(Subtitle: Why you can't just judge the quality of a defensive player by the number of highlights that show up on SportsCenter.)
Much has been made lately about Jacoby Ellsbury's pitiful defensive numbers as measured by stat geeks who eat Ramen noodles for every meal and live in their mother's basements and who don't even watch baseball at all.
OK, then: Let's watch some baseball.
The biggest issue with Ellsbury, statistically, is his inability to come in on a shallow fly ball.
Take a minute and check out the center fielder's highlight reel from last season. He made catch after catch in the left- and right-center-field gaps. He went over the fence to pull back a home run at Camden Yards.
But he almost never made a big play coming in on a shallow fly ball. Even his game-saving catch at Tampa Bay wasn't on a fly ball that was particularly deep: Thanks to the logo in the middle of the Tropicana Field outfield, it's easy to see where the ball landed. It was a terrific play -- but it was on a medium-deep fly ball.
BillJamesOnline.net -- the same Bill James, incidentally, who works for the Red Sox -- borrows from the Fielding Bible, a creation of a protege of James that breaks down defense almost on a microscopic basis. Every ground ball and every fly ball is recorded and measured, and the range of every infielder and outfielder thus can be evaluated objectively. The Fielding Bible's plus-minus scale gives a player a plus-1 for making a play outside the average fielder's range and a minus-1 for failing to make a play inside the average fielder's range.
Here's how Ellsbury's season breaks down to minus-14 overall:
* Deep fly balls: minus-5
* Medium fly balls: plus-3
* Shallow fly balls: minus-12
Even in 2008, when his plus-8 in center field ranked him among the top 10 center fielders in the game, the same pattern held true:
* Deep fly balls: plus-3
* Medium fly balls: plus-7
* Shallow fly balls: minus-2
Ellsbury is really, really good at going side-to-side, ranging into the gaps to make catches. He's OK at going back on the ball -- and, as the highlights show, he can occasionally be spectacular. When he's going side-to-side and back on the ball, he gets himself on SportsCenter.
But he's just not great at coming in on the ball.
Let's compare Ellsbury to another center fielder picked completely at random -- or, you know, not. Let's compare him to Yankees center fielder Brett Gardner, an outfielder who will be replaced by Curtis Granderson next season because he wasn't good enough to play every day.
Well, actually, Gardner was really good in the field:
* Deep fly balls: plus-6
* Medium fly balls: plus-1
* Shallow fly balls: plus-4
Want to watch some baseball?
Compare this play by Gardner to this play by Ellsbury.
(Consumer warning: The second of those plays is the go-ahead single Vladmir Guerrero hit in the top of the ninth in Game 3. Watch it at your own discretion.)
Let's look at those two plays in more detail. Here's a screen capture from the moment the camera switches from home plate to center field on the Gardner catch. If you consider that center field at Yankee Stadium is 408 feet out, it's probably fair to estimate that Gardner is 360 or 370 feet from home plate:
Gardner tracks the ball and makes a diving catch.
OK, now Ellsbury. Center field at Fenway Park right behind Ellsbury is right around 385 or 390 feet, so it's safe to assume he's 360 or 370 feet from home plate when the camera gets to him:
You know the story. Ellsbury never gets close to the ball -- not only does he not dive for it, but he doesn't even have to pull up to avoid diving for it -- and it falls in for a two-run single that gives the Angels the lead.
Thing is, that's not a one-time deal for Gardner. There's this play and this play and this play -- all examples of his ability to come in on shallow fly balls. He even, in a nice little twist of irony, robbed Ellsbury at Yankee Stadium in September.
Yes, Gardner plays more shallow than Ellsbury. That's made fairly obvious by all of the above highlights. But Gardner plays shallow because he still can range into the gap or go up and get a ball that's going over his head.
Many fans can't believe that the defensive ability of Jacoby Ellsbury has been called into question. Even some writers would rather question the work of people who break down hours and hours of tape than question the defensive ability of someone they so often see show up on Web Gems.
But if you can't measure hitters only by the fact that they hit a bunch of home runs -- no one was pronouncing Jason Varitek an MVP candidate last April and May, for example -- you can't measure fielders by their most spectacular plays.
Ellsbury either doesn't play as shallow as he should or isn't as rangy as many people think he is. He'll almost certainly get better -- he has all the tools -- but baseball fans should know better than to dismiss defensive statistics based on a handful of spectacular plays.