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Breaking down Jacoby Ellsbury’s strong opening series

The sample size is small, but the Yankees would love more of this version of Ellsbury

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Brian Blanco/Getty Images

His contract has been mentioned in the conversation of worst signings in Yankees history. He received a lineup demotion this season, dropping from the top two spots in the order down to fifth, which still seemed generous. Jacoby Ellsbury has yet to put up the kind of numbers that come anywhere close to his paycheck, and he probably never will at this point.

Yet, the opening series in Tampa Bay was awfully kind to Ellsbury, who was playing like he had something to prove.

The 33-year-old had himself a series to start the season, recording five hits in 11 at-bats, including a home run in Wednesday night’s loss in Tampa Bay. Ellsbury reached base in half of his plate appearances, and while it is a very small sample size, his OPS+ of 284 for his first three games was certainly unexpected.

So let’s get down to the real question: is there anything to make of his hot start? Yankees fans have spent three seasons waiting anxiously for the 2011 version of Ellsbury to surface. That is a lost dream at this point, but can we see an improved version of Ellsbury after his frustrating 2016 season?

It’s safe to assume that Ellsbury has lost a step on the basepaths and will not be stealing 30 bases this year. Joe Girardi won’t be looking for that from him in the middle of the order anyway. What would greatly help Ellsbury is the ability to speed up his bat, which paid dividends for him in his first series of the 2017 season.

Looking at Ellsbury’s heatmap for this season, it seems like pitchers are trying to pound him inside. It is often said that the high and tight fastballs are some of the toughest pitches to make solid contact with, especially for a player entering his mid-30s who has been experiencing a steady offensive decline. Again, it’s a small sample size, but it certainly seems like the scouting report on Ellsbury has been to pound him on the inner half of the plate and see if he can catch up to it.

What Tampa Bay pitchers did not expect was that Ellsbury would get around on these inside pitches, and not just put them into play. He belted an inside fastball for his first homer of the season on Wednesday night and also lined a fastball right back up the middle for a single.

Ellsbury has actually done a great job covering both sides of the plate in his first few games, as you can see on his contact percentage heatmap for this season.

Heatmaps from 2016 show that pitchers used a similar strategy last season in terms of heavily using the inside corner on Ellsbury. Looking at his offensive numbers last season, it seemed to work in favor of the pitcher, and would explain the continuation of on the inner half this season. At least for the first three games, Ellsbury seems to have figured it out.

Of course, we cannot ignore a very likely scenario. We are in the infancy of the regular season, where everyone is feeling fresh and has a spring in their step, or in this case, their swing. Ellsbury is possibly capitalizing on early season energy, which would help him get around on those inside fastballs more quickly.

It would be an unbelievably huge boost for the Yanks if Ellsbury can continue this trend and maintain a lively swing. Age and previous experience suggest that he will not, but for now it is nice to see some production out of a mega contract that has been an overwhelming disappointment up to this point.