Since the announcement of the Yankees’ batting order, we seem to be talking about lineup optimization constantly. Before we move on to the next topic, I wanted to circle back to that conversation for a moment. Matt Provenzano wrote about the strength of the team’s lineup, but I want to discuss one of its weaknesses: Jacoby Ellsbury
Over the span of his 11-year career, Jacoby Ellsbury has mostly batted leadoff, second, and third. However, after three seasons in pinstripes, it became clear that he was no longer the hitter he once was. Conventional baseball wisdom says that the leadoff hitter needs to be able to steal bases and get on base. The problem, of course, was that Ellsbury stopped doing both of those things.
Studies have determined that at a 67% stolen base rate, a player is neither adding nor subtracting value as a base stealer. Anything lower than that is just not worth attempting. Throughout his time with Boston, Ellsbury averaged an 83% stolen base percentage, which is excellent. In the three seasons he has spent with the Yankees, that number has dropped to 78%. It’s still above the zero-value mark, but he’s gotten significantly closer. Even worse is that he’s stealing far less frequently. After averaging .40 stolen base attempts per game with the Red Sox, he is at .24 with the Yankees.
Ellsbury was never a master at getting on base, he just used to do a better job at taking advantage of the times he did get on. He went from a lifetime .350 OBP to only a .326 mark in New York. His lack of optimal production forced the Yankees to make a move and push Ellsbury down in the lineup, but does hitting fifth make sense?
Just as conventional wisdom says that your no. 3 hitter is your best overall hitter and your cleanup hitter is your best power hitter, the fifth spot in the lineup also has a role. Typically, teams like to make the hitter in the no. 5 spot their second best raw power hitter. These guys aren’t typically the ones to hit a league-leading number of homers, but they do represent a solid backup in case your cleanup hitter can’t get the job done in a big spot. Does that really sound like Jacoby Ellsbury in 2017 to you?
He certainly has some power potential, but how likely is that to be converted into reality? In 2011, Ellsbury managed to hit 32 home runs on his way to his only All-Star appearance. People thought that he was finally breaking out at age 27, but he never managed anything nearly as close. Since that season, he has hit exactly 45 home runs in five years. You can’t expect him to offer any kind of power protection in a lineup when he’s only hit double digit home runs in two season.
At this point, you have to wonder if the Yankees pushed him down low enough. According to BaseballMusings.com’s lineup optimization tool, which Matt introduced this weekend, all of the Yankees’ best lineup combinations have Ellsbury batting sixth or lower in the order. Meanwhile, their worst lineups all have him hitting third, fourth, or fifth. Basically, the less chances he gets to hit the better and the furthest he is from the heart of the order the better.
We already know that Jacoby Ellsbury is a bad hitter in 2016, and the Yankees were correct to move him down in the lineup. Unfortunately, they don’t seem to have pushed him down in far enough. Was this some kind of compromise to avoid hurting his feelings? Do they think he will somehow be able to become a power hitter in the middle of the order? In my mind, he should be hitting seventh going forward. Let’s see how many time this hurts the team.