How Large Should Jacoby Ellsbury's Injury History Loom in His Free Agency?

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How Large Should Jacoby Ellsbury's Injury History Loom in His Free Agency?
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It's impossible to read anything about Jacoby Ellsbury's free agency that doesn't mention his injury history. "Point X, Point Y, Point Z, but then there's his injury history," they all (basically) say. 

And rightfully so. According to Baseball Prospectus' injury database, the up-until-now Boston Red Sox star has missed 256 games with injuries between 2010 and 2013. The speedy center fielder's injury history is not the elephant in the room; it's more like the blue whale in the room (behold a handy graphic for reference).

But this is a situation where it's appropriate to ask what's fair. Is Ellsbury's injury history a thing to dwell on, or is merely acknowledging it as far as one should go?

In essence: How large should it loom in his free agency?

My confession is that I've tended to dwell on it, with my usual line being that Ellsbury can't be trusted to stay healthy in light of his track record. So far as I can tell, that's a common opinion.

But without giving too much away at this juncture, I'd now say that dwelling on Ellsbury's injury history isn't really fair. There's one notable injury in Ellsbury's past that does warrant some serious scrutiny, but it and the others deserve to be treated as water that's safely under the bridge.

We're all familiar with the big injuries on Ellsbury's record: the busted rib cage he suffered early in 2010, the partially dislocated right shoulder he endured early in 2012 and, most recently, the compression fracture he suffered in his right foot late in 2013.

Ellsbury's ribs never healed in 2010, a season in which he was limited to only 18 games. The shoulder injury in 2012 cost him 79 games. This year's compression fracture knocked him out for 19 games.

As for what these injuries have in common, I'll give the floor to Ellsbury's agent: the mighty Scott Boras.

“He's a durable player,” Boras told Jon Heyman of CBS Sports in September. “The only [significant] injuries he's had are collision injuries. They were due to exterior forces.”

Boras is right, of course. Ellsbury's rib troubles in 2010 stemmed from his nasty collision with Adrian Beltre in April, which we can relive here:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

That's 220 pounds colliding with 195 pounds. No wonder the result was "Crunch!"

The initial collision cost Ellsbury 37 games. When he came off the disabled list in May, he was back on it just a few days later. It was the same story when he tried another comeback in August.

There were questions about Ellsbury's toughness along the way, and there was apparently some grumbling in Boston's clubhouse about his preference to rehab away from the team in Arizona.

"I don't know what's going on with Jacoby," said Kevin Youkilis, according to Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe. "I don't think any of us really know."

Youk added, "One thing I can say is there's a lot of guys here that are hurt and supporting the team. We wish Jacoby was here supporting us, too."

Lots of controversy, to be sure. What there wasn't, however, were any lingering effects.

Ellsbury came back in 2011 and hit .321 with a .928 OPS, 32 home runs and 39 stolen bases while playing excellent defense in center field. In the number-crunchy opinion of FanGraphs WAR, he had the best season of any player in the league.

Make that one collision injury overcome. 

For the sake of convenience, we'll flash forward to the other collision injury Ellsbury has overcome: the compression fracture he suffered in late August of 2013.

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Ellsbury was able to play through the pain for a few games, but he was forced to shut it down after aggravating the injury September 5.

There were some doomy thoughts going around. And when Ellsbury did return, he acknowledged that the injury wasn't fully healed. That was an alarming statement, especially coming from a guy whose game depends so largely on speed. A speedster can't be speedy without healthy feet, after all.

But what did Ellsbury do? He went on to steal six bases in the postseason, including one in each of the first four games of the American League Division Series against the Tampa Bay Rays. He was also able to play center field in each of Boston's 16 postseason games.

Make that two collision injuries overcome.

If it was just the rib and foot injuries on Ellsbury's record, I doubt anyone would be overly worried about his injury history. These two injury incidents would be there as things that cost him games, but not as things that ultimately hindered his performance in any tangible way.

...But then there's the other collision injury on Elllsbury's record. You know, this one:

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

It looked bad when it happened, and it proved to be about as bad as it looked. Ellsbury was on the DL for about three months.

