Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner were born less than one month apart in 1983. Ellsbury made his major league debut in 2007, Gardner had his a year later. Ellsbury had spent his entire career with Red Sox before this season. Likewise, Gardner has spent his entire career with the Yankees. Ellsbury signed a $153 million seven year contract this off season to leave Boston for New York. Gardner signed a four year $52 million deal to stay in New York.
One might think that if in the same off season, one player signs for nearly three times as much as another player, who plays the same position and is the same age, that the player who signed for the substantially larger payday would be significantly better, to point of twice or three times better. However, the production on the field doesn’t support it.
Ellsbury and Brett Gardner have each played in 66 games. Ellsbury has 252 at-bats, Gardner has 253. Ellsbury’s season stats: .757 OPS, 71 hits, 4 homers, 30 RBI, 102 total bases, 28 walks, 50 strikeouts, 18 steals. Brett Gardner’s season stats: .739 OPS, 71 hits, 5 homers, 26 RBI, 22 walks, 59 strikeouts, 14 steals. Ellsbury’s been better, but it’s awfully close (h/t Chad Jennings, The LoHud Yankee Blog)
So Ellsbury has a slight edge in 2014, but what about for their careers? Well, Ellsbury has played 781 games and recorded 936 hits, 69 home runs, 34 RBIs and 259 stolen bases. He has a slash line of .296/.350/.436. Meanwhile, with one less year in the bigs, Gardner has compiled 686 games, 588 hits, 28 homers, 203 RBIs and 175 stolen bases. His slash line is .269/.351/.383. Ellsbury has the extra year but his numbers are better across the board, so he must be significantly better right?
Maybe. But the reason he has such better numbers is his monstrous career year of 2011. In Ellsbury’s only All Star season, Ellsbury hit career highs in runs, hits, doubles, home runs, RBI, walks, batting average, on base percentage, slugging percentage, OPS, and WAR. But it wasn’t just a career year in which he reached career highs across the board, he smashed his previous career highs and has never come close to equaling those numbers in the years since.
He had 212 hits that season, he hit over 175 hits only other time in his career. He had 32 home runs that season. He has only 37 home runs in the rest of his career combined. He had 105 RBIs that season despite never topping 60 RBIs in any another season. He hit .321. The only other time he finished with a batting average over .300 was 2007 when he had only 116 at bats.
If we don’t count Ellsbury’s incredible outlier year of 2011 simply because you can’t base a whole career on one season, then the gap between Ellsbury and Gardner gets a lot narrower. All of a sudden Ellsbury has played 623 games with 724 hits, 37 home runs, 239 RBIs, and 220 stolen bases. Ellsbury still has the better stats, but are they $100 million better? I think not.