When the Yankees signed Jacoby Ellsbury in late 2013, they charged him with two definitive tasks: track down balls all over center field and pose the kind of multi-faceted threat out of the leadoff spot that can lift the entire lineup. Ellsbury's done the first job alright, if not fantastically - his UZR/150 dipped from 12.9 in 2013 to 0.6 in 2014 and -5.6 in 2015, but it's back up to 9.1 early this year. The second, though? In his work atop the Yankee order he hasn't exactly conjured up images of Earle Combs or Rickey Henderson.
Since the start of 2015, there have been 26 "regular" leadoff hitters around baseball - that is, guys who have picked up at least 300 plate appearances batting first. Out of those, Ellsbury's been the second worst in wRC+ at 83 and in OPS at .664. He leads only Alcides Escobar who for reasons known only to Ned Yost, still bats up top for the Royals. Ellsbury ranks 18th in walk rate at 7.0 percent, 23rd in OBP at .315 and 25th in slugging at .348.
Ellsbury's mostly maintained his ability to steal bases, albeit not at the elite level he reached during his peak years in Boston. Of the 26 leadoff hitters, his 29 steals since 2015 are fifth most, which is despite playing only 111 games last year. He's picked up the pace in 2016 with nine so far and a .750 success rate. That's a positive development where it's not easy to find many, but it's just not enough.
For much of baseball's history, teams have been content to let "because fast!" serve as the sole qualification for leadoff duty. That's how players like Vince Coleman and Tony Womack (his brief stint starting things off for the Yankees in 2005 still makes me shudder) have often been allowed to do it despite being well below average at hitting. For the Yankees, though, that usually hasn't been the case, especially during the more recent tenures of Gene Michael and Brian Cashman.
Sure, speed is good. It doesn't slump and it can get you extra bases when your bats can't and it get in pitchers' heads. But longtime Yankee leadoff men like Chuck Knoblauch, Johnny Damon and even Brett Gardner before Ellsbury bumped him, were as adept at getting on base as they were at stealing them. Derek Jeter is seen as synonymous with the two spot, but he actually hit first nearly as often thanks to his .377 career OBP. Wade Boggs from 1993 through 1997 was the quintessential slow leadoff guy. He only stole four bases as a Yankee, but with a .396 OBP, he certainly did the job.
For Ellsbury, it's those other skills that haven't been what the Yankees had hoped. Since 2014 his OBP marks of .328, .318 and .321 are all well below his career standard of .343. In '14 and '15 he swung at 28.8 and 30.3 percent of pitches outside the strike zone, the second and first highest rates of his career. He has corrected that so far in 2016, getting that number down to 21.2 percent, but he's still struggling with swings and misses, at least by his own standards. His 6.6 percent swinging strike rate this year is his second highest, trailing only last year's 7.4 percent. He's averaging 3.94 pitches seen per at bat, which is middle-of-the-pack.
The Yankees' plan was for Ellsbury to be a given at the top of the order for a long time, but when he returns from his current hip injury, which could still require a DL trip, is he really their best option there? Moving him down would allow Gardner, who since 2014 has been better at getting on base, better at drawing walks, better at seeing pitches and better at getting extra base hits to re-assume the role. It would also let Starlin Castro, arguably the team's best offensive performer so far, to slide up to second and come to the plate more, possibly in more runners-in-scoring-position spots, although he's struggled in those along with everyone else.
For Ellsbury, hitting lower in the order could free him up to do more of what he does best. Hitting seventh, in front of some assemblage of Didi Gregorius, Chase Headley and Ronald Torreyes, he wouldn't need to think about taking the bats out of the better hitters' hands before running. Getting from first to second would mean more there, too, with the bottom-of-the-order guys more apt to hit singles, which would score him from second, but not from first. Gregorius, Headley and Torreyes have seen only 15.9 percent of their hits go for extra bases vs. 35.2 percent for Gardner, Brian McCann, Mark Teixeira, Carlos Beltran and Alex Rodriguez, who Ellsbury hits in front of now.
Dropping Ellsbury makes sense, but it would be seen by some - and by "some" I mean "all" - as an admission of defeat in season three of a seven-year $153 million contract. That's a narrative the Yankees don't want stalking them until 2020, and it is unclear how Ellsbury himself would handle a demotion when he's still a big part of the team's future. He had a good 6-15 start to May in Boston and Baltimore before getting hurt Friday, so it may still be too early to make a move that would draw a lot of negative attention. Still it's a hard case to make right now that Ells-Gard and not Gard-Star is the Yankees' best possible one-two punch.