Jacoby Ellsbury has four years left on his seven-year, $153 million contract with the Yankees. He has yet to deliver the performance typically warranting such a deal and time is running out for him to turn the tide. Will 2017 be more of the same, or can Ellsbury channel some of the production he seemingly left in Boston?
How did Ellsbury fare in 2016?
There is no argument that Ellsbury's performance has yet to live up to his contract, but his production in 2016 was the level the Yankees might have expected at the tail end of the deal, not in its third season.
In 2016, Ellsbury hit .263 with a .330 OBP and.374 SLG (88 OPS+, 93 wRC+). He scored 71 runs, collected 24 doubles, five triples, nine home runs, and drove in 56 runs in 626 plate appearances. Ellsbury stole 20 bases in 28 attempts -- the third straight season in which his stolen base total and attempts went down. And his efforts got him removed from the leadoff spot in deference to Brett Gardner during the summer.
In the field, Ellsbury had a decent year according to advanced metrics, recording eight defensive runs saved.
How will Ellsbury fare in 2017?
One of the big questions surrounding the Yankees heading into Spring Training is who will be the leadoff man for the club and if the "loser" of the job will be batting lower in the order instead of second. As I wrote earlier this week, Gardner would be better suited to bat leadoff, mostly because he is more proficient at getting on base than Ellsbury.
Ellsbury, who will play 2017 in his age-33 season, has minimal experience hitting in the lower-third of the lineup, but it could benefit the Yankee to have another "leadoff" batter hitting at the bottom of the order. In my view, having virtually identical hitters with diminishing skills batting one-two in the order is a defeating prospect for the Yankees. The question is whether the Yankees will want a player they are paying over $21 million this season to be bringing up the caboose of the batting order.
Regardless of where Ellsbury hits in the lineup, he will have to continue to improve upon the patience he displayed last season. Additionally, Yankees hitting coach Alan Cockrell recently told MLB.com that Ellsbury is working to change a piece of his hitting approach. Specifically, Cockrell suggests Ellsbury must make an effort to make contact with the ball further in front of the plate. Cockrell believes Ellsbury allowed the ball to get back too far on the plate and it adversely affected the type of contact he made in 2016.
The above is an interesting concept and might explain the problems Ellsbury experienced driving the ball in 2016. Ellsbury has always been above league average as far as contact percentage with pitches inside the zone (92.9 percent career rate). But if he's waiting too long to swing, it produces poor contact and thus more outs. In Ellsbury's instance, his infield fly ball rate soared in 2016 (13.8 percent, up from 10.8 percent in 2015) and his line drive rate dropped for the third straight season (22.8 percent, down from 24.1 percent in 2015).
Finally, regardless of where Ellsbury hits in the lineup, he has to rediscover his aggressiveness on the bases. Ellsbury might not be as fast as he once was, but he has become timid on the bases in recent seasons. The concern is not just as a base-stealer, but also in situations in which extra bases might be an option.
Ellsbury's extra-base taken percentage in 2016 was 32 percent, down for the third straight season. For context, his extra-base taken percentage in 2014 was 49 percent. The Yankees could use a speed threat at the bottom of the order in an effort to generate more runs.
It is easy to beat down Ellsbury for his recent performance and the amount of money he earns in the process, but assuming he is completely washed up might be far-fetched. If Ellsbury is able to adjust the mechanical flaws in his swing, combined with continued improvement with patience at the plate, he might be able to boost his overall offensive performance to a more respectable level in 2017.
It is unlikely Ellsbury will regain the hitting form he possessed in 2011 or live up to his deal. But at this point the Yankees would take average offensive production, some more aggressiveness on the bases, and solid fielding. If he can provide that at the bottom of the batting order, the Yankees could improve upon the club's offensive woes from last season.