Since returning from injury on July 8th to take his usual place atop the Yankee lineup, Jacoby Ellsbury has, shall we say, disappointed. One of the Yankees highest paid players, Ellsbury has hit just .210/.251/.328 for a .253 wOBA and a 55 wRC+ over the past two months - that's approaching Chris Stewart levels. When on, Ellsbury is one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, with a nice bit of power, speed on the basepaths, and some elite defense in centerfield to accompany his offensive gifts. However, he hasn't been on for some time, and if the Yankees hope to keep pace the Blue Jays - especially now that Mark Teixeira is lost for the year - they will need Ellsbury to turn his season around, and fast.
Some signs do point to Ellsbury being a bit unlucky recently, which is probably something most people would guess given his career 106 wRC+. He didn't simply forget how to hit, after all. Data backs up this fact - his BABIP is .235 since July 8th, almost 80 points lower than his .318 lifetime BABIP. While BABIP isn't entirely dependent on luck at all, luck is a part of it, and when looking at Ellsbury's other stats, it becomes clear that bad luck has played some role in his struggles. He has a higher line drive rate over the past two months that he's had for his career, his ground ball rate is down slightly, and his home runs per fly ball rate is up as well.
However, while Ellsbury may be hitting more line drives, he's hitting them softer - his hard-hit rate is down five percent from his career average, and his soft-hit rate has correspondingly jumped. So while he might be hitting more line drives, they're not usually of the mashed variety that become extra base hits. Still, his line drive rates and his precipitous fall in BABIP do suggest that some of Ellsbury's struggles result from him getting unlucky, when he does happen to put the ball in play.
That's where the rub comes in, though - he's not putting the ball in play. We've all heard about players "pressing" at the plate, and it's obviously impossible for us to get inside Ellsbury's head. So it is unfair to speculate about how thinks during his approach. Nonetheless, he is swinging and missing a lot more, particularly way more outside the strike zone (33.2% recently to 27.6% lifetime) as well as more in the zone.
Overall, Ellsbury is just hacking away up there, to the tune of very poor results. This has also contributed in a steep rise in his strikeout rate, as he has struck out 18.6% of the time since July 8. His career number - just 13.5%. The fact that he's been so free-swinging may also contribute to hitting the ball more softly - instead of waiting for a good pitch to drive, he's waving away at whatever he can. Either way, Ellsbury is just striking out, or making weak contact that ends up squarely in a defender's glove, and with him on his way back to the dugout.
Finally, Ellsbury has especially struggled against off-speed pitches since his return. On both change-ups and curveballs, he's swinging and missing far more than he has over his career, and he's also making worse contact on these two pitches (again, he's hitting more ground balls and less line drives than his career averages suggest he should). Some of this could be a result of getting behind in counts a lot more frequently because he swings and misses so much, leaving him at a disadvantage when pitchers throw diving breaking balls out of the zone. He could also simply be looking for fastballs (which he's hitting as well as ever) far too often, which leaves him vulnerable to offspeed offerings. Whatever the case may be, if he's going to make an offensive recovery, he needs to start hitting change-ups and curves much, much better.
Ellsbury is a considerably better hitter than he's shown lately, and obviously the Yankees haven't seen the last of productive Jacoby. Still, it's September. The Yankees are n the midst of the division race and look to be headed to the playoffs. This is the time of year they need their best players to step up and do what they're supposed to do. Ellsbury is one of the Yankees' best all-around players. With a little more patience at the plate, and a little bit of luck, he should be able to show off his skills again. Let's just hope we see it before 2016.