Last December, fans were stunned when the Yankees signed center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury to a hefty seven-year, $153 million contract. It seemed like a huge overpay for a guy who had injury problems and just one standout season during his seven-year career. Soon afterward though, articles came out detailing Ellsbury's history, alleviating some concerns about his "injury prone" tag and speedy outfielders aging well. One year into a long free agent deal is not enough to declare a contract a success, but over the course of his first season as a Yankee, fans have learned just how talented Ellsbury is, something they might not have noticed during his years in Beantown.
Ellsbury has defied the people who were skeptical of his health by missing just three games all year to date. His health has allowed him to demonstrate his ability to make a lot of things happen on offense. Thus far, his .284/.347/.422 triple slash has produced exactly the same wRC+ as he had last year with the Red Sox, 113. The only regular center fielders around the game to produce a higher wRC+ than him are Andrew McCutchen, Mike Trout, Carlos Gomez, Michael Brantley, Matt Kemp, and Adam Jones. Those aren't bad names to be behind. Ellsbury also does not give away at bats quickly and his 8.6% walk rate is a career-high, even better than it was in his outstanding 2011. His first multi-homer game as a Yankee yesterday gave him 13 for the season, which isn't close to the 32 he had in his career year in 2011, but is still easily the second-highest total of his career. He is on pace to finish the year with 16 or 17, which should not be considered a disappointment. His 25 doubles as of now is a steady number as well that should end up over 30 be season's end.
There's the speed on the bases--Ellsbury has been one of the best basestealers in the league, logging 35 steals in 40 attempts. That's a superb 87.5% stolen base percentage, and only the Astros' Jose Altuve has more stolen bases among American Leaguers this year. Brett Gardner has been arguably a better player than Ellsbury this year, but he could still take a page from Ellsbury's book when it comes to stealing bases. Gardner only has 19 in 23 attempts this year. Ellsbury doesn't wait long at first base like Gardner seems to--if he senses a good opportunity, then he often just goes. Beyond the basestealing, Ellsbury is also a savvy baserunner, posting a 4.2 Baserunning Value according to FanGraphs that trails only seven players in the AL. For comparison's sake, that's a figure that formerly elite baserunner Derek Jeter topped a mere four times in his 20-year career.
Then there's Ellsbury's defense. Let the GIFs tell the story:
Yeah. That's just a few examples of how crazy Ellsbury has been on defense this year. FanGraphs is somewhat nonplussed by his defense, giving him a defensive score of just +1.9, but Baseball Prospectus FRAA (which I've grown to trust more than UZR) has him at +9.0, a figure better than he had last year and one of the top marks in baseball. He covers a ton of ground out there and combined with Gardner gives the Yankees perhaps the best left field/center field defensive combinations they have ever had.
Some people are just never going to be satisfied by Ellsbury's performance given his 2011 season and the hefty contract he signed. To me, it doesn't matter how much they're paying him--as long as he's a productive player, that's all that matters. He's certainly doing more to earn his contract than most of his teammates this year (not to mention Shin-Soo Choo, the other primary outfield target in the off-season, who is now done for the season). He's been a reliable producer all year long, and if the Yankees didn't sign him, I would wince at the thought of where they would be. In part due to Ellsbury's steady play, the Yankees are still alive. Instead of grumpily demanding 2011 or bust, fans should be happy with his consistent campaign.