Where has Jacoby Ellsbury’s power gone?

If you see it, tell it that Daddy is looking for it and would like to speak with it soon.

First off, as a point of order it’s great to have Fire Brand Editor Emeritus Chip Buck back in the fold. I only say that because finally, he was able to live up to the obligations set forth in our initial agreement – of which he will go into later detail upon his next submission. Other than that, I’m sure he’ll enjoy being back and god have mercy on our souls.

So onto other important stuff like Jacoby Ellsbury’s complete power outage…

For starters, let’s just get this out of the way before I type anything else I’ll eventually regret. Ellsbury doesn’t have a ton of power – at least of the HR variety – and we need to stop pretending he does. He sat on an absolutely absurd 16.7 HR/FB% in 2011 that was nearly 8 percentage points above his career average. He’s never going to hit for that kind of power again unless he gets that darn lucky again – which is incredibly unlikely. So no more using that as his power baseline.

However even WITH Ellsbury’s 2011 season neatly placed on a shelf for solemn observance, we’re left with a mostly baffling power outage that seems to present us with more questions than answers. Heck, they might even be random guesses. Long story, short – Jacoby Ellsbury’s power has left this Earth and we haven’t the faintest clue of where it could be.

Could it be his shoulder?

It could be. We did witness what a stingy/not totally healed shoulder did to Adrian Gonzalez’s power here in Boston and continues to do in Los Angeles. Shoulders are tricky beasts in baseball and adverse effects from those kinds of injuries can linger anywhere from a few weeks to years. In some cases, they never go away.

The counter point to that is Ellsbury’s contact % and heat maps aren’t all that different from what they’ve been throughout his career. While a shoulder injury is not out of the question, Ellsbury’s getting to balls at a higher percentage than he normally does, which would suggest that his bat speed is just fine. It just so happens that for whatever reason, he’s not hitting home runs and stretching hits into doubles.

Is impending free agency affecting him mentally?

I usually hate this argument, but there is something to be said for mental distractions because, well… let’s face it. There’s been an abundance of them in Boston over the last few years.

We saw what a mess Carl Crawford turned out to be here as well as how much off the field shenanigans (among other things) affected John Lackey’s ability to focus on pitching. We also just sat through the entire 2012 season which in and of itself was one, gigantic distraction in its own right. Even Shane Victorino – who many had written off after last season – struggled with the idea of being traded and being unsettled during his time with the Dodgers last year – only to seemingly find himself again once landing his deal in Boston. So as we can see – distractions can play a big role in player’s performance.

The problem with that is that there’s nothing in his numbers that suggests that Ellsbury is pressing at the plate or doing any of the things mentally affected players usually do. He’s making better contact, hitting roughly the same pct. of pitches thrown to him in the zone and is swinging only slightly more. He’s even chasing fewer pitches out of the zone and whiffing less.

While it’s not altogether impossible that the mental aspects of the game and his contract situation might be gnawing at his psyche, there’s nothing in his performance that would suggest a dramatic change in approach and/or skill that are symptomatic of players who are pressing at the plate.

Could it be a timing thing?

John Farrell seems to have alluded as much – and truth be told there might be something to that. While Ellsbury’s never torn the cover off of breaking balls, he’s at least been able to hit them at a passable rate. This season, that’s not the case.

While his wFB is still a healthy enough 3.2, he’s in the negative vs. Sliders (-2.3), Cutters (-3.4), Curveballs (-0.1) and changeups (-2.1). Could it be that he’s not picking up on breaking balls or having difficulty reading pitches? Could he be overthinking things? Could it be an inability to adjust his swing after he recognizes breaking balls because of shoulder weakness?

The truth is that you could guess ‘yes’ to all of those and you’d probably have sufficient evidence to at least make a semi-reasonable case. As to the root cause though, there doesn’t appear to be one – at least one we can readily pick up on.

Random guesses?

When dealing with small samples, there is always something out of whack, but every so often they reveal things worth thinking about. Things like:

• His huge Home/Road Splits – Ellsbury’s home and away splits are pretty striking. He’s hitting .206/.267/.309 at home this season, which is well off his career mark of .302/.354/.469. Again, small sample and all but that’s a pretty precipitous drop.

• Emerging platoon splits, maybe?- Ellsbury is carrying a pretty meaty split this year. Against RHP, he’s got a .565 OPS. Vs. LHP, he’s hitting .683. Small sample? Maybe, but he carried roughly the same gap in splits last year, too. (.648 vs. LHP against .701 vs. RHP). Could we be dealing with an emerging platoon issue?

• Maybe he’s just not that good? – Just something to chew on – Ellsbury, while not being terrible at the plate – is hardly an offensive force once you take his 2011 season out of the equation. With 2011 junked, Ellsbury is a career .279/.323/.377 hitter and has averaged only 1.98 bWAR over his seven seasons in the Majors (2011 included). Maybe the real Ellsbury is just a below average player regressing and whose value is being propped up by his very good defense in Center Field. I’m not entirely sold on this – but again – it’s a possibility.

