Wednesday, May 21, 2014

Jacoby's Rotten Month Of May

(Courtesy of Getty Images)

It's been the best of times and the worst of times for Jacoby Ellsbury in his first 2 months as a New York Yankee.  In April, he hit .312/.369/.452 in 103 plate appearances divided between the leadoff and #3 lineup spots, played a solid center field, and made a very good first impression on Yankee fans.  He was among the team and American League leaders in hits (29), runs scored (14), and stolen bases (8).

May has been far less kind to Ellsbury.  His production has dropped off dramatically, he's been a negative fWAR player, and the whispers about the Yankees overpaying have started popping up as they usually do when a player signs the kind of contract Jacoby did to come to new York.  After last night's 0-fer, Ellsbury's May slash line is down to .206/.315/.302.  He's scored 1 run in his last 5 games, has 1 hit in his last 7, 1 stolen base in his last 14, and 1 RBI in his last 15.  His season tripleslash is down to .269/.347/.391, good for a .325 wOBA and 102 wRC+.  What the hell happened to cause him to fall off this badly?

Strangely or not so strangely enough, it doesn't appear to be his approach at the plate.  Ellsbury actually has a better BB rate this month (12.2%) than he had in April (8.7%).  He's been very good at taking pitches and fouling balls off to work counts and it doesn't appear that those tactics have changed from April to May.  His K rate is higher this month (20.3% compared to 15.5%), but knock 2 or 3 of those away and he's not far off his career rate.

What has changed for the worse in a big way are his contact splits.  Ellsbury has followed up an April that had him hitting 32.5% line drives with a May that has him hitting about half that at 16.7%.  Those lost LDs are being converted into flyballs, which he's hitting over 41% of the time this month after only a 22.7% FB rate last month, and most of those flyballs are lazy ones that are going for outs.  His GB rate is the only one that hasn't seen a major shift this month, and a look at his BIP distribution suggests the problem could reside with his swing:

Check that out.  Very high volumes of grounders being pulled to the right side and flyballs being hit the other way, but almost no grounders to left or flyballs to right.  That distribution holds against left-handed and right-handed starters and checking the pitch location plots, there's no evidence to suggest that Ellsbury is expanding his strike zone and swinging at a lot of bad pitches.  Based on that BIP breakdown, the poor May BABIP associated with it (.255 after.372 in April), and the even poorer results to show for it, I have to think there's something up with Ellsbury's swing mechanics or timing that's causing this cold streak.

Unfortunately, I haven't watched enough Yankee games this season to break down his swing and compare last month to this month.  This is the explanation that makes sense to me based on all the statistical evidence I've laid out.  If Ellsbury were striking out at a 25-30% clip this month, we'd know something was up with his swing and his timing for sure.  Ellsbury's never been a big strikeout guy though, so a freaky BIP distribution plot like this is the next best thing to support that theory.

The good news is that a turnaround is always 1 at-bat away.  With his plus contact skills and  speed, it should be even easier for Ellsbury to poke a few hits and get things going in the right direction again than it would for someone like Alfonso Soriano.  If the root cause of this downtrend is something mechanical, however, it may take some time for Ellsbury to correct it and get back to where he was in April.  Hopefully he figures it out soon, with or without the help of Kevin Long.  The Yankee outfield needs to step up their production across the board if Beltran is going to be out and Ellsbury needs to lead that charge.

(Stats courtesy of FanGraphs; BIP plot courtesy of TL)

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