For better or for worse, the Yankees' roster will contain Jacoby Ellsbury (barring a trade or serious injury) for the next seven years. Given that, I think it would be best to become familiar with who Ellsbury is and what is to be expected, performance-wise, from him.
Jacoby Ellsbury was born on September 11, 1983 in Madras, Oregon. His baseball skills were apparent as a small child, but baseball was not his only sport. At Madras High School, Ellsbury played baseball, basketball, and football. He was good enough to play college football, but lucky for us baseball fans, he decided that baseball was his favorite sport. Ellsbury was chosen in the 23rd round of the 2002 MLB Draft by the Tampa Bay Devil Rays after hitting over .500 and stealing 65 bases in his senior year of high school, but instead opted to play collegiate baseball at Oregon State University. It didn't take very long at Oregan State for scouts to realize that he was more than a 23rd round pick as he developed. In his junior year, in 244 at bats Ellsbury put up an offensive line of .406/.495/.582 and had 26 stolen bases in just 58 games. In that year he was also a Pac-10 Conference Co-Player of the Year, First Team All-American (Baseball America), and a D1 First Team All-American. It was no surprise that he would be picked in the first round of the 2005 MLB Draft. He was drafted as the 23rd overall pick (the Yankees actually passed on him for their 17th overall pick, C.J. Henry) and was signed with a $1.4 million signing bonus. His scouting report after he appeared in MLB, courtesy of SoxProspects.com, is as follows:
"Elite athlete with a great work ethic. Ellsbury has consistently won awards for his defensive play in center field. He is extremely fast and knows how to run the bases. Demonstrated great on-base ability in the minors, but has struggled maintaining that early in his big-league career. Gap power with the ability to leg singles into doubles and doubles into triples. Not much home-run power and doesn't project to add a lot either. Projects well as a major-league leadoff hitter. Doesn't slump too often because you can't turn off his blazing speed. Lettered and excelled in five sports in high school, including football, where he could have played at a very high collegiate level as a kickoff returner. However, he enjoys baseball the most. Arm strength is below-average."
Ellsbury broke into the Major Leagues in the 2007 season and showed his speed and defensive potential. In just 33 games, he stole nine bases and put up 136 wRC+. To be fair, that is a small sample size and the organization wanted to see if that would project forward. In his first full season in 2008, he tabulated 4.1 fWAR, put up 91 wRC+, and a UZR/150 of 14.3 in CF; 2007 was no fluke. I've decided to tabulate some relevant statistics from 2008 to 2013, which I will unpack:
A few things of note: obviously, as we all know, Ellsbury missed much of 2010 and 2012 due to a couple of freak accidents. Whether these freak accidents have something to do with his durability is something that has been of great debate as of late, but they cannot be ignored. Whether they were freak or not, they happened. I would say that the Yankees have bet that these will have little bearing on his durability going forward; no one plunks down $153 million with that much doubt. The other important piece is 2011, which is considered by some to be a showcase of Ellsbury's prowess, and considered by many to be an outlier. The biggest outlier is that of his home run total, which never exceeded more than nine in a season other than 2011. While including 2011, Ellsbury has averaged 5.29 fWAR per 162 games, which is great. If we remove 2011 from that equation, then he averages 4.08 fWAR per 162 games. And while that is a whole game of a difference, I wouldn't use 2011 to discount his overall performance.
The past is the past. What type of performance should we expect in the future? That is the $153 million question. To get a general idea, it'd be best to consult Nate Silver's eminent study on the aging curve. An important piece that he includes is that of the center fielder:
While a downward sloping curve is obviously not ideal, total derived value is really what is important. The idea that players built on speed decay quickly has again and again been proven fallacious, and this illustrates that the rate of decline for a center fielder is very similar to that of the average player. Nate Silver in this study uses EqR (equivalent runs), which we don't traditionally use anymore, so obviously the better measure is WAR. As Dave Cameron of FanGraphs suggests, this can be translated into a WAR decline of approximately 0.5 WAR per season. Steamer projects Ellsbury to tabulate 3.8 fWAR in 2014. That would mean, following this general model, that in his time with the Yankees he would have years with fWAR's of the following: 3.8, 3.3, 2.8, 2.3, 1.8, 1.3, and 0.8, respectively. That would put his contract total at 16.1 fWAR. One could even argue that this total should be a hair higher given Steamer's ungenerous projection. 16.1 wins would mean that the Yankees are paying $9.5 million per win. And while this is certainly a large overpay, it also isn't. By that I mean that the Yankees' efficiency system works completely different than every other MLB team. A win for the Yankees is not the same as a win for another team, as Ben Lindbergh of Baseball Prospectus so eloquently explains. The revenue lost from having a team without Jacoby Ellsbury exceeds that of the overpay itself.
This whole exercise is for naught, though, if Ellsbury spends an extended period of time (in his first four years) on the disabled list. The success of this deal is solely predicated on the fact that Ellsbury provides his expected performance in the first four years of the deal to ensure that it doesn't become a sunk cost. As I have said before, I think that the Yankees are confident that it does not follow that Ellsbury's injuries prove that he is "injury prone."
The other important factor is that Ellsbury is transferring from one big market region to another. There have been concerns in the past on whether a star player can "handle New York", and we've seen examples of both ends of the spectrum. Ellsbury originates from a market that holds every athlete to an incredibly high standard, and he has helped the Red Sox win two World Series championships. Questions may arise about his future performance and injury proneness, but what cannot be contested is that Jacoby Ellsbury is sure to be a team and clubhouse leader, as well as a player that will represent the New York Yankees organization with respect and professionalism.
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