Jacoby Ellsbury is at a strange phase of his Yankees career. He is no longer particularly good, but he's also not particularly bad. He's certainly not close to worth the $68 million he's due over the next three years, but he's not at all worth simply cutting. He could probably still start for many teams, but was often stuck in a fourth outfielder role with a plethora of talent in the New York outfield.
That was what Ellsbury's 2017 was like for the most part: stuck in the middle, occasionally doing things that reminded why the Yankees apparently thought it prudent to give him a seven-year deal in 2013, while also frequently underwhelming. Not exactly what you want from a player making $20 million+ a season, but Ellsbury at least showed he isn't fried yet.
At the plate is where Ellsbury most improved in 2017 over recent years. Sure, there's nothing special about a .750 OPS, but his .264/.348/.402 line equated to a solid 101 wRC+, his highest such figure since 2014. His .348 OBP was his best mark since 2013, and was fueled by a career-best 10% walk rate.
That level of patience was newfound and the main propellant of his decent offensive contributions. Ellsbury had morphed into a fairly aggressive hitter coming into 2017, posting a nearly 47% swing rate over his first three years as a Yankee, above league average. He cut that down to 42.6% in 2017, while offering at just 23% of pitches outside of the zone (per FanGraphs), one of the 30 lowest rates in the league among players with as many plate appearances.
Outside of staying disciplined in the batter's box and drawing more walks, Ellsbury was essentially the same hitter as ever. He struck out much less than the average hitter, and posted just a .138 isolated slugging, only four points higher than his career norms. His groundball rate (45.9%), fly ball rate (31%), and line drive rate (23.1%) were all within half a percentage point of where they were in 2016. His hard-hit rate of 26.1% was right in line with his career average of 25.5%.
For the most part, Ellsbury was Ellsbury at the plate, with a few more walks tossed in. For a player with a career line a tick above average, that turns out to be just fine. He also stayed true to himself on the bases, stealing 22 bases in 25 chances, and ranking about five runs above average on the bases according to FanGraphs baserunning runs.
Defensively, however, most metrics agree that Ellsbury has begun to decline, as is to be expected from a player his age. DRS rated Ellsbury as eight runs above average in 2016, but three runs below average in 2017. UZR rated him as about a run above average in 2016, but about four runs below in 2017.
Moreover, Statcast assigns a catch probability to each batted ball and calculates how many plays an outfielder makes above the amount he’s expected to record. Statcast suggests Ellsbury recorded just one out more than expected in 2017, after recording five more than expected in 2016. However, Statcast also notes that his sprint speed has held at 28 mph from 2015 to 2017, indicating that a drop in top-speed hasn’t led to his defensive decline, suggesting rather that perhaps waning reflexes or worse reads in the outfield could be hurting Ellsbury.
Injuries, of course, played a role in Ellsbury’s 2017. He missed time with an elbow issue and with concussions mid-season. That, along with a clogged outfield depth chart, limited Ellsbury to 409 plate appearances. That was his lowest total since 2012, as Ellsbury somewhat surprisingly averaged 600 plate appearances per season across 2013-2016.
Going forward, it’s hard to see exactly where Ellsbury fits in the Yankees’ plans. Aaron Judge is entrenched in right, Brett Gardner is rock-solid in left, and Aaron Hicks is coming off a career-year. Clint Frazier is highly-talented and requires playing time. Even with his respectable-enough play in 2017, he could soon be the fourth or fifth-best outfielder on the roster, and may require an injury or trade to consistently find the field.