Probably the most vehemently voiced criticisms since news broke of the Yankees' seven-year, $153 million agreement with Jacoby Ellsbury Tuesday night have been over the outfielder's apparent lack of durability. Despite it being early December, I'm pretty sure I've heard and seen the term "injury prone" on the internet and over the airwaves these past couple of days more often than "holiday sale" or "Christmas tree."
Concern over Ellsbury's health is not entirely without basis. Since 2010, the 30-year-old has averaged just 96 games per season, and he's been on the disabled list five different times. Still, going into free agency this year, Scott Boras was confident that all that missed time wouldn't damage his bargaining position. The super-agent described the mishaps Ellsbury has undergone as "external injuries," meaning they were caused by encounters with outside forces - other players' bodies, baseballs traveling and fantastic speeds - and not by some chronic or degenerative condition within his body. If you believe Boras - and the Yankees evidently did - Ellsbury isn't injury prone at all. He's just the victim of some really bad luck.
The first major injury of Ellsbury's career occurred on April 11th, 2010 when he collided with the Red Sox then third baseman Adrian Beltre while chasing a pop-up in foul territory. Not surprisingly, the 195 lb. Ellsbury came out worse off than the much larger Beltre. He suffered hairline fractures to four of his left ribs and was placed on the fifteen-day DL.
Ellsbury returned to the Red Sox on May 28th, but lingering soreness in his ribs had him back on the sidelines in three days. He wasn't seen at Fenway again until August 4th and was gone ten days later. The Yankees learned a hard lesson in 2013 about what coming back too soon can do to players. Ellsbury seemed to suffer many of the same consequences in his lost age-26 season.
After his phenomenal near-MVP campaign in 2011, Ellsbury was bit by the injury bug again in early 2012. While sliding into second to break up a double play, Tampa Bay shortstop Reid Brignac fell on his shoulder causing a partial dislocation that kept him on the DL for the next three months. Ellsbury returned in July to play in 67 of the Red Sox final 76 games, but without the power that he'd flashed a year prior. He hit only 4 home runs and posted an ISO of .099.
Ellsbury found himself a new kind of misfortune in 2013. Late in August, he fouled a ball off his right foot, causing a compression fracture that cost him sixteen games after he tried to play through the pain unsuccessfully. He came back before the playoffs, ahead of schedule and batted .344/.408/.438 during Boston's sixteen-game run to the World Series.
Just as Boras says, there are no chronic muscle pulls, herniated discs or degenerative hips on Ellsbury's medical sheet, but some would make the case that he's a slow healer. During his absence in 2010, he drew some pointed remarks from Kevin Youkilis and other Red Sox teammates over his decision to rehab in Arizona instead of with the team, and for the deliberate pace of his comeback. The Yankees might recall some similar chatter among their own players while Carl Pavano chilled on Florida beaches for most of his pinstriped tenure. In 2012, Ellsbury was on the shelf for 79 games with that partial dislocation in his shoulder, while Derek Jeter missed just 36 with the same injury back in 2003. Ellsbury did return quickly from his 2013 fractured foot, but he had extra motivation this fall, with Boston nearing the playoffs and with his free agency fast approaching.
Another concern is that Ellsbury's style of play makes him more susceptible to injury. He steals bases - lots of them, which means diving and sliding into second and third, and his speed puts him in position to break up double plays more often, which led to his 2012 DL stint. He makes plenty of leaping catches in the outfield which are great for highlight reels but not so much for a player's health. The Yankees have been without Brett Gardner, who plays mostly the same way, far too often over the past two seasons, thanks mostly to a serious elbow injury sustained while lunging for a ball in 2012.
There's not enough evidence to lose sleep over either of those critiques. In 2010, Ellsbury was stalled by the repeated stop and go of attempting to come back early then aggravating his injury. If he'd been allowed to heal fully he probably would have played more. Comparing him to Jeter is unfair, too, since the captain is essentially a maniac when it comes to getting on the field. The attitude that got him back on the field so fast in 2003 is the same one that led to more false starts than I care to remember in 2013. Meanwhile, while aggressive play can lead to more freak injuries, they're still freak injuries. Plenty of players go all out day after day without breaking or tearing or rupturing anything.
It's impossible to successfully predict or prevent injury, and seven years is a long time, but there's no logical reason to be any more concerned about Ellsbury's ability to stay on the field than anyone else's. Frankly, there's no real cause to assume he won't spend most of his Yankee life perfect health. Luck plays a huge role in sports - and in everything else. Is it too much to hope that Ellsbury's already used up his share of the bad kind?
There are plenty of good points to be made why a $153 million guarantee might have been a bit overzealous for a 30-year-old without much consistent power on his resume, but his past injuries aren't high among them.
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