Earlier this week, the Yankees signed free agent center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract. Ellsbury, 29, played his first six season with the Boston Red Sox and was a key cog in both of Boston’s world series titles. Ellsbury is one of the game’s premiere leader-off hitters and may be the game’s best base stealer. During 2013, Ellsbury stole 52 bases in 56 attempts and boasts three seasons of 50+ stolen bases on his resume. Add in Ellsbury’s career .350 on-base percentage and you’ve got a guy that can set the table at the top of the order. While that seems like a recipe for success, there are some red flags when it comes to Ellsbury.

After looking through his game logs, two questions immediately come to mind.

  1. What is the deal with Ellsbury’s power output?
  2. Why has he missed so many games? 

Ellsbury home run totals have been mostly modest, but he has one outlier season of 32 home runs in 2011 when he finished 2nd in MVP voting. Outside of this season, Ellsbury has not surpassed nine home runs in a single season. Many think the left-handed Ellsbury will take advantage of the short porch in right field, but I’m not so sure. Ellsbury tends to pepper center field and left center field with line drivers. Whether that’s a product of playing at Fenway remains to be seen, but on the surface, Ellsbury is not a big-time pull hitter. I think Ellsbury has 15-20 HR upside, but the Yankees aren’t paying him to be a home run hitter.

In four of his six full-time seasons, Ellsbury has posted at least 600 plate appearances. Ellsbury had only 84 plate appearances in 2010 and 324 plate appearances in 2012. Ellsbury’s injuries were definitely deemed ‘freak injuries’. During 2010, Ellsbury dove and fell on top of Adrian Beltre’s knee as he was attempting to catch a fly ball in foul territory. He broke three ribs. During 2012, Reid Brignac fell on top of Ellsbury as he attempted to steal second base. Brignac landed on Ellsbury’s shoulder was exposed and he missed three months. This isn’t a guy with chronic knee or back issues. If anything, these injuries define Ellsbury’s effort as a young player. 

At face value, the years and salary amounts seem extreme for a lead-off hitter that has only one All-Star appearance. I can counter that notion with two studies. Dave Cameron of Fangraphs posted a study regarding the ‘Slow Decline of Speedy Outfielders‘. The article shows how 41 other speedy outfielders have fared as they’ve aged. Several outfielders (Kenny Lofton, Tim Raines, Rickey Henderson) aged well while others (Carl Crawford), have not. The article is worth a read, but the study suggests speedy outfielders tend to age well over time. Fangraphs projects a WAR around 4.0 for Ellsbury during 2014. Statisticians suggest a decay of 0.5 wins per season, which would net out to approximately 17.5 wins for the life of the contract. The Yankees are paying about $8.7 million per expected win, which is a little high relative to the rest of the free agent. Thus far, teams have been paying about $7.5 million per win. Still, these are the Yankees and they won’t lose sleep over a few bucks. 

I haven’t focused too much on his defense, but Ellsbury is widely regarded as a plus defender in center field. Ellsbury won a Gold Glove in 2011. Outside of 2009, Ellsbury has graded out as an elite defender in terms of Universal Zone Rating (UZR). He doesn’t have a great arm, but he’s a better defender than Gardner. Pairing Gardner with Ellsbury though will give the Yankees one of the best defensive outfields in baseball. 

Many fans are skeptical of this signing and Ellsbury has drawn unfair comparisons to two former AL East outfielders. Some fans are quick lump Ellsbury in the same category as Carl Crawford, who inked a 7-year, $142 million contract with the Red Sox in 2011 and Johnny Damon who left Boston and signed a 4-year, $52 million with the Yankees in 2005. All three players were represented by Scott Boras and all three players rely on speed. Crawford, who forgot how to hit against lefties flamed out in Boston, was traded in a megadeal to the Los Angeles Dodgers. Before joining the Red Sox, Crawford was a 5-tool stud for the Tampa Bay Rays. Crawford was a horrible defensive fit for Fenway Park and his strengths did not coincide with manager Bobby Valentine’s philosophy. Crawford stopped running and was sent packing to Hollywood. Outside of leaving Boston after winning a World Series title, Ellsbury and Damon have nothing in common. Damon’s defense (and arm) was drastically declining and his base stealing days were long behind him. Damon was also 32-years-old when he joined the Bombers. Free agency is all about money and as we’ve seen first hand, losing a home grown star is rough. Yankee fans are trying to shake off Robinson Cano’s departure and as much as they don’t want to admit it, Red Sox fans must be upset over Ellsbury departure. 

Overall, it’s understandable for fans to skeptical of this deal. The Yankees typically target sluggers and this is a long-term commitment for a speed guy. To me, this type of deal reaks of Brian Cashman. Cashman knows what’s it like not to get any value out of the backend of mega deals. With the Ellsbury signing, this contract will take him until he’s 37-years-old. Cashman is betting he’ll still provide value with his legs and bat, even if he begins to age.