Jacoby Ellsbury: The Power and the Pain

 Objectively, Jacoby Ellsbury signing with the New York Yankees isn’t surprising. Shocking? Absolutely. Heck, some grammatically challenged Red Sox fans felt obligated to call Ellsbury a “trader” on twitter. But as sure as the the sun will rise in the east and set in the west, the Yankees will sign premier free agents to massive contracts. Such is the nature of life. But I’m not here to address whether the signing was a some kind of betrayal or fiscally responsible or gluttonous, just how it effects Ellsbury’s fantasy value for next year. Let’s do that.

First, we should establish what Ellsbury was last season: a fantasy monster. He stole 52 bases, scored 92 runs and batted .298. Even though he hit just 9 home runs and drove in 53, at the end of the year he was still a top 10 fantasy performer in standard scoring leagues. If your league requires a centerfielder then he was even more valuable. Regardless of what team he signed with this offseason, he was going to be an early pick next season. Before we get into that, let’s address a couple of questions that come with Ellsbury down I-95 to the Bronx.

The two questions that generally arise are about his power and his health. Will the 30 plus home run power return? Can he be expected to play in 150 games a year? Both are fair questions that don’t have neat and tidy answers. We’ll address the latter first.

Yes, Ellsbury has missed the majority of two of the last four seasons. Generally speaking a player that missed that many games would be rightfully dubbed an injury risk or fragile and wouldn’t get the contract that Jacoby Ellsbury just got. But those injuries were caused by other players temporarily making baseball a contact sport. I don’t think it’s fair to call Ellsbury injury-prone because Adrian Beltre ran into him and Reid Brignac landed on top of him. When large men collide at high speeds their insides will occasionally break and subluxate and dislocate. Don’t blame Ellsbury for his injuries, blame physics.

Then there’s the power. He had it once, but I can’t sit here and project he’ll hit 30 bombs next season. If he does that he’s a top three fantasy player. I do believe his power will increase, and yes, that short right porch in Yankee Stadium is the main reason why. If you look at Ellsbury’s HitTracker home run chart from last season, you’ll see that all nine of his home runs were pulled to right. If you look at Fangraphs’ handy handedness park factor page, you’ll see that in 2013 Yankee Stadium was the second best park for left handed batters to hit home runs, while Fenway Park was sixth from the bottom. If you were looking for the ideal park for Ellsbury to hit home runs, it’s probably Yankee Stadium. We should also factor in that Ellsbury is another year removed from his shoulder injury. While his 2013 performance is a good baseline to work off for our 2014 expectations, the power could reemerge due to better health.

So what should we expect next year? I think a .300 average with 15-20 home runs, 40 stolen bases, 95 runs and 65 RBI is reasonable. I believe Ellsbury will be fantastic in the areas he can control, but his runs and RBI could take a dip because of the lineup he’s in. Yes, he’ll be batting ahead of Mark Teixeira, Derek Jeter and Alfonso Soriano, but it’s not 2005 anymore. The Yankees scored only 650 runs last season, 16th in baseball, and their lineup will be one of the oldest trotted out next season. If Robinson Cano isn’t re-signed, the Yankees may struggle to score, despite adding Ellsbury.

Right now Ellsbury looks like a first round pick in standard 12 team leagues. He might single-handedly win you steals, and if the expected power increase comes, he could be a four category asset that won’t hurt you in the fifth. If you’re worried about his health then you should get better things to worry about. He’s going to be hit for average and steal a ton of bases and some balls that were outs last season will be dingers next season. And the world can always use a few more dingers.

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Jason A. Churchill

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