Friday, February 13, 2015

Yankees might need even more from Jacoby Ellsbury in 2015

When the New York Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract before the 2014 season, there was immediate speculation about the short and long term ramifications of the deal. Could Ellsbury produce enough early on in the contract to “pay off” the inevitable decline at the end of it?

Ellsbury was arguably the Yankees’ best offensive player in 2014. Unfortunately that is not really saying much as the Yankees’ offense sputtered virtually all season ranking 13th in runs scored in the American League and 20th in all of Major League Baseball with 633. That was down from 650 runs scored in 2013, and 804 in 2012.

Ellsbury was brought to the Bronx to boost those 2013 numbers, and while he put together a solid season, it was through incredible spurts of great and poor stretches, and without much support. When Ellsbury was hitting, he was unstoppable and when he was having trouble at the plate it was painful to watch. It seemed that if he was hot no one else was, and when he slowed down, some players were mired in slumps of their own.

Ellsbury’s final stat line of 2014 looked like this – .271/.328/.419, 111 OPS+, 27 doubles, five triples, 16 HR, 71 R, 70 RBI and 39 SB in 635 plate appearances. That final metric is one that has settled some Yankees’ fans nerves a bit; Ellsbury was able to stay on the field for most of the season, playing in 149 games, his most since 2011 when he missed just three games.

That 2011 season was a magical one for Ellsbury (146 OPS+) but no one expects him to reach those lofty numbers again. It's been believed that Ellsbury’s game is best suited around getting on base and using his speed and base running abilities to score runs. He was "miscast" according to some for much of the 2014 season as the team’s number-three hitter due to injury and performance issues of others on the roster. The Yankees need to make sure Ellsbury hits in a lineup spot that not only suits his abilities but lends to the success of the team considering the shaky makeup of the middle of the Bombers' batting order. More on this in a bit.

Ellsbury also provided the Yankees what looked like fine work in center field in 2014. The importance of this cannot be discounted, but he took a step back according to fielding metrics. Ellsbury rated a (-5) in defensive runs saved (he was +13 in 2013) according to The Fielding Bible, and his UZR/150 was 0.6, down from 12.9 in 2013 while with the Boston Red Sox.

With Brett Gardner in left field, Ellsbury’s life is easier, but he’ll have to be able to cover more ground in right field with a slower and older Carlos Beltran manning it. Defensive metrics are not perfect, so it will be interesting to see if Ellsbury still looks good to the naked eye and how he rates on the statistical side in 2015.

Getting back to the offensive aspect of the game and how 2015 shapes up, it looks as though Ellsbury will not leadoff games, with manager Joe Girardi feeling more comfortable using Gardner at the top of the order. It’s uncertain if it is because Girardi feels Gardner is more comfortable as the leadoff hitter, or if the skipper simply believes Gardner is better suited for the role than Ellsbury. Gardner has been successful leading off – asking the question is not a slight on him – but it’s worth looking into.

Ellsbury might be the better than Gardner to acclimate to any spot in the order, proved somewhat by his ability to hit well in the #3 spot in the order last season. Ellsbury had nearly twice as many plate appearances hitting third than first and the resulting splits are interesting.

1st – 219 PA, 8 HR, .257/.298/.475
3rd – 407 PA, 8 HR, .277/.342/.386

Theoretically, the lines would seemingly be better if reversed. A leadoff hitter with the line that Ellsbury put together hitting third would be very good (particularly looking at on-base percentage) while the thump shown as the leadoff hitter would be superb as the third hitter in the order.

Digging a little deeper, Ellsbury was putrid when leading off the game – .188/.204/.333 in 49 PA – and only slightly better when leading off any inning – .233/.291/.384 in 158 PA. For reference, here are Gardner’s lines in those situations – .284/.365/.558 in 107 PA leading off a game, and .279/.336/.505 in 241 PA as the first hitter of an inning. It’s easier now to see Girardi’s thinking.

So, if Ellsbury is more suited to hitting second, (he only has 92 PA in that spot, though he’s put together an .896 OPS in the small sample) or even back in the third spot, which would potentially eliminate having two left-handed hitters slotted back to back. A question, one we won’t get into here, is which right-handed hitter bats second if the intention is to split the lefties? Maybe another; is there anyone who will perform better than Ellsbury with the profile to hit second?

Staying on the subject of the batting order, players do enjoy some measure of stability. Going into the clubhouse each day and seeing their name in ink in the same spot on a daily basis provides the player with an added measure of confidence. This all assumes the performance is there to warrant maintaining the spot. Ellsbury was not overmatched as the third hitter, and it’s doubtful he would suffer in the number two spot in the order if that is how Girardi decides to go.

The long and short of it is the Yankees surely seem better with Gardner at the top of the order, and Ellsbury had glimpses of thriving when hitting third. Ellsbury could go back and forth between the second and third position in the order depending on the handedness of the pitcher and how the rest of the lineup is performing. While stability is nice, it seems Ellsbury can handle being flexible where Gardner is clearly more comfortable leading off.

Projections for Ellsbury via FanGraphs from Steamer and ZiPS for 2015 are pretty good.

The models' predictions are somewhat similar. It's hard to get a gauge as to whether these projections see Ellsbury leading off or hitting lower in the order, but the stats with rates and averages are most important and they are reflective of his 2014 season. The stolen bases are down – and while on that subject – there is no reason to think he should run less because he might hit third. Speed is useful in this game no matter the spot in the lineup. Notably, both models show an uptick in defensive runs saved.

If Ellsbury can put together a season with an fWAR mark of 3.8 or better, the Yankees would surely be happy with that. But, it should be noted that this is very close to the value line when looking at the average annual value of his contract. Most industry experts on the subject of WAR values seem to believe that the cost of 1.0 WAR is anywhere between $5.5 million and $7 million. Ellsbury, at 3.8 WAR, costs a bit more than $5.75 million per 1.0 WAR; landing in the lower (and better) part of the scale.

As mentioned earlier, Ellsbury was going to need to be much better than WAR value early on in his contract simply because of the length of the deal and the certainty of decline due to age. After turning in a 3.6 fWAR in 2014, he might need a couple of big seasons to return full value on the contract.

Beyond the financial implications of Ellsbury's production, it cannot be understated how much his performance means to the Yankees in the standings. With comeback hopes for Beltran, Mark Teixeira and to some extent Brian McCann at the forefront of the Yankees' offensive wish list, Ellsbury doing his part ahead of them in the order (whether second or third in the lineup) is tantamount to the club's success in 2015.

Ellsbury was very good in 2014, but he might need to be even better in 2015.

Statistics courtesy of Baseball-Reference and FanGraphs.

Photo of Jacoby Ellsbury courtesy of Keith Allison via Flickr.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance baseball writer and sports media strategist. Besides his work here, Christopher is a correspondent for FantasyPros, where he writes a weekly Closer Report column. His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports, the FanSided network, Sportsideo and linked multiple times on MLB Trade Rumors’ Baseball Blogs Weigh In. He is a member of the Internet Baseball Writers Association of America, the Baseball Bloggers Alliance and the BYB Hub.