2016 Statistics: 148 G, .263/.330/.374, 88 OPS+, 2.8 rWAR
2017 Roster Status: Guaranteed $89.4 million through 2020
An important thing to know when evaluating Jacoby Ellsbury is that his contract is a sunk cost. It’s one of the first things that comes up when talking about him, so it’s obviously the most tempting to mention, but it truly doesn’t matter. That money is gone, the contract is signed, and he isn’t going anywhere.
That is why assessing report card grades are so difficult; do we assign grades based on performance relative to contract or expectations, or do we judge it on some objective measure of performance irrespective of role? I tend towards the latter.
On an objective basis, Ellsbury had a good-but-not-great season. Offensively, which is the easiest to quantify, he played poorly. He had a measly .308 wOBA, which is eight points below the league average for center fielders. He stole just 20 bases, down from 39 in his first year in pinstripes. He hit just nine home runs and 29 extra-base hits, putting him well below the average isolated power for center fielders. He cut down on strikeouts and he walked more, but he just didn’t get enough hard contact. The one thing he was great at: catcher’s interference, and he holds the single-season record at 11.
Defensively, it depends on your mind’s eye. By the eye test, it’s fair to say that Ellsbury is a decent defensive center fielder. He isn’t the play maker he was while he was in Boston, but I definitely feel comfortable with him out there. Here’s how I would parse his defense, statistically: by Inside Edge fielding data, Ellsbury had 328 defensive plays. Of those, only 25 fell in a range of probability between 10% and 90% likelihood, meaning that about 92% of plays were either impossible or routine (he missed just one routine play). Of those 25, he made 13.
That means that whatever statistic you use—UZR, TZ, DRS, FRAA—to evaluate his defense is essentially based on those 25 plays, and the 12 he missed. That’s an incredibly small sample, so it’s essentially unreliable. He’s certainly not the -14.5 defender FRAA says he is, nor is he likely a 1.2 dWAR player, either. FanGraphs in my mind—and this is probably by coincidence—is the closest at 2.6 runs above average, but that’s just an estimate.
No matter how you look at it, Ellsbury did not have a great year. I think it’s possible to squint and see the defense in a positive light, but I generally see him as a two-win player this year, and moving forward to 2017. The contract doesn’t matter—it’s too late for him to be a star—but he is still on this team until 2020. Let’s just hope he can be somewhat average for the rest of that time.