We have just over two more week until pitchers and catchers meet, yet we're still about 2 months away from the official baseball season. Over the next month, we'll take a look at individual players, new and old, and how they project to perform in 2014. For some, age regression and injury will catch up to them, and others, a new ballpark and a better offensive environment will help them achieve career years.
It's been nearly two months, yet I still don't fully understand the Jacoby Ellsbury signing. His defensive and base running values are undeniable, but how many players receive $150+ million for stealing bases and saving runs? Ellsbury is now two years removed from his incredible 2011 season, where he hit 32 home runs, stole 39 bases, and hit .321/.376/.552. Since then, Ellsbury saw 959 plate appearances where he hit just 13 home runs. During that time, he's been barely above average with his bat, owning a .747 OPS and a 104 OPS+. With Shin-Soo Choo also on the market and Brett Gardner under contract for 2014, I thought the clear move was to go after Choo, who has more power and on base skills.
Perhaps they saw more upside in Ellsbury, a left-handed hitter that showed short spurts of dominance in an unlikely atmosphere. Ellsbury has experience playing in a large baseball market, and despite David Ortiz' success, Fenway Park is actually extremely unfriendly to left-handed hitters. Over the last three seasons, StatCorner gave Fenway a rating of 79 in 2011, 80 in 2012, and 75 in 2013 for home runs to left-handed hitters. With 100 being the average rating, Fenway is a poor environment for lefties, while Yankee Stadium has earned ratings of 145, 146, and 116 over that same time. Though it's not Cano-like, Ellsbury's ballpark weighted offensive numbers were a .343 wOBA and a 113 wRC+. This is well above average, and nearly identical to the type of production we saw from Alex Rodriguez in 2013, Mark Teixeira in 2012, or Curtis Granderson in 2012.
Above are the balls put in play by Ellsbury at Fenway in 2013. In Yankee Stadium, 5 more of his hits would have been home runs, and it's perhaps more when you consider the Green Monster in Fenway prevented us from seeing the distance of his hits to left field. If Ellsbury had played in Yankee Stadium in 2013, he would have likely hit home runs in the upper teens. There's little doubt that the short porch in right field will contribute to increase in power for the ex-Red Sox.
Over the last couple of years, Ellsbury has struggled against left-handed pitchers. In 2013, he hit just .246/.323/.318, and in 2012 he hit just .292.318/.330 against southpaws. Hitting coach Kevin Long has a special ability to correct these problems through a net drill, which you can watch here. He's fixed splits for Brett Gardner and Robinson Cano, and I'd expect that he'll try to do the same with Ellsbury.
The biggest question about the center fielder is his power. His 2011 display was something incredible, where he earned 9.1 fWAR and second place on the MVP ballot, but in recent years he's shown very little power. Obviously the points above suggest that his power totals should increase with the Yankees, but injuries could have played into this decline. In 2012, Ellsbury missed half the season after dislocating his shoulder at second base, and many analysts believe that this injury could have sapped the power swing we saw in 2011.
But Dan Farnsworth does a great job analyzing Ellsbury's swing between 2011 and 2013 right here. Farnsworth shows that Ellsbury's stride step lands him on the tip of his toe in early 2013, instead of the heel, which created instability and thus less power. This was a common problem for him in the beginning of the season, and the numbers show that from April 1st to July 3rd, Ellsbury hit just .298/.361/.404 with 1 home run(!). Later in the season, he corrected this problem by getting his heel down on a stabilized stride step like he did in 2011, and the results were 8 home runs and a .298/.346/.458 slash over the remaining 55 games.
Between the new stadium, the new hitting coach, and corrected mechanics, there's a lot to like about Ellsbury's offensive potential in 2014. His proneness to injury still exists, and although you can argue that these are fluke problems, the center fielder has made a career on running hard and taking chances. Collisions at bases and in the outfield are bound to happen, and I wouldn't be surprised to see him miss part of the 2014 season.
Overall, I think we'll see about 20 home runs from Ellsbury, with a slight dip in his batting average and stolen bases. Somewhere around .280/.350/.450 with 35 stolen bases is probably a realistic number. He has upside on top of that, and I am excited to see what he can do offensively with Kevin Long as his hitting coach. With all this said, I fear for injuries, and I'm not so certain he'll reach the 600 plate appearances last season. For $150 million, Ellsbury is a lottery ticket I didn't think the Yankees would take, yet in hindsight, he looks like a good fit for a rebound season with the Bombers.