2016 In Review: Jacoby Ellsbury

Preseason expectations

After a poor showing in 2015, expectations were understandably low for Jacoby Ellsbury in 2016. He had just posted the worst batting line of his career (83 wRC+, not counting his injured 2010) and was benched in the Wild Card game. It was difficult not to be down on the Yankees’ $153M center fielder, knowing that 2016 was only the third year of his seven year deal.

In February, I argued that Ellsbury was a much better player than he had shown in 2015. My case was built on Ellsbury’s performance in periods of time when we could assume he was healthy, such as the vast majority of 2014 and the very beginning of 2015. If you recall, Ellsbury started 2015 on a tear, with a 124 wRC+ until he succumbed to an injury in late May. My sentiment was optimistic, sure, but I felt that it wouldn’t be a total surprise to see Ellsbury play well in 2016 because of the flashes he had shown in his first two years in pinstripes.

Alas, ZiPS didn’t share my cautious optimism. It projected Ellsbury for +2.2 WAR, 26 stolen bases, and a .269/.324/.383 batting line (97 OPS+) in 121 games.

What Happened

Statistically, nothing about Ellsbury’s 2016 season jumps off the page. He stayed healthy, playing in 148 games, but my theory that a healthy Ellsbury would result in better output didn’t hold water. On a rate basis, the 33 year-old fell short of ZiPS’ expectations. He hit .263/.330/.373 (88 OPS+) and accumulated +2.0 fWAR/+2.8 rWAR, depending on your preference. He stole only 20 bases as well, down from the past two years and six below his ZiPS forecast.

When I said that none of Ellsbury’s numbers were impressive in the prior paragraph, I meant typical statistics. If obscure records wow you, Ellsbury’s had you covered this season. On July 19th, he reached base via catcher’s interference for the ninth time, setting a single-season record. He’d finish with twelve. If catcher’s interference counted towered on-base percentage, Ellsbury’s would have actually been .350 instead of .330. I can’t pretend that this didn’t fascinate me throughout the season. It was wild to see Ellsbury’s bat connect with the catcher’s mitt time and time again.

Aside from cementing his name in the record books, there was one other memorable highlight from this season: his straight steal of home against the Rays. Although Ellsbury’s reputation as a base-stealing threat has worn off, he wasn’t shy here:

It was his second straight steal of home in his career. The first one? Against the Yankees and Andy Pettitte in 2009.

Looking Ahead

There’s still quite the road ahead for Ellsbury’s tenure in the Bronx: the Yankees are on the hook for a hair under $90M through 2020, a contract the organization surely regrets. Barring anything unforeseen, his 2021 club option will be bought out.

Could they trade him? They could try, but good luck with that. I proposed a trade with the Tigers in exchange for Jordan Zimmerman, in which I concluded that Detroit’s interest would probably end with Ellsbury demanding his 2021 option becoming guaranteed in exchange for waiving his no-trade clasue. I’m still trying to come up with more posts for that series of potential suitors, but uh, it’s pretty hard to come up with any matches.

Pencil Ellsbury in center field and the top of the lineup on opening day. Hopefully, the Yankees get a little more out of the bat, but it’s difficult to imagine that happening after what’s occurred the past two seasons. At some point, it might be prudent to drop him in the order if there is a better option in the one or two spots. This is partially dependent on Brett Gardner‘s future in pinstripes, as he’ll likely be the center of many rumors this offseason. If Gardy stays put, it might make sense to split the duo up rather than hitting them back-to-back. Dropping Ellsbury to 8th or 9th would take him swallowing some pride, but is inevitable given his dwindling offensive capability. The odds of it happening immediately in 2017 are slim, but it might become an option by mid-summer.

Eventually, Ellsbury will need to transition from center to left field. As he enters his mid-thirties, he won’t be the first to make the move. Johnny Damon, Curtis Granderson, and Gardner have all done the same. Slashing Ellsbury’s playing time could become another change, too. It’s unlikely to occur in 2017, but probably will come into consideration in years after with the likes of Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier, and Dustin Fowler climbing the ladder. The odds of all three of those prospects panning out is slim, but it’s something to keep in mind. Regardless of those prospects’ futures, it might not make sense to play Ellsbury regularly by 2018 or 2019.

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