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.
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.