I’ll be the first to admit that when the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury prior to the 2014 season, I was on the side that argued that this was a good and underrated signing. One of the arguments against Ellsbury was that he was “injury prone,” a moniker he gained after a couple of freak accidents in the field that forced him to miss nearly all of 2010 and 2012.
What has happened since, which proves that the prior argument was essentially true, wasn’t necessarily a given. In an article from Dave Cameron at FanGraphs when Ellsbury was signed, he predicted that he in fact would age rather gracefully, much in the model of speedy outfielders who have had similar careers. He said:
“There are a few busts in there [his data set]... but by and large, these guys held a large chunk of their late 20s value. Offensively, they hardly declined at all. Their defense got worse, but it didn’t become useless. They got slower, but were still better baserunners than most. They played fewer games, but most of them played enough to still be productive. One cannot be intellectually honest while citing Carl Crawford if you’re not also going to simultaneously cite Rickey Henderson, Ichiro Suzuki, and Kenny Lofton.”
It’s ironic because Crawford is a fair comparison, one of the best outfielders in baseball who was released by the Dodgers just last year. We’re now in the position, after three full seasons, to say that this Ellsbury signing was largely a bust, mostly because those prime years are behind him.
But that’s for another—and I’m sure more than one—article. His contract will likely be talked about, along with Robinson Cano, for a long, long time. The Yankees are in the business of winning games with their current squad, past mistakes be damned. And there’s definitely a question, and it needs to be asked: is it even possible for Ellsbury to be a league average ballplayer again?
In 2016, his performance depends on who you’re talking with. By FanGraphs, he was worth 2.0 WAR. By Baseball Prospectus, he was worth -0.4 WARP. And by Baseball Reference, he was worth 2.8 WAR. Such is the life of a defense-first player. I think the keen Yankees fan can deduce that he probably wasn’t that good defensively to be a three-win player, and he definitely wasn’t below replacement level—FanGraphs is probably closest in this case.
The projections for this season aren’t particularly good. By Steamer, he’ll be worth about a win and a half, and about a win by PECOTA. For what it’s worth, PECOTA’s 90th percentile outcome has him at 3.1 WARP and a .782 OPS (imagine that?).
So according to PECOTA, it is theoretically possible for Ellsbury to be average or better, about a 30% chance at that. That also means there’s a better than likely chance he isn’t, and he’s merely what he’s been: oft-injured, increasingly slower, and an anemic bat.
If we’re being real with ourselves, he’s most likely the latter. I love Ellsbury—I think he’s a great talent who brought a lot of good character, defense, and speed to a slower and older Yankees team, but this just isn’t the same player anymore. I would love it if he could be great again, but it’s largely a pipe dream. And if he does do well in 2017, it very well may be a last gasp.