Jacoby Ellsbury's struggles and batted balls

Elsa

Jacoby Ellsbury has not been the player he was in his MVP-caliber 2011 season for far this year, but his struggles are specific to one part of the field and that might be good news.

Jacoby Ellsbury has gotten off to a rough start this season and the timing of his struggles could not be worse for him or for the Red Sox. Boston is battling for the division title in what is shaping up to be a four-team grudge match for the AL East crown and they need their star center fielder to be a difference-maker in that melee. Ellsbury is also in his final year before free agency and he and agent Scott Boras have their eye on a lucrative multi-year deal. With a batting line of .249/.317/.338, Ellsbury is not helping the Red Sox edge out the Yankees, Orioles and Rays, and he certainly isn’t commanding the giant payday he once imagined.

Matt Collins took a look at Ellsbury’s struggles this season last week and found that the Sox center fielder has been swinging out of the zone more than usual and making more contact when he does. The results of this expanded zone have been a decrease in line drives and fly balls and a sharp increase in infield fly balls. Digging even deeper into the numbers makes the nature of his recent issues even more clear and might just offer some hope.

At the plate, Ellsbury has always been good at using the whole field and that continues to be the case this season. In his career, Ellsbury has pulled the ball to right in 25.4 percent of the time he has put it in play. He has gone the other way 18.3 percent of the time and the rest of the time he has hit up the middle. For a player with excellent speed and middling power, this is exactly what you want to see. This season his batted ball profile remains pretty close to his career norms as far as where the balls are going off his bat. Entering Thursday's contest, Ellsbury was pulling balls 21.9 percent of the time and going the other way 15.4 percent. Given the small sample of balls in play, the variation from his career numbers is not especially significant here.

What is significant is the difference in the results. When hitting the ball up the middle, Ellsbury has a career average of .306 and he has slugged .420. In 2013 his average up the middle is .308 and he is slugging .411. No problem there. Things are not quite as good when he goes to the opposite field. His batting average on these balls is .357, down from a .391 career average and his slugging down to .500 from a career rate of .517. That drop is hardly enough for us to take notice of and with a sample of just 26 balls batted to the opposite field, it is not really significant at all. However, even in a small sample is hard to ignore the incredible drop in production taking place on the balls Ellsbury manages to pull. This season, Ells his hitting .179 on balls hit towards right and slugging just .256. On his career, he has averaged .373 on balls batted in this direction and he has slugged .670.

Fangraph’s player splits’ page for Ellsbury offers some additional details that are helpful in understanding just how the Red Sox center fielder is managing a .414 drop in slugging here. Over the course of his career, Ellsbury has hit pull ground balls 63.9 percent of the time, but that number has jumped to 73.3 percent so far this season. Almost the entire difference in that rate has come at the expense of line drives, which are down to 8.3 percent from a career norm of 16.5 percent. Infield fly balls are certainly an issue for Ellsbury overall, as Matt Collins suggested in his article, but they have become especially problematic on balls hit to the right side. 27.3 percent of fly balls to right have not made it out of the infield. That rate would be a troubling trend if it was extended over a large sample, but with so few balls in play to this point, it is more likely that we will see some positive regression there.

The problem is particularly clear looking at this spray chart from TexasLeaguers.com.

Ellsbury_2013_spray_chart_052213_medium
In the area of the field where we would expect the most power, Ellsbury has hit just a handful of balls further than 300 feet or so. (This chart does not include last night's game against Cleveland).

There is no obvious explanation for this massive departure from his career norm in the numbers. Pitchers are pitching him out of the zone more often but they are not pitching him much differently otherwise, if the incredible PITCHf/x tools at Baseball Prospectus can be believed. He is still seeing them work away from him consistently and focus on staying low in the zone. He is hitting ground balls and pop ups on the same types of pitches that he normally does, just at higher rates.

This might not sound like good news, but it probably is. The season is still young and while the sample size we have now is not irrelevant, it is subject to some very significant fluctuations. If pitchers were pitching Ellsbury differently and getting him out in new ways, that would be a major cause for concern. I am not the person to speak to mechanical issues and it is quite possible that there is something wrong with his swing causing this wave of light contact. From the statistical data we have, however, there appears to be a mix of some bad luck and some pressing at the plate- possibly as the result of that bad luck. I am seeing is a player who is getting worse-than-normal results on batted balls, possibly missing hittable pitches by a few centimeters and then responding by expanding the zone.

With his walk rate and strike out rate currently sitting at career high levels, it certainly seems that his pitch recognition and contact skills are still sharp. His batted ball profile this season is problematic, but it is so far out-of-line with his career norms that some significant regression seems inevitable. Patience is key here, both for Ellsbury and for fans. If such trends continue all season long, I would be extremely skeptical about his future as an everyday player, but at this point, we have to give weight to the larger sample of his career and assume that he is not going to hit below the Mendoza line when pulling the ball.

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