Not a Rookie: Jacoby Ellsbury
Jacoby Ellsbury is one of my favorite players. Although I usually prefer power hitters to speed demons, I just like watching him play and have since he was in college at Oregon State. I'm not a Red Sox fan, so it's not a matter of team bias. My other favorite speed guy is Denard Span, which may be because I'm a Twins fan, but in the case of Ellsbury it has nothing to do with team fandom. Let's take a look at Jacoby, examining his past and his possible future.
Jacoby Ellsbury was drafted in the first round out of Oregon State in 2005, 23rd overall, with the pick the Red Sox got from the Angels for losing Orlando Cabrera as a free agent. A star in college, he'd hit .406/.495/.582 with 26 steals, and was expected to move quickly through the system due to his combination of tools and polished skills. He hit .317/.418/.432 in 35 games for Lowell in the New York-Penn League after signing, swiping 23 bases in 26 attempts, while posting a +28 percent OPS in a pitcher's league. I gave him a Grade B in the 2006 book. The main question for Ellsbury was how much power he would develop.
Assigned to Class A Wilmington to begin 2006, Ellsbury hit .299/.379/.418 in that notorious hitter's park, with 25 steals in 34 attempts over 61 games. Promoted to Double-A at midseason, he hit .308/.387/.434 with 16 steals in 15 games. His combination of speed, plate discipline, and contact hitting ability was highly impressive, and he drew good reviews for his defense as well. I gave him a Grade B+ in the 2007 book, slotting as the Number 21 hitting prospect. Projecting his major league future, I wrote "pencil him in as a .280/.350/.400 hitter with 30-steal potential in the short run, escalating to something like .300/.380/.430 at his peak."
Ellsbury began 2007 with Double-A Portland, hitting a stunning .452/.518/.644 with eight steals in his first 17 games. Promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, he hit .298/.360/.380 with 33 steals in 87 games. He ended the season in the majors, with a .353/.394/.509 mark in 33 games for Boston, swiping nine bases without being caught. Although he didn't show a lot of home run power, everything else was there, and I gave him a Grade A- in the 2008 book, ranking him as the Number Eight hitting prospect in baseball.
His debut may have caused some unrealistic expectations, and some people actually seemed disappointed by his 2008 rookie season: he hit .280/.336/.394 (close to my original prophecy from '07), though he led the American League with 50 steals. Last year he got the batting average up to .301, with a .355 OBP and a .415 SLG, swiping 70 bags.
He's a career 85% stealer, so his steals are sabermetrically very valuable; unlike some speed guys, he's not giving away more than he takes by running so much. I do think he might hit for a bit more power in time; I could see him having a 15-homer season at some point. I also think he can and will draw more walks eventually, boosting his OBP so that it's not quite so dependent on the batting average. I still think the "peak" season I talked about a couple of years ago (.300/.380/.430) will happen.
His defense in center has drawn a lot of comment, as this Fangraphs article makes clear. He's a left fielder now with the arrival of Mike Cameron, but I wouldn't be afraid to play Ellsbury in center field in most parks.
Sim Scores give Ellsbury the following comparables through age 25: Roberto Kelly, Shannon Stewart, Jigger Statz (a guy from the 20s), Ethan Allen (another guy from the 20s and 30s), Sam West (ditto), Danny Litwhiler (from the 40s), Alex Metzler (from the 20s), Wally Moon, Luis Polonia, and Jo-Jo Moore (from the 20s). Lots of throw-back names there. PECOTA comps are names that will be more familiar to most of you: Juan Pierre, Alex Sanchez, Alan Wiggins, Darren Lewis, Lance Johnson, Bob Dernier, Mike Felder, Willie McGree, Rudy Law, and Brian Hunter the Speed Demon. Some PECOTAs a bit further down the list are Steve Finley, Kenny Lofton, Polonia, and Marquis Grissom.
Of all those comps, the one I like best to represent Ellsbury's upside in my mind is Lofton.