Thursday, October 15, 2015

Is Ellsbury’s contract already an albatross for Yankees?

When the New York Yankees made the reactionary deal to sign Jacoby Ellsbury after being shunned by Robinson Cano, they hoped the center fielder’s up-front performance would compensate for the inevitable downturn at the end of the deal. So far, the Yankees have been completely wrong and the chances for a turnaround seem only slightly plausible.

Jacoby Ellsbury
Photo credit: Keith Allison via Flickr
Baseball clubs make some assumptions on long-term contracts, and Ellsbury’s is no different. A player in his early 30s, coming off an impressive season, and a track record of production would usually infer a happy beginning to the union. Teams are willing to eat the risk at the backend of the deal for what they feel is a safe bet up front.

Ellsbury’s seven-year, $153 million contract per Cot's Baseball Contracts was immediately met with questions because of his proclivity for injury and the deal would take him through his age-36 season. Many could not see Ellsbury, whose game is predicated on running, being at the top of his game in the final two or three years of the contract.

Where does Ellsbury stand on performance value compared with the actual costs of this contract two years into his deal?

FanGraphs calculates a handy performance value for each player (Ellsbury's is here). It’s based on their WAR formula and basically tells us what the player was worth for the season if he was a free agent (so the value fluctuates). Here is Ellsbury’s performance value compared with his salary over the first two seasons with the Yankees.

Ellsbury performed exactly how the Yankees hoped he would in his first season in the Bronx. His performance based on fWAR surpassed his contract value by a substantial margin. What the Yankees did not expect was the significant drain he became in 2015. I’d venture to bet the Yankees didn’t have that projection anywhere in their analysis.

The question now; can Ellsbury bounce back and will his future production prove to be sufficient to get back on the path the Yankees might have calculated when they signed him? We have to make some assumptions based on past performance and what we know about baseball players and their typical decline due to aging alone.

First, Ellsbury has played six seasons in which he’s accumulated at least 500 plate appearances. In those seasons, he has totaled 26.1 fWAR accounting for $189 million in performance value. For our purposes here, simple division shows 1.0 fWAR is worth $7.24 million for Ellsbury (note this value would be different for each player) based on those six seasons.

Next, we need to derive a schedule of performance value for Ellsbury going forward. Is he the player who racked up 4.0 fWAR in 2014 or the one who was worth much less than replacement value at 0.9 fWAR?

If we’re being gracious, we could begin with an average of Ellsbury’s last three seasons in which he totaled 10.5 fWAR; therefore 3.5 fWAR per season. Next, we could suggest that Ellsbury can reach that metric for two straight seasons before an age decline begins in which his projected fWAR decreases by 0.5 each season.

The chart below displays Ellsbury’s contract under the circumstances described.

Reviewing this, Ellsbury comes up short in producing total contract value by over $10 million, and I again believe this was a generous determination.

What if we averaged his two seasons in the Bronx for the 2016 and 2017 estimates and then trickled down by 0.5 fWAR from there?

This projection turns ugly and quick, showing Ellsbury grossly underperforming compared with his salary.

Now, Ellsbury could certainly put up another 5.6 fWAR in 2016, as he did in 2013. He was well on his way to a very good season before suffering an injury which took 43 games away from him. But, Ellsbury’s production early on wasn’t on par with a huge season, and it might not have been at the same level as 2014. Further, he fell off the map upon his return. In my view, the chances seem minimal for a season of 5.0 fWAR or better going forward for Ellsbury.

Ellsbury surely has the ability to produce the scenario initially put forward, but I’d venture to guess it will end up being somewhere between that and the latter estimate. My reasoning is simple, Ellsbury’s body will not be able to handle getting older, and his game is all about his legs, which are among the first things to go for baseball players. He is too streaky, and the cold streaks will begin to outweigh the hot ones as time goes on.

There is a good deal of time left on Ellsbury’s contract, more than enough to make fans forget about 2015. But, the truth is, this contract was going to be hard to live up to even with above-average performances the Yankees figured to receive. At this time, Ellsbury’s contract turning into an albatross is a distinct reality for the Yankees.

Christopher Carelli is a freelance baseball writer. Besides his work here, Christopher is a featured Yankees writer for His baseball commentary has also been published on Yahoo Sports 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.