And now, well over a year later, it's this injury that sticks out the most on Ellsbury's record. That's because of how it has coincided with the one aspect of Ellsbury's free agency that has some teams worried: his loss of power.

This according to Ken Rosenthal of FoxSports.com:

Even elite free agents elicit varying opinions from baseball people, so the disagreement among some over center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury is typical.

One rival executive said that his team’s statistical analysis rated Ellsbury as the top Red Sox player last season, ahead of even second baseman Dustin Pedroia.

Others in the industry, however, are wary of Ellsbury’s diminished power—he has hit only 13 home runs in 880 at-bats over the past two seasons.

Whether teams are chalking the disappearance of Ellsbury's power up to his shoulder injury is something I can't tell you. My guess, however, is that the opinions on this are also varying. Because while there's clearly correlation at work, the question of whether there's causation is not an easy one to answer.

We'll get to that in good time. But first, let's take a look at the correlation. If we use FanGraphs data to stack up Ellsbury's pre-2011 power, his 2011 power and his post-shoulder injury power, we get a picture that looks like this:

Jacoby Ellsbury's Power
Span PA ISO FB% HR/FB
Pre-2011 1513 .114 30.4 5.6
2011 660 .230 34.1 16.7
Post-Shoulder Injury 929 .119 30.2 5.9

FanGraphs

The degree to which Ellsbury's post-shoulder injury power looks like his pre-2011 power is uncanny, and that's obviously not a good look for his free agency.

Teams can look at this data and come to two conclusions. One is that Ellsbury's power in 2011 was a total fluke and that he's gone back to being the player he was, in which case his shoulder injury is neither here nor there. Or they can view his 2011 power as legit and his shoulder injury as the thing that killed it.

It wouldn't be the first time that a shoulder injury did such a thing. Most notably, Adrian Gonzalez's power hasn't been the same since he underwent surgery on his right shoulder after 2010. Fellow Los Angeles Dodger Matt Kemp seemed to have zero strength in his left shoulder when he was able to play in 2013 following offseason surgery of his own. 

Like Gonzalez and Kemp, Ellsbury's shoulder injury was to his follow-through shoulder. So where we already had numbers that aren't encouraging, here we have a narrative that's not encouraging.

So what is encouraging?

A couple things, starting with the fact that the larger sample size doesn't tell the whole story.

Greg M. Cooper-USA TODAY Sports

Around the All-Star break this year, Boras had this to say to Peter Abraham and others regarding Ellsbury's shoulder: “Last year he came back early and played. But his shoulder strength was not there."

Then he added:

As the strength started coming, he’s now made the adjustment to understand more about that he does have that strength. Now he’s starting to certainly let the ball get deeper. I can see more power and lift coming to him. He understands the mental side of it, too. He’s now back to being healthy.

There are numbers to support Boras' claim. Through his first 49 games in 2013, Ellsbury had 12 extra-base hits and an .087 ISO. But beginning May 26, he picked up five extra-base hits in his next four games and was off to the races.

Ultimately, he posted a .152 ISO over his last 406 plate appearances, which spanned 85 games. After hitting one home run in his first 49 games, he hit eight the rest of the way.

Naturally, this didn't happen entirely by accident.

One major change was in Ellsbury's ground-ball rate, which began to dwindle in June after peaking at darn near 60 percent in May. With data courtesy of FanGraphs, we get this progression:

Data courtesy of FanGraphs.

Because ground balls don't tend to go for extra-base hits, fewer ground balls are most definitely what's best for power. Line drives and fly balls are better, and the latter is obviously what leads to the ball going over the fence.

Ellsbury's decline in ground balls didn't immediately beget a rise in fly balls. But that eventually did happen in the second half. After posting a 27.3 fly-ball percentage in the first half, Ellsbury posted a 30.0 fly-ball percentage in the second half. Likewise, his HR/FB rate jumped up from 3.4 to 12.5.

