One season can change everything. That was the case for Jacoby Ellsbury and his 2011 season. After cracking a rib in a nasty collision with third baseman Adrian Beltre, Ellsbury missed most of the 2010 season. The Boston Red Sox medical staff did a poor job accessing the depth of the injury and when Ellsbury ended up out for nearly the entire year, the media turned on the multi-talented young player, with some fans and pundits even accusing him of being soft and unable to play through injury.
There was also a question of where Ellsbury would play. Before the 2010 season, the Red Sox acquired free agent center fielder Mike Cameron. The team entered that season with Ellsbury playing left and Cameron in center. While Gm Theo Epstein defended Ellsbury’s defensive ability, it was clear that the Red Sox, like a number of writers and one prominent defensive metric, had doubts about Ellsbury’s glove in center. Despite being one of the fastest players in the game, some people, including Grantland founder, Bill Simmons, questioned Ellsbury routes on fly balls hit his way and criticized his arm and his instincts.
Cameron was a major bust for the Red Sox and was eventually released during the 2011 season. After a season where his toughness and defensive abilities were questioned endlessly from every corner, Jacoby Ellsbury came in to 2011 as the Red Sox starting centerfielder with a lot to prove. All he managed to prove was that he was the brightest star on a offensively stacked team and the premiere center fielder in the American League, if not in the Major Leagues. He finished second in the AL MVP voting behind the Detroit Tigers ace, Justin Verlander and led the game in fWAR, with an astounishing 9.4 wins.
Jacoby Ellsbury raked in 2011, hitting .321/.376/.552 for a wRC+ of 150. In his career, he has hit .301/.354/.452 so the contact and on base skills are not terribly surprising. Ellsbury has blinding speed and a strong lefty line-drive stroke that he combines with an above average eye at the plate.
What separates the 2011 version of Jacoby Ellsbury from the player who Red Sox fans had seen in previous seasons is power. Ellsbury has a career .152 ISO, just a bit below average. However, in 2011 his ISO jumped to .230. So while his batting average on balls (.336) in play was close to his career norm (.325), he was sending a far greater number of balls into the stands then ever before. Ellsbury hit 32 home runs in 660 plate appearance in 2011 after hitting just 20 in his first 1429 plate appearances. Even including his monstrous 2011 season, just 9.5% of fly balls have gone out for Ellsbury, but in 2011 that number leaped up to 16.7%. The most surprising thing about this home run surge is that very few of Ellsbury’s home runs were categorized by hittrackeronline as “lucky” or “just enough,” meaning that Ellsbury wasn’t particularly aided by wind or other conditions on his way to 32 home runs.
That is good news because, aside from the cynical and paranoid questions that now always accompany a surge in home run power, the biggest question is; can he sustain this power? While he may not hit 32 home runs in a season again, there is reason to believe that Ellsbury has adjusted his swing to drive the ball more and will continue to be an above average slugger from now on.
First, and probably most importantly, the rise in power was not accompanied by a major rise in fly balls. For a hitter like Ellsbury, fly balls are not the way to up his power numbers. He doesn’t have the massive frame of a Ryan Howard or Jose Bautista. He needs to drive the ball consistently and that is exactly what he did in 2011. His fly ball rate was 34.1%, above his average of 31.6% but on par with this past two seasons, but his line drive rate was a gaudy 22.9%, up from the previous average of 18.17%. Line drive rates vary from year to year and it is not clear that Ellsbury can sustain such a great rate, but the movement forward here is one good sign.
The other sign that Ellsbury might be able to sustain an increase in his power is in the change in his approach. Ellsbury pulled the ball more than ever before, with 84 hits to the right field area compared to just 48 in 2009 and 56 in 2008. He also swung and missed a bit more. While that is generally a bad thing, it does tend to support the idea that Ellsbury was swinging harder, looking to pull the ball more and as a result, he missed more often. The only significant area where Ellsbury made less contact was in the strike zone, likely because he was taking bigger cuts at balls he could drive. When going out of the zone, Ellsbury was basically the same, swinging at very few balls and connecting with them as often as in the past.
Everything I can see about the change in Ellsbury’s game tells me that this was not a particularly fluky season for the 28 year old star, but part of his progression as a hitter. He is unlikely to completely duplicate his monster stats but the plus power, plus contact and plus batting eye are all a very real part of his game.
For all those who doubted Ellbury’s defense, his 2011 season was a powerful reminder of the first rule of defensive evaluation. When it comes to defensive metrics, a one year sample is not enough to make any judgment on. After 2009, when his single season UZR was -9.6 runs, many people forgot that rule and decided that one season of a bad UZR was enough to dismiss his abilities there. Never mind that all told UZR had seen him as an average defender in center based on a three year sample. Forget that 2009 was his only season of full time work there. When the Red Sox signed Mike Cameron, who had been up to that point one of the greatest defensive outfielders in the game, many people, like Simmons, took this as proof that Ellsbury was the kind of centerfielder who would cost his team around 10 runs a year with his poor routes and bad instincts.
Right now, many of those same people are no doubt looking at this 15.6 UZR from last year and declaring him the best defender in the game. Just as it was a misinterpretation to believe that he would costBoston10 runs a year back in 2010, it is wrong to think he will really save them 15 runs a season because UZR says he did last year. Such is the problem with defensive metrics. So many things influence the year to year numbers. Players have a desperate number of chances and a play that is made 50 % of the time one year might be made 65% of the time the next year. With league average as the base line the talent pool at a position has a major impact. Classification problems also swing the numbers widely. It is always best to look at around 2500 innings worth of play if possible, or at least the largest sample size available.
For Ellsbury, UZR rates him at saving around 6 runs per 150 games in hi 3419 innings at the position and that seems fairly reasonable. Ellsbury has great speed and as becomes more comfortable reading the bat off the ball, that is translating to more outs. His arm is not great and that is the biggest limitation to his defensive abilities. Total Zone andDRSare all pretty much in agreement with UZR in the long view. Ellsbury is a strong defender, capable of saving his team a significant number of runs each year. He is probably not the game’s best defensive centerfielder, but it isn’t far off.
Between his glove and his bat, Ellsbury is as complete a ballplayer as you can find in the game today. He plays a premium defensive position and plays it very well. He is a lock to be near the top of the leader board in stolen bases every year. With his new found power at the plate, he is one of the most imposing hitters in the game, a guy who can beat you deep with his power and also beat out a weakly hit grounder. He can turn a single into a double with his speed on bases and he can just as easily rip a double of the outfielder wall. The Red Sox success in 2012 will depend on Ellsbury continuing to do everything well and there is no reason to think he won’t.