Predicting Ellsbury: The Trends vs The Projections

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On June 14th, Dustin Pedroia had dropped his line to .260/.311/.365. Prompting this entry. Since that post, Pedroia has gone 29 for his last 57, good for a .509 average. Over the same span, he also has six doubles, three dingers – even two steals. Better, he’s struck out once against three walks.

So it’s no surprise that I’ve been asked to write up my Navajo brother in similar fashion, as he “slumped” in June bringing his average down to its lowest point since March.

Let’s see, then, if by taking a similar look, we can help Ells return to his early ’08 form. Or, best case, his late season ’07 form.

First, the baseline: going into today’s game, Ellsbury’s line stands at .272/.348/.391. According to the occasionally flaky ESPN Player Stats function, those numbers rank him 11th, 8th, and 12th amongst all MLB center fielders. His rank in OPS tied for 10th with Nick Swisher, trailing the following nine players:

  1. Josh Hamilton .924
  2. Grady Sizemore .890
  3. Nate McLouth .889
  4. Carlos Beltran .858
  5. David DeJesus .855
  6. Rick Ankiel .835
  7. Aaron Rowand .819
  8. B.J. Upton .814
  9. Torii Hunter .785

While there are a few surprise names on that list, like Nate McLouth or David DeJesus, I find little to complain about with his placement, considering that he’s had a grand total of 127 plate appearances coming into this year.

So what’s the problem? The trending. Average is headed down, from .282 in April, to .281 in May, to .259 in June. The OBP is falling, .402 to .375 to .273, as is the SLG, .451 to .396 to .329. With the barometric readings of the center fielders performance reading “storm coming,” it’s useful to ask whether this is one of the inevitable squalls young players go through, or a longer protracted seasonal change.

To which I’ll predictably answer, I don’t know.

But as with Pedroia, I’m cautiously optimistic. For many of the same reasons, in fact.

His college and minor league track records, for one, indicate little other than that Ellsbury can play. The prevailing question among evaluators, in fact, hasn’t been whether he’ll hit, but rather for how much power. That subject, you might remember, has been debated previously in these very pages, in which I sided with Neyer over Theo, who said the following:

He will eventually have more power than people give him credit for. It’s really a matter of him taking his BP swing into the game, because if you watch his BP, he has incredible natural backspin that he generates. He’s stronger now, and his ball really carries. But even from the day we signed him, he was able to go deep into the bullpens in Fenway in batting practice.

The power question notwithstanding, it’s important to emphasize the point of the discussion, which is not whether Ellsbury will hit or have value, but rather how much. Even those that might be perceived as critics acknowledge that he’s likely to be a very useful player. Witness Aaron Gleeman, who said:

If things go well for Ellsbury, he looks capable of hitting around .300/.370/.425 on a regular basis. Toss in good defense with 50-steal speed and that’s an extremely good player. In fact, it’s essentially Kenny Lofton. Like Ellsbury, Lofton is a slight, incredibly fast, lefty-hitting center fielder who was drafted out of a Pac-10 college and made his big-league debut as a 24-year-old. Despite showing even less power than Ellsbury in the minors, Lofton has hit .299/.372/.423 with 622 steals during his 17-year career.

Everybody loves Ells, in other words. Including, as it turns out, the math guys. Again as with Pedroia, most projection systems saw good things in ’08 from the favorite of young ladies everywhere. The anticipated lines:

  • Baseball Prospectus: .288/.348/.397
  • Bill James: .329/.383/.460
  • CHONE: .299/.353/.418
  • Marcel: .308/.365/.473
  • ZiPS: .297/.349/.392

Average out the math guys’ projections, then, and what do you get? .304/.360/.428. A line which I, for one, would be more than content with.

And then there’s his speed. The most steals any of the projection systems anticipated was 43, from ZiPS. With 34 at the moment, he seems a lock to best that: as Chad Finn notes, that puts him on pace for 68. That being his half season total, don’t ya know.

The question, then, is why the decline? Is it the exploitation of specific holes in his swing? Or merely the sign of a pending adjustment?

From the projections and the minor league history, my money’s on the latter. And even if it’s not, I might take his combination of defense – Beane called it the best in the majors – and speed anyway.

Either way, let’s cut the kid some slack: of his 261 AB’s, 244 have come in the leadoff spot. Which tells me two things: one, he’s under a bit more pressure than he would be if they, say, batted him eighth or ninth as they were forced to do with Crisp. And second, that Tito and company – the ones in a position to know – think he can handle that pressure.

Given that, let’s wait and see what transpires.

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3 thoughts on “Predicting Ellsbury: The Trends vs The Projections

  1. Thank you. Can I now request a moratorium on the "my navajo brother" talk? … unless you want to do a post on your family trees ;-)

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