The catch is that Ellsbury's power didn't return to the level it was at in 2011. But the thing about his 2011 season is that the extreme power he was showing off wasn't a season-long thing. It was mainly a second-half thing, as these splits show:

Jacoby Ellsbury's 2011 Power
Split PA ISO FB% HR/FB
1st Half 401 .175 31.8 11.3
2nd Half 331 .298 36.8 22.1

FanGraphs

That Ellsbury's power skyrocketed wasn't entirely a fluke. He did hit more fly balls, and plenty of those went over the fence. Even still, to go from a .175 ISO to a .298 ISO from one half to another is pretty ridiculous, and the odds of Ellsbury sustaining that power never were that great.

But that's not to say that Ellsbury's real power potential is his pre-2011 power. Maybe his real power potential is the power he was showing off before the All-Star break in 2011.

If so, that puts the power he was displaying down the stretch in an interesting light. It's not too dissimilar from his pre-break power in 2011:

Jacoby Ellsbury's Real Power?
Split PA ISO FB% HR/FB
1st Half, 2011 401 .175 31.8 11.3
Last 85 Games, 2013 406 .152 27.2 9.5
2nd Half, 2013 217 .150 30.0 12.5

FanGraphs

On the whole, Ellsbury wasn't hitting for as much power as he was before the break in 2011. But it's encouraging that his second-half fly-ball percentage was pretty close to the one he had before the break in 2011 and equally encouraging that his HR/FB rate was a smidgen better.

Ellsbury was on a pace to hit 21 home runs when the All-Star break rolled around in 2011. After the break this year, he put himself on a 22-homer pace. 

If a 20-homer guy is who Ellsbury really is, then, well, it's a good look for him that that's what he was down the stretch in 2013. This was a time when, if you believe his agent, he was finally enjoying the benefits of a healthy shoulder. The numbers we just looked at say that's a plausible stance.

What's more is that it's actually debatable that the residual weakness in Ellsbury's right shoulder was even the cause of his lack of power early on in 2013. 

Courtesy of MLB Advanced Media via MLB.com.

Dan Farnsworth did a terrific analysis for FanGraphs that compared Ellsbury's 2011 swings to his 2013 swings. But rather than Ellsbury's upper half—as in, the half where his right shoulder resides—Farnsworth kept coming back to Ellsbury's lower half as the problem.

There were timing and movement issues with Ellsbury's right leg, leading to this note:

This greater side-to-side movement with the front leg makes the hip action longer and slower, forcing him to engage his upper body more to drive balls over the fence. In Ellsbury’s case, he’s not strong enough to hit a wealth of home runs with just his arms, complicated by the fact that he may have been dealing with some weakness in that front shoulder from his 2012 injury, as many suggested earlier this year.  

In other words, Ellsbury's shoulder was probably a contributing factor. Not definitely the contributing factor.

Farnsworth ended with his two cents on Ellsbury: "If he is able to get a few full seasons of plate appearances, I feel comfortable betting on a 20-plus home run season or two, with the floor of a high AVG guy who plays great defense and steals a bunch of bags."

So we have numbers suggesting that Ellsbury could be a 20-homer guy going forward, and we also have a swing expert suggesting that he could be a 20-homer guy going forward. That sounds a lot better than numbers and a swing expert suggesting that Ellsbury's power is forever compromised thanks to his 2012 shoulder injury, don't you think?

I think so, too. Because if that shoulder injury can be chalked up as water under the bridge, then it's in the same category as the other two injuries Ellsbury was able to overcome without any real difficulties: the ribcage troubles in 2010 and the compression fracture this year.

We set out to answer the question of how large Ellsbury's injury history should loom in his free agency. Due to the nature of them, the three key injuries he's dealt with in recent years aren't the kind that are a threat to keep popping up as he progresses. After that, we determined that none of those key injuries are a legit threat to keep Ellsbury from being the player he has the potential to be.

Short version and grand conclusion all in one: Ellsbury's injury history is there to be acknowledged, but it shouldn't keep him from being paid what he's worth.

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted/linked.

 

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