Monday, November 05, 2012

The Jacoby Ellsbury dilemma

Jacoby Ellsbury is in his walk year with the Boston Red Sox. He is also represented by Scott Boras, a fact that sends shivers down the spine of MLB executives. But in this case, both Boras and the Red Sox are in a bind. And that is because Ellsbury had this incredible out-of-body season in 2011 sandwiched in between two injury-riddled seasons preceded by two very productive, but un-2011-like seasons. Heck, that is a mouthful. But such is the dilemma of Ellsbury and the Boston Red Sox.

Blaine Blontz of MLB Injury News riffed off of a Michael Silverman piece in the Boston Herald and agreed that the Red Sox would be best served by trading Ellsbury now since the Red Sox seem to be in rebuilding mode and have a lot of needs and, because the team is unlikely to sign Ellsbury to an extension with Boras' history of taking his clients to the open market. But there is a real problem with trading Ellsbury right now.

First, teams will be wary from his injury history in two of the last three seasons. Is Ellsbury turning into another Grady Sizemore? The types of injuries Ellsbury has suffered are worrisome too. Last year, a shoulder injury suffered on April 13 shelved him for 71 games and then in late September, Ellsbury was having a problem with his right wrist.

Secondly, at this point, nobody really knows if 2011 was simply an outlier or if Ellsbury can be that kind of player again. So how do you value him? Is he valued like Bourn or like Kemp? A betting man would bet after looking at his career that 2011 was an outlier.

If you look at his entire career--including the minors--2011 was the only season where Ellsbury put together any kind of sustained power. If you look at his home run to fly ball ratio since 2008, the percentages go like this: 2008 (7.0%), 2009 (4.6%), 2010 (0.0%), 2011 (16.7%) and 2012 (4.7%). What number seems out of place there? Exactly.

The other thing that stands out about 2011 is that it was his lowest year for ground ball percentages. For his career, Ellsbury has averaged a 48.1% ground ball rate and a 1.51 ground ball to fly ball ratio. But in 2011, he averaged 43% and a 1.26 ratio in those categories. In other words, the season he had in 2011 has all the signs of an outlier.

Supporting that argument is that most of his other statistics have remained static. Ellsbury has pretty good plate discipline and always ranges in the 24 to 27% range in swinging at pitches outside the strike zone. And his swing and miss rate has always been decent in the 4.7 to 6% range. And yet, his walk percentage has never been great and is at 6.7% for his career. As a lead-off batter, his .346 career on-base percentage is better than the norm but not by much (.324 and .328 in baseball the past two seasons respectively).

And so there is a lot of confusion on how to value Jacoby Ellsbury offensively. Looking at his other skills, he is a fantastic base runner though his base stealing totals have tailed off a bit since 2008 and 2009. His fielding is firmly above average, but the two leading stats sites disagree on how good. Fangraphs rates him much higher defensively than does. But still, he is an excellent center fielder.

After looking at all these numbers, what would any team consider a fair trade value for a one year rental of Ellsbury's services? That would be extremely difficult to pin down. Sure, a team may really covet him and make the Red Sox a sweet offer. But otherwise, the offers for him might be disappointing.

As bad as the Red Sox were in 2012, they have a solid core of decent to good players and if the pitching comes around, could still contend for one of the two wildcard spots in 2013. A Jacoby Ellsbury somewhere in between 2011 and the rest of his career would go a long way to help that cause if he was healthy. The team could then make him a qualifying offer after the 2013 season and at least pick up a draft pick and have the benefit of his production this year at a reasonably inexpensive rate of pay.

Conversely, if the 2013 seasons ends up being nearly as horrid for the Red Sox as 2012 was and Ellsbury plays well, then his trade value might be better waiting until the July 31 deadline. The only risk of course to not trading him now is if he does not play well or gets injured again. Then the Red Sox will not be able to give him away.

Expecting Jacoby Ellsbury to repeat what he did in 2011 is the longest of long shots. But if he can stay on the field, it is not beyond reason to expect him to finish around .770 in OPS with good base running and outfield play. If he shows he can do that, some of the dilemma will resolve itself and the Red Sox can probably do better hanging on to him until the trade deadline--or until the end of the season if they find themselves in contention.

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