Jacoby Ellsbury’s Slump

Jacoby Ellsbury is scuffling, but he’ll be fine. His skillset and track record says so, but there’s no doubt he’s enduring one of the rougher stretches of his career. All players go through slumps (and hot streaks) from time to time, and such periods certainly aren’t always predictive of a player’s future performance going forward – they usually just turn out to be random variations. What’s behind the center fielder’s offensive struggles?

On April 29, Ellsbury sat out against the Mariners with a sore hand. At that point, he was hitting .312/.369/.452 (123 wRC+) in 103 trips to the dish. Obviously, healthy hands are integral to a batter’s swing, but I doubt it is the cause of his May swoon. He went 8/14 in the next three games with a homer, double, and two walks. Clearly his hand was fine after sitting out. The only way an injury is behind this tumble is if he is hiding one, and that doesn’t seem like something Ellsbury has been eager to do in his career. It seems like he was up front to Joe Girardi about the injury when it first came up.

Since that mini hot-streak, Ellsbury has gone ice cold. In his last 64 plate appearances, Jacoby is batting .127/.238/.164 (15 wRC+). Standing out is his .159 BABIP, which being that low can’t wholly be attributed to bad luck. He simply hasn’t been striking the ball well, with a 13.6% line drive rate. Before sputtering, Ellsbury had been lining 32.2% of balls in play. In contrast, fly balls are way up to 40.9% from 23% during his hot start. Line drives and grounders are his bread and butter, while balls in the air aren’t because he lacks power. His batted ball profile in this stretch is just a bunch of noise in a long season, so expect these rates to move closer to his career norms.

Some good news is that Ellsbury’s plate discipline hasn’t been an issue. During his downturn, he’s swung at 6% more strikes and the same percentage of pitches out of the zone. The one thing going against Jacoby is the amount of first-pitch strikes he’s been thrown: 7% more than pre-slump. That’s a significant increase, and it is more difficult to hit when behind in the count immediately. Unfortunately for Jacoby, first-pitch strikes are not in his control.

In total, there’s no one root cause for Ellsbury’s recent poor performance at the plate. He’s probably been a victim of some misfortune with balls in play, but he’s also getting under too many of the balls he’s put in play. The underlying plate discipline stats don’t point to any obvious change in approach. His health likely isn’t a factor, either. Maybe his swing mechanics are a tad off, but who knows. Any guess is really just speculation. We can see what’s happening, but it’s hard to explain why other than playing the often true small sample size card.

When Ellsbury finishes the season with his usual strong offensive numbers, this slide will be nothing but a distant memory. Random variation like this happens during a season if you select the right arbitrary starting and ending points. I doubt anyone is truly concerned about Jacoby’s offensive output right now and going forward, nor should anyone be.

Statistics courtesy of Fangraphs.

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