The risk of Jacoby Ellsbury

 There is no denying that Jacoby Ellsbury is one of the premium talents in this winter’s free agent class. This season Ellsbury posted a .396/.355/.422 line while playing elite defense and stealing 52 bases. He is probably in line to receive the largest payday of any free agent not named Robinson Cano. Unlike Cano however, it is unlikely that Ellsbury will return to his current team.

Excluding Ellsbury, the Boston Red Sox already have three viable options in the outfield in Shane Victorino, Jonny Gomes, and Daniel Nava, not to mention Jackie Bradley Jr., the talented prospect that has long been labeled as Ellsbury’s potential heir in center. They also have expressed varying degrees of interest in Carlos Beltran according to multiple sources, though it’s unlikely they’d consider using him in center.

Also, there appears to be some bad blood between Ellsbury and Boston’s medical staff. Back in 2010, when Ellsbury was sidelined for all but 18 games with a rib injury, Ellsbury engaged in a media war with the team. The usually soft spoken 30-year-old felt that he was not only misdiagnosed, but also lied to during his recovery period.

There are a few things we need to know about Ellsbury before we explore his options. First, Ellsbury is not going to take a hometown discount. Guided by super-agent Scott Boras, Ellsbury should land a monstrous nine-figure deal. CBS Sports’ Jon Heyman prognosticates that Ellsbury will earn $147 million over the course of seven years. Second, Boras also represents Bradley, and it’s unlikely that he would want to pit two of his clients against each other if he can get the best of both worlds for each player. This is not to say that the Red Sox won’t make a run at Ellsbury, but I personally just don’t envision him returning to Boston considering these factors.

The majority of the other clubs in Major League baseball, will be interested in acquiring the former all-star’s services, at least to some extent. Clubs such as Seattle, Philadelphia, Texas and even the Los Angeles Dodgers could be in the market for a centerfielder.

Staying healthy has been a problem for Ellsbury, but when he is on the field he’s very good. In fact, in two of the last three seasons he has been among the most valuable players in baseball. The 30-year-old accumulated a major-league leading fWAR of 9.1 in his 2011 campaign, and despite missing nearly 30 games last season he still was worth 5.8 fWAR, good for No. 7 in the AL.

A huge wild-card in Ellsbury’s game is his power. His 32 homeruns in 2011 were likely an anomaly, as he has never reached double digits in any other season. But I would not be surprised to see him settle between 12-15 home runs annually. He does have a significant impact on just about every aspect of the game, though. A lifetime .297 hitter, he is the perfect catalyst a top of a major league lineup. Ellsbury is also a high-caliber defender, ranking No. 2 among American League outfielders in 2013 — second to teammate Shane Victorino — in the amount of defensive runs he saved, according to Fangraphs’s metric.

Ellsbury’s true calling card, however, is his game-changing speed. He has paced the league in stolen bases three times, including this past year where he swiped 52 bags in just 56 attempts. By BsR, a component of fWAR used to gauge to the value of one’s base running abilities, Ellsbury was the best in the game. But having so much of his value tied into his speed doesn’t necessarily bode well for his future value.

Below is a chart that compares Ellsbury to other players who have accumulated the highest BsR between their age 25 and 29 seasons since 2000. It then contrasts that to their performance in their age 30 through 34 seasons, which is key because it is anticipated that Ellbsury’s contract will be a minimum of five years. The fact that Ellsbury ranks No. 11 is extremely impressive considering he missed nearly two seasons during that span. But Ellsbury will be on the wrong side of 30 next season, and these results show that there is a rapid decline among speedsters after they reach this benchmark. I left out Michael Bourn, Ian Kinsler, Drew Stubbs and Brett Gardner, who respectively ranked No. 2, 5, 9, and 10, because they all have, or are about to turn 30. Therefore, it is hard to draw accurate conclusions about them given their limited sample sizes. I did however choose to include Carl Crawford’s last three seasons because his skill set is the most comparable to Ellsbury’s out of this group, and also because Boras will likely use Crawford’s contract as a model for Ellsbury’s this year.

It is not surprising that these players saw a regression in their base stealing abilities with age, but the overall decline in their productivity is alarming. Between their age 30 and 34 seasons, this crop of players was worth an average of just 2.1 wins above replacement. If you exclude Beltran, who was a far better offensive player than is Ellsbury, or any of the other players on this list for that matter, the average drops to just over 1.7 fWAR. I would be hesitant to give even two-year deal to a player of this value, let alone a deal that could last as many as seven seasons.

While this doesn’t necessarily mean that Ellsbury will suffer the same decline that most of the players in this group did, it should serve as a cautionary tale for general managers looking to sign Ellsbury this offseason. The problem is that burners not only lose their ability to steal bags when their legs slow down, but also that they don’t beat out as many infield hits, leg out singles to doubles, doubles to triples, et al, thus negatively affecting their offensive performance. One word of advice to clubs considering an investment in what Boras is selling — buyer beware.

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Jason A. Churchill

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