Yankees: Jacoby Ellsbury’s Lineup Descent Might Unravel the Team

Mar 12, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Yankees center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (22) looks on in the dugout against the Atlanta Braves at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Mar 12, 2017; Tampa, FL, USA; New York Yankees center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury (22) looks on in the dugout against the Atlanta Braves at George M. Steinbrenner Field. Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /
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The Yankees Jacoby Ellsbury is not finished being demoted in the lineup. The ‘easily injured one’ might not like that too much. And if he decides to let his play reflect that, it could derail his season and any postseason dreams of the 2017 Yanks.

Yankees nation breathed a sigh of relief when skipper Joe Girardi did what he needed to do: bat Jacoby Ellsbury lower in the lineup. Girardi moved him all the way down to fifth, in what might be an opening day preview. And Ellsbury’s numbers from the last two years certainly support the move.

When Ellsbury first arrived in New York in 2014 he earned that leadoff spot. His average (.271) and OBP (.328) were, well, average — but he swiped 39 bases that year. Besides, he was brought over to be a top of the order hitter along with Brett Gardner. Ellsbury could have done better as all of his numbers were far from career bests, but he still deserved his spot.

That has not been true the last two years. His average and OBP both dipped in 2015 and only slightly came back around in 2016 (.263/.330), rebounding to their previous mediocrity. But worse was that he stopped stealing bases at an elite level, swiping only 21 and 20 in the last two seasons. All told, Jacoby only collected 206 total bases last year.

Let’s look at another number two hitter in the division as a comparison. Josh Donaldson often hit in that spot for the Blue Jays. In 2016, his average was .284 while his OBP was .404. Ellsbury did steal many more bags last year, as Donaldson stole only seven, but that was en route to collecting 317 total bases.

The Yankees cannot win the division if they are outplayed at each spot in the lineup.

Super Ego

So Girardi did what observers have been calling for. The move, however, comes with risk. Ellsbury seems to injure easily. And when he gets hurt, he stays hurt for the majority of that season. Not to say he stays on the disabled list; no, he just does not come back the same player who got hurt and the diminution in skills is always evident.

It is possible, perhaps even likely, that Ellsbury also has an easily bruised ego. He only played 111 games for the Yankees in 2015; clearly, he was dealing with a significant injury. But why did his numbers, especially stolen bases, not go back up in 2016? Ellsbury played 148 games last year, a sign he was in better health, but stole one fewer base; why?

The answer might be a carry over from the previous October. The Yankees had a one-game playoff in 2015 against the Houston Astros but chose not to play Jacoby. If Ellsbury felt any ill will towards Girardi, he seemed to get over it by Spring Training. In February of 2016, Ellsbury made some encouraging comments to Bryan Hoch:

"“I want to win, he wants to win. I’m a team player. Like I told them when I first came here, if you want to play me at any position, bat me anywhere in the lineup, hit me different places.“I guess whatever helps the team wins, whatever he thinks is best for the team, I’m behind it. More from Yankees Minor LeaguesYankees State of the Farm System Review: Josh BreauxEarly prices for Yankees 2022 Bowman Draft cards are absurdReflecting on the 2013 New York Yankees’ top 10 prospectsYankees add to championship core with Wilmer Difo signingYankees’ Jasson Dominguez ranks in tough spot on Arizona Fall League Top Prospects list"

For whatever reason, Ellsbury then proceeded to go out and have the disappointing season documented above. Was it just a coincidence? Or perhaps a reflection of dissipating skills? Believe it or not, the Yankees will be better off if it is the latter.

Power Up, Yankees

And that’s because it is unlikely that Ellsbury can, or should, stay in the number five-spot. His power numbers certainly don’t justify it. 2015 saw him collect 116 hits, only 24 of which were for extra bases. Only seven of those were home runs. He finished the year slugging (SLG) just .345.

Last year was similar in that he collected just 38 extra base hits from his 145 hit total. He also managed to hit two additional home runs, finishing the year with nine, while his SLG was .374.

Those numbers pale in comparison to other projected number five hitters in the AL East. The Orioles might have Mark Trumbo bat fifth in their lineup. He had 75 extra base hits last year—out of his total of 157—with 47 homers among them. Trumbo finished 2016 with a SLG of .533.

