Just a couple of years ago, Jacoby Ellsbury came out of nowhere of have one of the best seasons by a position player in years. He hit .321/.376/.552 (149 wRC+) with 32 home runs while playing center field that impressed both the Gold Glove voters and various fielding metrics. Although Ellsbury had been a first-round draft pick by the Red Sox in 2005 and had been a very good prospect in his minor-league days, it is unlikely many saw 2011 coming. While Ellsbury was amazingly fast — he stole 70 bases in 2009, one of only three players to steal 70 or more in a single season since 2000 — and had good contact skills, he had not shown anything close to that sort of power. In fact, he had never hit double digits in home runs in any major or minor league season prior to 2011.
It would have been unfair to expect Ellsbury to repeat his 2011 performance, but even so, he has been disappointing since then. His 2012 was derailed by an early shoulder injury and he ended up playing only 74 games while hitting just .271/.313/.370 (83 wRC+). Ellsbury is off to an even worse start this year at .242/.307/355 (72 wRC+), and while 212 plate appearances are not many, they are not nothing, at this point, either. The Red Sox are obviously in contention, and are arguably the favorites to win the East at this point. The divisional and playoff races look to be very tight, so contenders have to make every decision count. Figuring out what Ellsbury can offer or if they need to lessen his role is obviously a big decision for them. It is not that Ellsbury has to repeat his 2011 performance — far from it. He does not need to be a superstar for the Red Sox to have a chance. The questions are whether or not Ellsbury is going to keep flat-lining and how long Boston should wait to find out. The Sox are competing even with him hitting horribly now, but that is not something they want to live with if they do not have to do so.
The obvious place to look for influence of small samples on under- or over-performance is BABIP, of course. Ellsbury does have a low BABIP so far this year at .274, especially for fast, left-handed hitter. As Royals fans watching Mike Moustakas this year can tell you, not all low BABIPs are created equally, either, something to which I will return. It is also worth nothing, though, that Ellsbury had a .304 BABIP in 2012, and his line still was poor.
In some ways, Ellsbury might actually better at this plate in 2013 than in 2011. Ellsbury has never walked much, but his walk rate is currently the highest of his career. Ellsbury has always been good at making contact, and his strikeout rate is also the lowest it has been since 2010, and his contact rate is currently at a career high. Low strikeouts and high contact rate correlate pretty closely, as one would expect, and along with walk rate, they gain meaning pretty early relative to other metrics. Plate discipline is not everything, but it is a very big thing, and Ellsbury maintaining and perhaps even improving his approach is a good sign.
Nevertheless, it is clear that not all as well. One of the big culprits is something else that stabilizes pretty quickly: power, or, more specifically in Ellsbury’s case, home run power. Again, I doubt many expected Ellsbury to have another 30 home run season even in the immediate aftermath of 2011. Still, it was a pretty big leap forward for a player in his prime. Just a bit of power combined with Ellsbury’s contact skills could lead to good things, as witnessed in 2011. However, his isolated power the last two seasons has dropped even below his pre-2011 levels (I am excluding his 84 plate appearances from the injury-riddled 2010), to .099 and .093 respectively. In 2012 and 2013, Ellsbury has actually hit doubles and triples on balls in play at a greater rate than he did in his 2007-2009 seasons. The problem has been twofold: a) as mentioned above, he simply has not had as many hits on balls in play the last two years, and b) he is not hitting the ball out of play as much, i.e. home runs.
The home run issue is quite noticeable if one focuses on the differences between 2011 and the last two years. Ellsbury’s rate of home runs on contact has actually lower this year and last than his first two season in the majors, though, so it is not all just an issue of not living up to his monster 2011 season. His home runs per fly ball rate is also way down this year.
The home run issue may connect with the BABIP issue. I hesitate to say much about the impact of injuries, but it might be Ellsbury is still dealing with the aftermath of last year’s shoulder injury. Red Sox manager John Farrell has also mentioned Ellsbury is still working on his timing, and it is not crazy to wonder if the two issues (recovering from a shoulder injury and getting this timing back) are related. If Ellsbury simply is not making good contact as frequently despite more frequent contact, then it would be understandable if his batted balls do not go out of the yard or are more easily fielded than in the past. Ellsbury is currently popping up fly balls at a Moustakas-ian rate. Saying “Ellsbury is not hitting the ball as hard” may be so simple an answer as to be unilluminating, but perhaps given that he has had a shoulder injury in the relatively recent past, not totally uninteresting.
If that is the case, is it good or bad news? I have already gone outside of my comfort zone on injury recovery speculation, so I do not know. The question is what the Red Sox should do. As as been mentioned, the situation is complicated not only by the Red Sox being in contention, but by Ellsbury’s impending free agency. The Red Sox need to put their best team on the field, but the player wants to strut his stuff every day. The team could try and platoon Ellsbury if they have a suitable candidate, but it is not clear that they do.
The issue is not so much Ellsbury’s terrible performance against lefties this year, though. He has been bad overall, and his career platoon split is actually relatively small for a lefty. Ellsbury has made it clear that he likes leading off, although it is not obvious why, with signs pointing to Ellsbury taking off after 2013, the Red Sox need to go out of their way to cater to his desires. It would not make a huge difference, but the Red Sox might want to consider having Shane Victorino lead off against lefties, against whom Victorino is much better.
Hits may start to drop in (go over the wall) for Ellsbury at such a rate that two weeks from now this post and others like it seem like silly, early-season hand wringing. But both Ellsbury and the Red Sox have a lot at stake, and if there is more than just random variance underlying his inability to drive the ball effectively, they will probably want to do something other than just wait him out.