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Is Jacoby Ellsbury better off as a part-time player?

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Ironically, the extra depth could be to his benefit.

New York Yankees v Tampa Bay Rays Photo by Jim McIsaac/Getty Images

The Yankees are lucky to have an embarrassment of riches in the outfield: Brett Gardner, Aaron Hicks, Aaron Judge, Clint Frazier, or Jacoby Ellsbury would all be starting outfielders on a traditional big league team, so in September at least, the team has the luxury of cycling between these options (barring Hicks for now).

No outfielder is more puzzling than Ellsbury, though, mostly because of his recent surge. It was my understanding, at least a couple of months ago, that Ellsbury was mostly toast. He was still going to be a decent defensive outfielder, but his 86 OPS+ from 2015-2016 lead me and other fans to believe that his best days were past him. Yet, if you look at his 15-game rolling wOBA, you see an interesting story emerge:

Ellsbury is an incredibly cyclical player, as you can see, and this year is no different. He was a total zero into the middle of this year and then got injured, only to reemerge as a really solid hitter/player on this team. The question, of course, is whether this is actually the new Ellsbury, and whether this guy can stick around.

What leads me to believe that that’s true is that, at least on a per-game basis, Ellsbury has actually been really good with the Yankees. By Baseball Reference, on a per-650 plate appearance basis, Ellsbury has been a 3.3 WAR player. That’s not bad, the problem has just been staying on the field. That’s why his average is actually 2.3 WAR and just 127 games a year.

The question of Ellsbury’s contract shouldn’t matter, it’s just a matter of figuring out the best way to utilize him. In my estimation, that’s something in a part-time role. If the Yankees don’t trade Brett Gardner, which is going to be rumored all winter most likely, then Ellsbury probably doesn’t go either—I really doubt someone takes his contract. In that eventuality, the Yankees have five outfielders.

That doesn’t mean Ellsbury never gets hurt, or that he’s immune to fatigue. But if you look at his rolling wOBA, most of these years have something like a midyear decline. With Frazier or Hicks or Gardner stealing a third of your at-bat’s, then there’s a good chance you can remain fresh throughout the year.

If we believe that this current version of Ellsbury is actually “fresh,” then he’s something like a 105-110 wRC+ hitter. Without that edge, he’s something like a 90-95 wRC+ hitter. Another important factor is his defense: according to Baseball Savant’s Outs Above Average metric, Ellsbury sits at one out above average, similar defense to someone like Cameron Maybin.

Who knows what this means, because most of this is dependent on what the Yankees do in the offseason. If they decide that Frazier, Hicks, and Judge is the “future” of the outfield, they may trade one of Gardner or Ellsbury to thin out the depth in favor of another position of need (possibly a starter). If they hold on to both, though, they’re still going to get ample at-bat’s.

Injuries happen, and declines in performance happen. If Ellsbury continues to perform then I guarantee he will get to play, and he will get his chance. If he is anything like his three-win self on a per-game basis while he’s actually on the field, a combination of Ellsbury with another fourth outfielder could actually make an effective combination.

His contract is likely a loss, but that doesn’t mean he can’t be an important contributor: if he’s kept fresh throughout the season, Ellsbury could be an effective option as a 100-game player next year and in the final year of his deal.