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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