Not too long ago, things were looking dire for Jacoby Ellsbury and the Yankees. Injuries marred his 2015 campaign, as Ellsbury finished the year with a .257/.318/.345 slash line, including a pitiful .220/.266/.326 line in the second half. When Ellsbury got off to a tepid start to 2016, there were (loud) whispers that his contract with New York (a total of seven years and $153 million) was doomed to rank among the worst in MLB.
Now, a couple months into the season, the tune has changed. Combined with Brett Gardner at the top of the order, Ellsbury again looks like one half of a strong table-setting duo at the front of the lineup. Looking closely at Ellsbury’s rebound, what is most striking is how, at age-32, he has reverted back to being the player he has always been.
It is remarkable how closely Ellsbury has managed to mirror his overall norms in 2016. For his career, Ellsbury owns a .288/.344/.425 slash line. This year, he has run a .285/.350/.422 line. After seeing his strikeout rate spike above 17% last year, Ellsbury is striking out in just 13.3% of plate appearances this year, right in line with his career 13.6% rate. His walk rate has also ticked up since 2015, to 8.3%, a bit above his 7.1% career mark.
His performance on batted balls is strikingly in line as well. Ellsbury is hitting .322 on balls in play this year, in step with his .319 overall average, and well above his .301 BABIP from last season. His groundball and fly ball rates, at 49.4% and 30.0% respectively, have not deviated from his career rates of 47.4% and 31.3%. In essence, Ellsbury is putting the ball in play at the same rate and in the same way as ever, and getting extremely similar results when compared to his career as a whole.
One of the few things that seems to have changed this year for Ellsbury is his plate discipline. Ellsbury is swinging at 42.7% of pitches, his lowest figure in six years and well below his 48.1% rate from last season. Most of that is borne out in his 24.7% swing rate at pitches outside the zone, the second lowest such rate of his career and well below his career average of 27.1%. He is also making contact on an outstanding 93.3% of swings at pitches in the zone. So, Ellsbury has essentially cut the number of balls he has swung at, and made contact with nearly every strike he has offered at. Such a trend undoubtedly has helped him bring his strikeout and walk rates back in line after last year’s blip.
Why has Ellsbury reverted so closely to his career averages? The simplest answer might be health. Granted, Ellsbury did miss a handful of games in May with a minor hip ailment. Otherwise, he has been a steady presence in the Yankee lineup, appearing in 58 of the Yankees’ 65 games. Health issues will always be a risk with Ellsbury, but thus far, they haven't been the problem they were last year, when Ellsbury dealt with numerous oblique, hip, and knee issues. It might be an oversimplification to say that last season’s struggles were due to a litany of injuries, and that this year’s success are due to a relatively clean bill of health. It still certainly hasn’t hurt that Ellsbury has had less trouble staying on the field.
This reversion to career norms is clearly great news for New York. In light of Ellsbury’s struggles in 2015, there were concerns that he had quickly entered a steep decline phase. After profiling as a strong, four-win center fielder in 2014, in 2015, Ellsbury appeared closer to replacement level than ever before. The prospect of paying over $20 million a year for half a decade to an outfielder who was already declining in his early 30’s was a grim one.
Now, Ellsbury has looked almost precisely like the player the Yankees paid for. With a $21.1 million annual salary, the Yankees likely were looking for Ellsbury provide around three or four wins during the early years of his contract, to make up for the potential dead money the end of his contract could represent. There is more than half a season left, but according to Baseball Reference’s WAR model, Ellsbury is on pace for 4.2 WAR in 2016. FanGraphs’ value metrics have him on pace for 3.5 WAR. Projection systems like ZiPS and Steamer are unsurprisingly a little less optimistic, projecting him to finish 2016 with about 3.0 WAR.
Either way, an Ellsbury that projects as a well above average player is exactly what the Yankees were expecting to pay for, and exactly what they needed in 2016. With a sputtering offense, the proficient on-base skills of Ellsbury and Gardner at the top of the order have been among the rare bright spots the lineup has produced. Ellsbury is still on the wrong side of 30 and unlikely to sustain this level of play throughout his contract, which in all likelihood will be onerous by its end. But Ellsbury has at least resuscitated the idea that his performance is worth paying a premium for, and he has done it by simply being the player he has always been.