In a move that has surprised some, the Red Sox announced today that they have moved Jacoby Ellsbury to left field. The offseason’s earlier acquisition of center fielder Mike Cameron gave the Red Sox some flexibility with their outfield alignment, which Christina Kahrl detailed a few weeks back after the signing, but there was, in reality, only one correct move to make, and Boston did just that.
On a defensive level, Cameron is the superior player. Except for a stint in 2007 when he looked sluggish both afield and at the plate for San Diego, he has been average to well, well above in center according to Ultimate Zone Rating. The last two years have seen him net at least +10 in run value out there, and as recently as the last Fielding Bible, his scouting report was still positive: “Still one of the better center fielders in baseball…He ranges effortlessly through the outfield with a sneaky-quick first step…His arm is accurate and stronger than the average center fielder’s.” Boston fans are used to seeing Coco Crisp and Jacoby Ellsbury diving about in order to snag flyballs, but Cameron’s instincts and range allow him to play a less flashy but more effective center.
Ellsbury on the other hand, while much faster than the elder Cameron, lacks the instincts, quick first step and the ability to take effective routes. To borrow a line from a friend, Jacoby Ellsbury takes routes like a wide receiver out in center. It also doesn’t help that he’s better coming in on the ball than going back on it, as he’s forced to play deep sometimes. Much of the criticism for the game-winning hit by Vladimir Guerrero in the ALDS was directed at Terry Francona for his bullpen decisions, but if Ellsbury had been positioned somewhere besides Landsdowne Street with Vlad up at bat, he may have been able to reach that blooper. That’s not to say Ellsbury lost the game single-handedly, but it’s an example of his style of play out there.
What’s most surprising about Ellsbury’s issues in center–whereas Cameron was one of the better center fielders in the majors, Ellsbury posted -18.6 runs defensively via UZR and -11 via FRAA–is that he showed defensive promise in the corners the year prior. His routes were better, he better utilized his speed (i.e., it was an asset, and not just the thing he used to make up for poor jumps) and he was worth +16.5 runs according to UZR and +16 in FRAA. The Red Sox front office agrees with those numbers, to the extent that they have now moved Ellsbury back to a corner outfield spot and are leaving Cameron to roam free in center.
Assuming Ellsbury is able to be at least above-average–never mind if he’s able to replicate his plus-plus defensive production from 2008 now that he’s in left–the Red Sox defense in the outfield will not only be improved from 2009, but will be one of the better units in the majors. Given that the Sox fell from being a top five team via Defensive Efficiency to a bottom five one in the course of a season, that is a necessary upgrade.
There’s less confusion about this deal from a defensive standpoint than an offensive one though, as Ellsbury’s defensive supporters are fewer and farther between than his detractors. The idea is that Ellsbury, who does not hit for power and relies on his batting average a bit, is not suitable for left field because that’s where the big power hitters play. If only there were some way to look at a player’s overall offensive contributions so they could be compared with other players who do dissimilar things. Then we could compare players like Ellsbury who steal bases and hit singles with players who fit the mold of your prototypical left fielder.
Thankfully, we have EqA, and that’s exactly what it does. Ellsbury posted an EqA of .276 last year, which is seven points above the average in center field, but not so high that it makes up for his defensive shortcomings. Left field, on the other hand, has sat at .277 for the past two seasons and was at .275 in 2007. Ellsbury is, for all intents and purposes, an average offensive contributor at the position despite the lack of muscles and his ability to be mobile.
When you take into account the fact that his defense will improve with the switch to left, you realize that he will in fact be worth more as a left fielder than a center fielder, even if you think his skill set fits the latter better than the former. Ellsbury was worth 1.7 WARP in 2009 in center, and 3.0 when he bounced all over the outfield (and had a poorer offensive campaign than last year’s effort). Yes, Jason Bay has the superior bat, but his glove is as poor in left as Ellsbury’s was in center, meaning that the difference between the two players is somewhere around half of a win. Given the difference in cost, that’s quite the coup for Boston.
Essentially, 2010 Cameron should be significantly better than 2009 Ellsbury, by maybe 2-2.5 wins. 2010 Ellsbury and 2009 Bay are either a wash or have half-of-a-win difference between the two, which means the Red Sox upgraded their team considerably while lowering their payroll and making room for some of the other improvements, such as the acquisitions of John Lackey and now Adrian Beltre. With the Yankees already ahead of them in 2009, and deservingly so, and the Tampa Bay Rays creeping up from behind, seizing wins where you can is necessary for Boston, and they have succeeded in this endeavor thus far.