Yankees sign Jacoby Ellsbury: Was it a smart move?

Jim Rogash

The Yankees made a huge commitment to a player often described as a light-hitting, injury-prone outfielder. However, is that a fair assessment, and was it a sound decision to sign him?

Yesterday was a huge day of transactions around Major League Baseball, and the Yankees made the biggest splash of them all by signing former Red Sox center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to seven-year contract worth $153 million. It's one of the biggest free agent deals ever signed for an outfielder, and the high cost alone has been enough to earn some harsh words about it around the Internet and media. The bulk of the criticism seems to stem from a couple major opinions:

  1. Ellsbury is injury-prone.
  2. Ellsbury's best features are based around speed, which doesn't age well.

There are other points being made about Ellsbury's effect on Robinson Cano's contract, the minor leaguers, and whether or not other outfielders would have been better than Ellsbury, but these appear to be the two central points of dispute. (Those will also be addressed in separate articles, anyway.) So should fans really be concerned about his health and possible decline in speed?

Ellsbury = Injury-prone?

Ellsbury has missed 264 games out of the past 648 since the start of the 2010 season due to injuries, earning him the injury-prone tag by many of his critics. People like the Flagrant Fan's William Tasker have legitimate gripes about the overuse of the term "injury-prone" around the game since few injuries are actually chronic like Mickey Mantle's knees. Ellsbury's injuries haven't been chronic, so would it actually be fair to call Ellsbury injury-prone?

Well, the following two freak collisions resulted in approximately 222 of those 264 missed games. On April 11, 2010, Ellsbury was playing left field when he slid to try and catch a foul pop-up and ended up with third baseman Adrian Beltre's knee in his ribs.

Since it was so far from third, that was Ellsbury's ball, and Beltre had to have done a better job getting out of Ellsbury's way. Instead, his knee fractured five of Ellsbury's ribs. Some very crappy misdiagnosis work by the Red Sox team doctors led them to ruling that they weren't going give him an MRI. He was forced to play through the injury, and that only made it worse. Eventually, the team figured out what was wrong, but it was too late to save Ellsbury's season. He only played in 18 games that year, but can he really be blamed for Beltre running into him and Red Sox medical staff doing their best Mets impression?

Collision number two occurred on a stolen base attempt almost exactly two years later on April 13, 2012. Ellsbury slid into second base and his shoulder collided with the knee of Rays shortstop Reid Brignac (of 2013 Yankees "fame").

Anybody can get injured on a stolen base attempt; it's happened to the best of base stealers from time to time. Ellsbury slid normally, and his shoulder happened to find Brignac's knee. He suffered a right shoulder subluxation that put him on the shelf for 79 games, and the lasting effects of the shoulder injury understandably had a negative impact on the power that he surprised by baseball with in 2011. Again, it was a collision, so it seems unfair to blame him much for this injury, too.

Aside from these two collisions, Ellsbury has only missed about 40 games since 2010, 16 of which occurred when he fouled a ball off his foot and fractured it down the stretch last year (again, difficult to avoid). While some of the nicks and bruises do come as a result of his aggressive style of play, which is similar to Brett Gardner, it's not as though he has common injury problems. Two collisions resulted in the lion's share of his games missed. The tag of "injury-prone" on Ellsbury is overstated.

Thanks to SB Nation MLB/Over the Monster scribe Marc Normandin for information of Ellsbury's collisions.

Ellsbury's best features are centered around speed, which doesn't age well

Contrary to popular belief, strong sabermetric voices like Bill James and FanGraphs lead writer Dave Cameron have argued that speed actually ages well. The idea that speed doesn't age well is constructed around the notion that once a player loses his speed, he doesn't have much left. However, here is what James has stated in the past:

As players age, their hitting skills decline and their speed decreases, which creates a kind of pincer movement that ultimately snaps careers. The number one thing that drives players out of the game is the loss of hitting skill, but the number two thing is the loss of speed. As players slow down they become less able to play the key defensive positions -- center, right, shortstop -- and get pushed toward the positions for slower players, which are also the positions for big hitters. THE thing that drives them out of the game is not the loss in hitting ability in absolute terms. There are dozens of 37-year-old first basemen who could still hit enough to play -- if they could play the outfield. When their speed drops below a certain level, they're no longer able to play the outfield at a decent level, no longer able to hit enough to be a cleanup hitter, and they're gone.

Ellsbury has tremendous speed, as evidenced by his high FanGraphs baserunning score last year (11.4) and 241 career steals in just 715 career games. He'd led the AL in stolen bases three times, including a MLB-best 52 last year and a career-high 70 in 2009. He was only caught four times last year, an outstanding 92.9% success rate. Right now, his Speed Score would be around the top of a hypothetical 1-10 scale. He has a long way to fall before he reaches a level that will drive him from the game. Rickey Henderson is not the only person to ever maintain great speed into his later years; both Kenny Lofton and Otis Nixon stole over 20 bases at age 40. By the end of the contract, Ellsbury won't even be as old as Lofton and Nixon were--he'll have just turned 37 during the September of the seventh year. Players like Ellsbury age well.

