In December 2013, the New York Yankees decided to let superstar second baseman Robinson Cano walk in free agency. For many, this was a shocking move as the Yankees have made it a habit in recent years of out-pricing and outbidding everyone and their brother when it comes to reeling in free agents with high price tags. But evidently, the Yanks' braintrust didn't feel it was worth it to keep the MVP-caliber second baseman, albeit at a higher price.
Instead, the Yankees decided their big fish of that offseason would be former Boston Red Sox outfielder Jacoby Ellsbury, whom that same braintrust gave a seven-year, $153 million contract to. It was pretty intriguing for the Yankees to do this given the fact that, at the time, Ellsbury was 30 years old and didn't have a knack for staying healthy. Up to that point, he had amassed just three seasons where he played more than 145 games. When you consider that Ellsbury's first appearance in the majors was 2007, that's not the strongest accomplishment to cling to.
Ellsbury's first season in pinstripes was good, not great. He was a four-win player who hit over .270 and had an OPS of over .700. Solid numbers. It might not have been worth the AAV he was given, but it's not like he drastically underperformed either. He played 149 games for the Bombers, the third-highest mark of his career, and did all the right things. He stole 39 bases, hit 16 homers, and played decent defense.
2015, on the other hand, was basically a disaster. Almost entirely across the board, Ellsbury put up some of the worst numbers in his career. He didn't play much either, accumulating only 111 games played, and spent time on the disabled list. What's more is that he had a dreadful second half of the season, struggling after returning from a knee injury. His slash line tells much of the story, as he hit .220/.266/.326, amassing a .593 OPS and a 59 wRC+.
The cherry on top of this sloppy sundae? Ellsbury, the $153 million man, was benched during the Yankees' Wild Card Game vs. the Houston Astros. The move might have been criticized, but it's hard to argue Joe Girardi's decision to sit someone who, up to that point, had a .500 OPS in September/October and a wRC+ of 34 (!).
Through the first week of the 2016 MLB season, Ellsbury has done little to quell the noise and the detractors. He's yet to draw a walk and has struck out a quarter of the time. While it might be unfair to start criticizing someone right out of the gate, and five games into a 162-game season, projections don't favor Ellsbury much either. ZiPS has Ellsbury hitting .269/.324/.383 this season with nine homers, 26 steals, and a wRC+ of just 93. Steamer is around the same, with Ellsbury charted to go .262/.321/.393 with 13 home runs, 25 steals and a wRC+ of 94. Those are hardly the make of somebody who is slated to make roughly $21 million this season.
The other problem is that Ellsbury may very well be in the midst of a decline. He's 32 going on 33, and anything over the age of 30 for any type of athlete is a danger zone. When you take the fact that Ellsbury has never played a full season in his entire career and he's been oft-injured, it makes things even worse. Then, you look at the contract he has, where he's owed almost $106 million through 2021, and you might start panicking.
Then there are the numbers. Let's roll with the punches and take a look at them. We'll start with Ellsbury's year-to-year OBP.
I took the last five seasons in which Ellsbury played at least 100 games because anything else would probably be relatively unfair to judge. From here, we can see that from 2009 to 2013, Ellsbury started high, peaked with an incredible 2011 that could have earned him an MVP award, and then dipped back down in 2013. After that, it's been in a steady decline.
Let's look at something else that Ellsbury has brought to the table in the past: Stolen bases.
This table has a heck of a lot more variance than the other. In 2009, Ellsbury followed a 50-stolen base season with 70. Then it dipped down to 39, went up to 52 in 2013, and back down to 39 in 2014. Last year, Ellsbury's rate diminished and he was only able to amass 21 stolen bases. For what it's worth, he only made 30 attempts in 2015–a career low. In the four previous seasons utilized here, Ellsbury's attempts went: 82, 54, 56, and 44.
If Ellsbury's stolen base attempt rate is going to diminish this dramatically, that value he had as a base stealer vanishes. It's expected that speed drops as you get older. There's only one Rickey Henderson and only one Tim Raines. They are two of the chief outliers when it comes to speed, swiping bags, and aging. Ellsbury's declining stolen base and attempt rates should not come as much of a surprise, as it is the normality.
OBP and stolen bases are not the only thing that has been tracking this way either, as the graph below indicates:
And what's more is that Ellsbury's strikeout rates have done nothing but go up since 2009, which ties back into the dismal mark of 25% through the first week of the season:
But what's also very concerning is his diminishing contact rate. Back in 2009, Ellsbury made contact at a career-high 88.4%, which has fallen significantly in every year since besides 2013.
It should be noted that these contact rates are still quite good when compared to the league average around MLB during this time period. But through the first five games of the season, his contact rate is sitting at an abysmal 78.3% and he's only made contact outside the strike zone 60% of the time. For many years, Ellsbury has lived outside the zone, with outside contact marks hovering around 74-77%. His zone contact rate also has dipped to 83.3%, a sharp decline from the usual 89-94% mark we've come to get used to from him.
When you piece it all together, you get something that looks like this:
Everything mostly follows the same path as many of his offensive rates peak in 2011 and then decline. In the case of his K-rate, it goes up as time goes on, which is concerning when everything else is getting worse.
There's no telling if 2016 is going to shape up differently for Ellsbury after this sluggish first week. The early returns have him started on the wrong foot, but he's still the team's leadoff hitter. Hitting at the top of the lineup will give him and Brett Gardner the most at-bats out of anyone in the lineup. If Ellsbury isn't getting on base, setting the table, and getting the running game going for the Yankees, then what is his value hitting in the leadoff spot? Two of the primary tools he once possessed at the peak of his career were getting on base and stealing bases. If those are gone, what is left?
If he isn't going to contribute like the player he once was, Ellsbury is only minimizing the team's chances to get runs on the board. His skills are clearly diminished and his value has clearly decreased in turn, so his spot as the leadoff man should be forfeited to a player who can get on base at a more effective and efficient rate. The Yankees already faced a similar situation with a declining player at the top of the lineup in Derek Jeter. It was clear he wasn't the same player he once was, but his seniority kept him at the top of the lineup. At least with Ellsbury we've seen Joe Girardi's willingness to pull the highly priced outfielder. Could it happen again in 2016?
The Yankees have options in the outfield now with offseason acquisition Aaron Hicks in the fold. If Hicks' bat gives him a boost and Ellsbury's slumping continues, would Girardi budge again and sit Ellsbury in favor of Hicks? It's an interesting question and there's no concrete answer to it yet. But given the nature of this decline and how much money the Yankees are giving the 32-year-old outfielder, the return on investment has to be put in question, and if they don't feel like they're getting it, then perhaps it would be best to sub him out if those struggles continue.
Given his massive contract, it's clear that the Yankees would never be able to trade him away. Brian Cashman might be an ace trader and a real sweet talker among general managers, but it seems impossible that he'd ever convince another team to take on Ellsbury. It's a hard sell now, and it will only get more difficult with time.
Starlin Castro's start to the season made Yankees fans feel pretty optimistic. However Jacoby Ellsbury hasn't given much of anything to be positive about. It's only been a handful of games, so you never know, but it isn't looking to good right now.