The Red Sox, meanwhile, will probably bat Hanley Ramirez fifth. He, too, had 157 hits last year but with 30 homers and 59 extra base hits. Ramirez would finish the year slugging .505. Again, the Yankees cannot win if other team’s players outperform them in the same roles.

Let Starlin be Darlin

The only real reason to move Ellsbury to yet another batting position his numbers do not justify is to protect his ego. There is a certain status to batting in the first inning, as well as the middle of the lineup. But spots 6-9 are looked at as reserved for lesser players.

And it’s one thing to be such a player and another to have it proven by being dropped in the order.

There are, however, just too many factors that point to another demotion at some point this season. First, is that there are other players more deserving of the spot. You can see for yourself that both Starlin Castro and Didi Gregorius have better power numbers.

The Yanks can justify keeping Castro down by saying he has only been here for one year and they need to see more in order to trust him up in that spot. But that won’t work with Gregorius once he comes back healthy.

And what if Judge starts hitting home runs at the pace he did in Triple-A? Will the Yankees really bat him 8th if he hits seven home runs in a five-day span? Doubtful.

None of this includes likely additions later this year. If Gleyber Torres and/or Clint Frazier get promoted, it will be because of their bats. The kind of numbers they would need to put up would almost have to be better than what Ellsbury will do.

Talking the Talk

If that happens, if Ellsbury is demoted again, as seems inevitable, his reaction might shape this

Yankees
Mandatory Credit: Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports /

Yankees’ season. He already seemed less than thrilled when the possibility of being dropped to fifth was brought up at the beginning of Spring Training, as reported by Yanks Go Yard’s Steve Contursi:

"Instead, he finds himself answering questions about being dropped in the lineup, and it doesn’t appear to be sitting well. When asked about it yesterday by NJ.com, all he could muster was the well-worn cliche, “Whatever helps the team.”"

And he had this to say to Brendan Kuty over at NJ.com:

"“Until I talk to them, there’s no reason for me to even having the what ifs, the what if game, until I talk to them,” he said. “Then we’ll go from there.”"

Jacoby says all the right things in both articles. But reading between the lines gives a different feel, especially based on his play in 2016. He said he was over the 2015 playoff benching but his numbers give a different feel. If he under performs in 2017, we might know why.

Ah, yes, A-Rod

The Yankees have seen this before with Alex Rodriguez and Joe Torre back in 2006. Wally Mathews wrote about that in 2012, as he discussed what might happen if Girardi attempted to do it again that year.

"We saw it happen in 2006 — hitting eighth in Torre’s lineup, Rodriguez went 0-for-3, seeing all of nine pitches in three at-bats, in a lifeless 8-3 loss that ended the Yankees’ October.And although A-Rod rebounded to have an MVP 2007 season, the relationship with Torre never healed and the trust was never restored."

Wally makes it clear that A-Rod’s sulking might have ended the Yankees ‘06 season. If Ellsbury responds the same way, it could end the Yankees 2017 season. Perhaps not in a playoff game but a loss in May still counts when trying to make the Postseason.

The Cost of Winning a Title

Of course, we can only speculate that his feelings and his performance are linked. There is circumstantial evidence at best. But if it is reasonable to think that way about his demotion to the fifth spot, what will happen if and when he is demoted even further?

If the answer is that he becomes a problem no matter where he hits, then he might need a demotion to the bench… or another team, with the Yankees eating a considerable amount of salary. His attitude could become a cancer in the locker room and that could mean disaster.

Young players feed off of emotion and can lead teams to big things. But negativity by a respected veteran can damper enthusiasm and, inadvertently, the level of play. The Yankees cannot afford that, not this year.

The 2017 Yankees need a lot of things to go right to make the playoffs. The difference between making the playoffs or not might be one extra loss over the course of the season. And anyone who is not performing to his capabilities or infects the clubhouse with negativity is a player the Yankees cannot afford to have.

Next: A-Rod Compares Bird to Mattingly

Related Story: Yankees Spring Training: Veterans Report

Even at $153 million dollars.