So here we are – after all that – with nothing but questions. My conclusion would be to wait this out. At some point, you’d think things would have to get better. While the results haven’t been there, there’s nothing (yet) that suggests that this is anything more than an anomaly. His plate approach is the same, pitchers haven’t made any dramatic adjustments and there’s nothing about his health history that’s translated into performance indicators. While it’s not exactly the news we might want to hear, perhaps just waiting this out is what the doctor ordered. Sure, that should probably be done with Ellsbury further down in the lineup, but dropping him from the lineup at this point would be jumping the gun.

Categories: Adrian Gonzalez Carl Crawford Jacoby Ellsbury John Farrell John Lackey Shane Victorino

A world-class baseball nerd, baseball fan, and baseball man, Hunter Golden agreed to terms with Fire Brand of the American League in September of 2012 in exchange for an oversized baby bottle, football helmet filled with cottage cheese and naked pictures of Bea Arthur. In January of 2013, he was named Editor. He likes run-on sentences, enjoys over-using hyphens, and smelling books. When it comes to serious stuff, Hunter is a professional writer (no, really), father of two, Husband of one and whose natural habitat is Western Massachusetts and agreeable parts of Connecticut. Follow him at @hunterGbaseball on Twitter or shoot him an email at [email protected]

8 Responses to “Where has Jacoby Ellsbury’s power gone?” Subscribe

  1. Chip Buck May 22, 2013 at 8:19 AM #

    SHHHH!!!! You weren't supposed to tell anyone yet. I was supposed to make a grand entrance! That's it. I'm going to delete my masterpiece of an article, and go back into seclusion J.D. Salinger style. This one is on you Golden. THIS ONE IS ON YOU!

  2. Chip Buck May 22, 2013 at 8:30 AM #

    On a serious note, I was actually looking at this last night on Fangraphs. I think a lot of his issues stem from both timing and swing plane. For instance, if you look at his batted ball profile (admittedly not the most accurate data in the world), you see a huge spike in his GB% between 2011 (43%) and 2013 (51.5%). Essentially, he's back to his pre-2011 levels where his game revolved around using his legs to get on base and then reak havoc around the bases.

    When he is hitting the ball in the air, he's hitting an ungodly number of pop-ups. So far in 2013, his pop up rate is 19.8%, which is up from 10.4% in 2011 and 11.4% for his career. Timing might be an issue, but it seems like he's overcorrecting a bit when he gets a ball he thinks he can drive. Rather than hitting a line drive, he's dropping his swing plane (presumably to avoid a ground ball) and popping it up.

    Just a thought. My hypothesis needs more research, but that's what I came up with on the fly. Good article!

    • Hunter Golden May 22, 2013 at 12:15 PM #

      Yeah timing seems like the likely culprit- he's not reading breaking balls at all – which again – could go a long ways towards explaining why he's topping balls and getting under them. Pitchers aren't approaching him any differently than they usually do, so there's that. But yeah – like you I found it almost impossible to draw any conclusions… the furthest down any of the roads I traveled was the timing issue though…

      • Chip Buck May 22, 2013 at 7:03 PM #

        I wouldn't say that pitchers aren't pitching him any differently. The breakdown of pitches might be similar, but it's possible they're throwing certain pitches in counts where he's more likely to fail. I haven't done the research, but it's something that should be examined.

  3. Rich May 22, 2013 at 1:42 PM #

    While reading the problems that Jacoby is having with the breaking pitches, my immediate thought was that his eyesite could be a problem. If he is not picking up the rotation then he cannot adjust at all to the pitches. You would think that that would be a pretty obvious thing however.

    • Hunter Golden May 22, 2013 at 2:15 PM #

      Yeah that crossed my mind at some point too, but the eye sight thing is almost always something they pick up on quickly.. the Rangers are dealing with it now with Mike Olt and the Red Sox even dealt with it a few years ago with Papi… so who knows.. I think there's something to the breaking ball piece – at least in terms of explaining what's happening, but doesn't get us any closer to WHY… I think that's what makes it all so weird..

  4. Kyle May 23, 2013 at 3:27 PM #

    His only full season where he showed all-star potential was in 2009. At the age of 25, pretty close to most hitters' prime or beginning of it, he only hit 8 homeruns in 624 at-bats. Last season, he showed none of what he had in years before(average, potential extra base power, and didn't look anything like an all-star or once one of the top MVP candidates.)

    I doubt he's a .249 hitter, and see him hitting closer to .300 again; just doubt he'll ever hit 30 homeruns and drive in over 100 runs again. The Red Sox had a much better lineup that season(Pedroia was a beast that season batting behind him.) Victorino, at this stage of his career, isn't a threat.

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