As his fourth year in New York begins, it’s hard to believe that Jacoby Ellsbury is, at best, an afterthought on the Yankees. In 2011, then on the Red Sox, Ellsbury was a near shoo-in for the AL MVP. This, after slugging a career high 32 home runs and hitting .321/376/.522 with 39 stolen bases. That year turned out to be something of an oasis in his Boston career. Most notably, his power far exceeding seasons before or after it. Book-ended by lost 2010 and 2012 seasons—lost to injury—it was a sign of what Ellsbury could be. In 2013, Ellsbury won a second World Series title in Boston, led the league with 52 steals, and hit .298/.355/.426 with nine dingers. He would ultimately turn that into $153 million over seven years.
At the time, the signing was another potential coup. Look, take Ellsbury into the short porch of Yankee stadium and maybe that 30 home run power doesn’t return. But 20, 25? It seemed like a natural fit. Of course, the Yankees already had Brett Gardner. But Ellsbury was a free agent. And at the time, the premier leadoff hitter in the game.
And at first things, seemed to be going OK. While it wasn’t his greatest season, Ellsbury played 149 games in 2014, the third highest total of his career. All told, his first year in New York went alright. Hitting .271/.328/.419 with 16 homers and 39 steals, Ellsbury didn’t become a superstar, but there was no reason to think a second year in his new city wouldn’t treat him better.
Over the next two years, his OPS fell to .685. Entering 2017, the Yankees have a player who hit single-digit home runs each of the past two years. Not to mention, he’s only stolen a combined 41 bases. Or, barely more than his total from 2014 alone.
His 2011 bWAR in his near-MVP season was 8.1. In other words, about what Mike Trout put up in 2016 when he won the MVP. Ellsbury’s bWAR totals over the first three years in pinstripes: 3.3, 1.9, and 2.8. This is barely half—at best—the player the Yankees imagined they were signing. Even in 2013, when Ellsbury earned his contract, his bWAR was 5.7.
Going from the pinnacle of success to a player who is being paid a lot of money to do the job of a player with significantly less talent might put Ellsbury up among the Yankees worst free agent signings. Gary Sheffield—signed in his mid-30s—posted bWARs of 4.2, 4.1 and 0.4 (in just 39 games, however). Curtis Granderson, the same age as Ellsbury (30) when he was traded to New York, posted totals of 4.4, 5.7, 3.0 and 1.2 (again, limited to 60 games). C.C. Sabathia, although he started at age 28 rather than 30, began his Yankees career with 6.2, 4.6, 7.5, and 4.5 before tailing off during the back half of his contract.
Even Brett Gardner, who the Yankees didn’t feel could be the centerfield star that Ellsbury could have been, posted bWARs of 4.0, 3.3 and 3.3 during the same years and ages as Ellsbury.
Robinson Canó, who was allowed to leave for the Seattle Mariners, has been worth 6.4, 3.4 and 7.3 bWAR in the first three years of his deal.
The statement we always hear is that it doesn’t matter if a player falls off later in the contract because of the surplus value that can be generated during the first few seasons. And this is somewhat true: players are paid for past performance rather than for future ability. But Jacoby Ellsbury, now three years into a seven-year pact, has been mediocre compared to his past and disastrous compared to his peak.
Statistics courtesy of Baseball Reference