Before the 2011 season started, many a Red Sox fan had given up on Jacoby Ellsbury. The speedy centerfielder missed most of the 2010 season due to injury. Some fans and members of the media questioned his toughness and his value to the team. Even before the injury, many people, including the Sox front office, were suspicious of his ability to play center. Top glove man Mike Cameron was brought in before the 2010 season to shift Ellsbury to left field, where he excelled with the glove. The curse of the "tweener*" was on the lips of some.
And here we are- August 10, 2011 and Jacoby Ellsbury is considered by some an MVP candidate, second on the team in fWAR (5.8) and first in WPA (3.61). Just last week, he had walk-off hits in two consecutive games. He is currently hitting better than any corner outfielder in the American League (144 wRC+). Perhaps most importantly, he has answered any remaining questions about his ability to play centerfield; with the mega-deal given to Carl Crawford, playing left field is no longer an option for Ellsbury. With Ell's play this season, it doesn’t need to be. Ellsbury has become a good centerfielder this season and he may be a great one soon as well.
* A ‘tweener’ is a player who is not defensively capable of handling center and who can’t hit well enough to be regular player in a corner outfield slot.
Defensive metrics are tricky things. MGL, creator of UZR stresses the need for regression to the mean (zero in UZR’s case) when looking at any sample smaller than three years. Other systems rely less on batted ball data in an attempt to solve this problem, but no number yet exists for defense that has the reliability of wOBA or wRC+. None the less, some took Ellsbury’s 2009 season UZR of -10 runs to heart. He often took poor routes to balls and had to rely on his speed to compensate for that, or so some people believed. His current 2011 UZR of 11 runs isn’t proof that he is a fantastic CF any more than his 2010 numbers were proof that he was terrible.
There is something different about his defense this year, however. Every metric out there likes what he is doing. If you are truly old school, he has a perfect fielding percentage for you. If you don’t trust batted ball data, he has 6 runs above average by the Total Zone system for you. Love that BB data? His 11 UZR or 16 DRS should suit you nicely. Finally, if you are like me and you need serious sample sizes, his career UZR/150 in center is now at 3.3, in spite of his terrible number in ’09.
Of course, you might be the type that watches the games. For you, there are so many incredible moments, that I can only scrape the surface. Watching Ellsbury in center this season has been a joy. As tough as it may be to judge defense in a television broadcast (where you have little sense of positioning to start with), I doubt many people would come away from this season with the impression that Ellsbury struggles to take good routes to the ball.
Two quick examples from this weekend-
In the top of the fourth against Josh Beckett, Nick Swisher crushed a pitch to deep center. It appeared at first that it was an easy home run. Fortunately, the ball was headed to the triangle in straight away center. Ellsbury made the play a few feet in front of the wall at the deepest part of the park, 420’ from center even though the ball was hit hard and on a line. This was exactly the type of play he is supposed to struggle with; anything other than a perfect route to the ball would have resulted in a double or triple. Play made; side retired.
Later in the same game, Mark Teixeira hit a hard line drive off the wall in deep left. Both Ells and Crawford closed in on the ball, but Ellsbury, coming from center had the better angle. He played the ball of the monster perfectly, bare-handing it on a single hop and throwing in one smooth motion, preventing Teixeira from advancing to second on what appeared to be an easy double. The play may have saved a run in the tie game since Robinson Cano single in the next at bat. Here Ellsbury again to a great route and showed his skill at playing the wall, while also making up for his weak arm with a quick throw to the infield.
A few observations do not make for an accurate evaluation. After all, that is why the stats exist in the first place. Where Jacoby Ellsbury is concerned, they are just another bit of evidence to show that he is emerging as a quality defensive player. While his bat may be getting the attention now (and deservedly so), his development in the field is a huge key for the Red Sox now and in the future.