Cameron wrote about the "Slow Decline of Speedy Outfielders" just a few weeks ago, and that analysis brought forth the following assuring paragraph:

Defense absolutely does peak early and should be expected to decline fairly substantially for any player heading into his 30s. However, history shows that players who are athletic enough to be valuable baserunners and defenders in their twenties are usually good enough athletes to maintain almost all of their offensive value as they get older. For a player like Ellsbury who isn’t just a defensive specialist, that value shouldn’t be expected to decay at the same rate as his defense. He probably won’t continue to be a +10 center fielder, but even if he declines to an average defender in center field, if he maintains a 110 to 115 wRC+, that’s still going to make him a pretty valuable player; there aren’t that many guys in baseball who can play center field and be above average big league hitters.

People didn't talk much about Ellsbury's bat last year, but he did just fine for the Red Sox, hitting .295/.355/.426 with a 113 wRC+. He followed it up by hitting .344/.408/.438 in the playoffs. His excellent defense and baserunning were not the only reasons for his superb 5.9 fWAR and 5.8 rWAR. Even a league average 100 wRC+ would have led to him being at least a four-win player. Those attributes are going to keep him a useful player for awhile. As for the all-too-convenient comparisons to Carl Crawford, Cameron had this to say:

One cannot be intellectually honest while citing Carl Crawford if you’re not also going to simultaneously cite Rickey Henderson, Ichiro Suzuki, and Kenny Lofton. There are examples of every single player type that have signed huge contracts and immediately imploded. If we’re just going to cherry pick recent examples of contracts gone terrible, we could argue that teams shouldn’t sign any player at any position with any skillset. Power hitters who scare opposing pitchers? Meet Albert Pujols. Up the middle guys who can hit like sluggers? Hi there Matt Kemp. Elite aces in the prime of their careers? Johan Santana, come on down.

Carl Crawford’s production is not Jacoby Ellsbury’s fait accompli; it’s one possible path of many. Every player’s future is a probability distribution, bottoming out at completely and utterly useless. Every single player could turn into a total dud tomorrow. And every single player could actually play better in the future than they have in the past. There is no single example that represents the expected outcome for any other player, no matter how similar they might appear to be.

Cameron hits the nail on the head about the Crawford vs. Ellsbury comparisons. Just because one recent example turned out poorly doesn't mean that all subsequent contracts to similar players will turn into a disaster. For a good speed-based contract, one could turn to Shane Victorino. People panned the Red Sox committing three years to an apparently-declining 32-year-old Victorino, and even though his game is mostly based around baserunning and defense (despite what the GIFs might tell you), it looks pretty good through Year One. Cameron's recent article compared Ellsbury to 10 other outfielders over the past 30 years who showed similar skillsets to Ellsbury from ages 27-29, and of the 10, six generated at least 17 fWAR over their ages 30-36 seasons. One of the four who didn't was Andy Van Slyke (13 age 30-36 fWAR), who had a 117 wRC+ from ages 30-36, but never had nearly the speed or defense that Ellsbury does.

So yeah, Crawford could end up like a Craword or an Aaron Rowand, but there's a fine chance that he'll end up like a Lofton or Steve Finley. Even if Ellsbury become Devon White, who generated 17 age 30-36 fWAR based mostly around defense and baserunning due to his 100 wRC+, then it would not be a bad outcome. Don't fall into the "speed doesn't age well" trap.

***

There's no debating that the Yankees are taking a gamble by giving Ellsbury such a large contract. Even Cameron estimates that Ellsbury will probably have to perform around Ichiro or Tim Raines levels reach the approximate 25 fWAR over the next seven years to justify the Yankees guaranteeing him $153 million. Even with Ellsbury's excellent speed and defense, it will likely be an overpay (as almost all free agent contracts are).

However, keep in mind that these are the Yankees, not a small-market team. If they've truly abandoned Plan 189, which the big contracts to Ellsbury and Brian McCann likely indicate, then paying big for talent is not a problem. They paid big for talent in the 2008-09 offseason, and over the next five years, it earned them a World Series title, three division titles, and three ALCS berths. That's not a bad output.

The Yankees had a need in the outfield; there were none under contract past 2014, and the current outfield setup would likely have led to extended time for one of Vernon Wells and the now-awful Ichiro (note that he did not decline until he turned 37 in 2011; Ellsbury won't turn 37 until the end of Year Seven). Acquiring Ellsbury shores up a hole on the roster; not only does he provide speed and defensive value, but just one Yankees regular exceeded his 113 wRC+ in 2013. The Yankees have the financial wherewithal to handle Ellsbury's contract. I will take the free-spending Yankees every day of the week over the ones that were too cheap to re-sign Nick Swisher or find a legitimate catcher in 2013.

I'm not really worried about Ellsbury's speed or injury history. It will be tough for him to be worth his $153 million contract though, and while his defensive tools are impressive, it would be more comforting if those collisions hadn't happened and we had more than two recent full seasons of data to research. The Yankees acquired one of the best position players on the market, my preferred choice of top outfielder (while a better hitter, Shin-Soo Choo is a nightmare on defense), and ensured that Ichiro and Wells will not be in the starting outfield for 2014. This move cannot be the last big one of the off-season, though; the Yankees are going to need reinforcements more than just McCann and Ellsbury to make them favorites to return to the playoffs. Bring back Cano, sign another starting pitcher (preferably Masahiro Tanaka, if possible), and then the Steinbrenners will have a team that is a legitimate threat to make Ellsbury a back-to-back champion. As long as this signing doesn't make the Yankees complacent about their current roster, I would give it a wary-but-optimistic thumbs up.

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