Wednesday, December 16, 2009

Jacoby Ellsbury and Johnny Damon

With the introduction of Mike Cameron as the Red Sox's newest speedy outfielder, some have begun to speculate that the Red Sox might include Jacoby Ellsbury in a trade for San Diego's Adrian Gonzalez.

Before the Red Sox trade Ellsbury away, though, it's worth thinking about the comparison so widely made when the center fielder was drafted. Ellsbury might not be OBP'ing .380 the way Johnny Damon has so often in his career -- his on-base percentage of .355 last season ranked him fifth among Red Sox regulars, well behind Dustin Pedroia's .371 -- but he's certainly on the right track.

Consider this: At the end of the 1997 season, when Damon had two-plus years of major-league experience and close to 1,300 career plate appearances, the future on-base machine had a career line that looked like this:
* .274 batting average
* .325 on-base percentage
* .387 slugging percentage
* OPS+ of 83
(Note: 100 is defined as average.)

His walk rate was 6.6 percent. His strikeout rate was 12 percent.

He'd hit a total of 17 home runs.

Two years later, in 1999, Damon took an enormous step forward. His walk rate skyrocketed to 10.2 percent, and his strikeout rate dropped to 7.6 percent. (He struck out just 50 times in more than 650 plate appearances.) His on-base percentage jumped to .379. He hit 14 home runs.

Consider, now, Ellsbury's first two-plus seasons -- a career that consists of a little more than 1,400 plate appearances:
* .297 batting average
* .350 on-base percentage
* .414 slugging percentage
* OPS+ of 96

His walk rate so far is 6.9 percent. His strikeout rate is 11.8 percent.

He's hit a total of 20 home runs.

He's still just 26 years old.

For what it's worth, Bill James projects Ellsbury to compile a line of .302/.360/.420 next season with a walk rate of 7.6 percent and a strikeout rate of 11.6 percent. But if Ellsbury can take another step forward in his patience and his plate discipline -- something he seemed already to be doing in the second half of last season -- he might be in line for a Damon-esque leap.

If the Red Sox can land Gonzalez from San Diego for a package centered around Ellsbury, well, they'd be crazy not to consider it. Gonzalez is an elite hitter, a franchise-changing bat.

But those who are suggesting that the Red Sox cash Ellsbury in while his value is at its highest, well, his value might still have some climbing to do.

3 comments:

William said...

Brian,

There are hundreds of players that have posted lines as poor as Damon's in 1997. Few (if any) of them have gone on to careers as succesful as Damon. The odds are definitely against Ells becoming the next Johnny Damon. But I guess there's always hope (and I guess thats your point).

P.S.: This is Bill Truelove, PEA '02. I stumbled on your blog the other day; good stuff.

P.P.S: Go to Hell Carolina (didn't you go to UNC? I think we rode a plane together out of RDU 6 or 7 years ago).

Jim Monaghan said...

From a business standpoint, I completely understand the Ellsbury-as-trade-bait scenario, especially as it relates to the discussion of getting AG back in a deal.

That said, thus far in his short career he's shown a skill set the likes of which we don't get to see too often in a player developed by the Red Sox.

He's a very good two strike hitter, has game-changing speed (ask Andy Pettitte), and continues to develop as a patient hitter, even if his OBP is lower than some would like.

As for his defense, I know what the UZR stats say, but I also know what I see with my own eyes. He's a legit Major League centerfielder.

I would hate to see him blossom into the complete star player I think he is going to be somewhere other than Boston.

Brian MacPherson said...

Bill: The other point is that Ellsbury is already ahead of Damon's pace a little bit at the same point in their respective major-league careers. He did post a .301/.355/.415 last season, after all. His .355 on-base percentage was well above the American League average (.335).

What's a realistic goal for his OBP? .360? .370? .380? Damon only OBP'ed better than .370 four times in his career, including only once with the Red Sox.

No, he might not develop the power Damon developed -- though that's not out of the question, either. But in terms of getting on base at the top of the lineup, it seems like Ellsbury is getting close to where he needs to be.

One last point: You could argue that it's really tough to improve walk rates in the major leagues, once a player has already worked his way through the system. Damon is an example of a player doing just that -- and a player with similar skill set to Ellsbury, to boot.

(If only we'd done more OBP projection calculations in Math 410.)