This spring, Jacoby Ellsbury is entering camp with his eye on the center field job. Whether or not he deserves to reclaim the position is a question that seemingly has an obvious answer: no. Rather, it’s Aaron Hicks’s job to lose. Hicks is younger, more talented, and outperformed Ellsbury last season. The problem: Hicks has struggled to stay on the field throughout his career (so has Ellsbury, but I digress). Thus, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see Ellsbury on the scorecard quite often this coming season. At 34 years of age, is there any hope for Ellsbury to be a productive regular if he’s needed?
Ellsbury is an easy target to revile considering his contract and performance to date with the Yankees. Yet, his salary seems to cloud that he was actually decent last season. His .264/.348/.402 batting line (97 OPS+) wasn’t remarkable but paired with fair defense, Ellsbury was worth 1.7 WAR per Baseball Reference in 2017. Sign me up for that again in 2018 in whatever amount of playing time he gets. Alas, it doesn’t necessarily work like that.
PECOTA is very pessimistic about Ellsbury in 2018 and projects a .246/.318/.368 triple-slash, a steep fall from last season. Other systems aren’t quite as bearish on Ellsbury as PECOTA is, but none of them could be misconstrued as optimistic. Wherever you look, Ellsbury is expected to decline in 2018. There’s plenty of precedent for this: players rarely improve as they get older, particularly as they tack on years in their thirties.
How have other center fielders in Ellsbury’s age range fared? In the last twenty years, there have been 23 players who primarily played center field in their age-33 season and accrued 300 or more plate appearances (including Ellsbury). Only eleven of those same players wound up primarily playing the position the following season. Depending on what Ellsbury and Denard Span do in 2018, the number could increase from eleven to thirteen. Here’s the eleven:
|Player||33yo WAR||34yo WAR||Change|
Of the eleven who got another opportunity at 34, seven posted a WAR of 3.4 or greater as 33 year-olds, so they were still evidently good players deserving of a continued run. Hence, another chance in center at 34. Yet, all but two of them demonstrably improved per WAR in that following season: Steve Finley and Jim Edmonds. Technically, Andres Torres also improved, but going from 0.9 WAR to 1.4 WAR could essentially be chalked up to an error bar. Edmonds and Finley were exceptional players and outliers. Yet, there are plenty of other great players on this list who weren’t outliers, such as Bernie Williams and Kenny Lofton, who declined swiftly.
And what happened to those who no longer were center fielders as 34 year-olds?
|Player||33yo WAR||34yo WAR||Change||New primary position|
|Aaron Rowand||0.5||N/A||N/A||Not in Majors|
|Michael Bourn||0.3||N/A||N/A||Not in Majors|
From 33 to 34, five of ten players declined, two of ten didn’t play in the majors, and three improved. Yet, for those who fared better, the move down the defensive spectrum explains at least part of the improvement. If all were left alone in center, odds are that those who apparently improved might not really have had better seasons after all, but rather were in a more appropriate position.
It’s not surprising that most of these players declined from age 33 to 34, whether or not they stuck in centerfield. That’s what is expected to occur as a player ages. Center field is a demanding position physically, so it’s also not stunning to see so many from this group no longer playing the position after turning 34, too. All this goes to say that history isn’t on Ellsbury’s side, and the projection systems recognize this and are in unison with poor forecasts. There’s always a chance that a replica of Ellsbury’s 2017 is in store for 2018, which would be fantastic, but the deck is stacked against it. Hopefully, Hicks’s stays healthy and proves that his breakout last season wasn’t a blip on the radar. It would be better not to roll the dice with Ellsbury for an extended period of time this year.
Photo credit: Anthony Gruppuso / USA TODAY Sports