    I think 20 homers in 2014 is a justifiable expectation simply because of how hitters adjust to their environment. Playing 81 games in Fenway was a disincentive to pull the ball, and Ellsbury is a good enough hitter that he can make more of an effort to pull the ball in New York. The column linked above does a good job showing where that 2011 blip came from and why it wasn’t a total fluke.

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  6. Jon says:

    “Ellsbury broke through (again) in 2013, flashing top-10 outfield value for the first time in four years. ”

    Did he not have top-10 OF value in 2011? Actually other than Kemp, I’m having a hard time finding any hitter (at any position) that was more valuable than Ellsbury in 2011.

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    • pft says:

      Ellsbury probably gets the MVP in 2011 if not for the collapse that was no fault of his.

      I am betting on his shoulder recovering now that he is away from those Kevorkian Docs in Boston and hitting 40 HR. LOL, sort of.

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