Jacoby Ellsbury, Free Swinger?

Some mention has been made here about Jacoby Ellsbury's surprising early season power — he leads the Boston Red Sox in home runs — and how that is unquestionably a Bad Thing for his game. Peter Gammons sounded a similar note when he said hitting four homers was "one of the worst things that’s happened to this team early in the season, because I think it’s encouraged him to get wider and wider with his swing."

I guess we can debate what being "wider and wider" with your swing means, but I assume it to mean he's expanding the strike zone, swinging more often in an effort to crank dinger No. 5. Certainly much of the conversation here has been about how he needs to be more selective and slap the baseball for singles and doubles. This is echoed in Gammons' comments, as well, when he says: "They need him hitting leadoff. They need him to get on base 37 percent of the time or 38 percent of the time. I think he’s kind of gotten away from that."

Now, Ellsbury has never had a full-season on-base percentage above .355, so Gammons is perhaps not being entirely realistic in the first place. Even in 2009, when he showed continued improvement throughout the season and had consistently excellent performance with the bat from June 1 to the end of the season, his OBP was .366. Then he missed a season, so I'm not particularly inclined to assign causation to Ellsbury's otherwise poor .182/.262/.418 line to begin 2011. 

But perhaps some other numbers will help us out. If Ellsbury is hacking at everything — and he does have a 2011 strikeout percentage nearly double his career average — then it should show up elsewhere.


First, Ellsbury is actually being more selective than he ever has:

Walk percentage

  • 2008: 6.7 
  • 2009: 7.1 
  • Car: 6.8 
  • 2011: 8.2 

First-swing percentage

  • 2008: 25
  • 2009: 16
  • Car: 21
  • 2011: 21

Hitter's Counts (3-0/3-1/2-0) percentage

  • 2008: 23
  • 2009: 29
  • Car: 25
  • 2011: 31

O-Swing % (Percent of pitches swung at out of the strike zone)

  • 2008: 26.2
  • 2009: 24.4
  • Car: 25.3
  • 2011: 22.7

So this tells us Ellsbury is unquestionably seeing more balls and better hitter's counts than in previous seasons. He's not swinging at pitches out of the zone as much and laying off the first pitch, both of which to me are unquestionably positive.

But he's clearly not getting results other than those home runs:

Zone percentage (Percent of pitches in the strike zone)

  • 2008: 53.0
  • 2009: 50.6
  • Car: 51.7
  • 2011: 55.1

Z-Swing % (Percent of pitches swung at inside the strike zone)

  • 2008: 58.8
  • 2009: 57.6
  • Car: 59.0
  • 2011: 64.7

Swing percentage

  • 2008: 43.4
  • 2009: 41.2
  • Car: 42.7
  • 2011: 45.8

Contact percentage (Percentage of swings where contact is made)

  • 2008: 89.0
  • 2009: 88.4
  • Car: 88.5
  • 2011: 83.8

Swing and miss percentage

  • 2008: 4.7
  • 2009: 4.7
  • Car: 4.8
  • 2011: 7.1

So something is amiss. Ellsbury is being more selective, he's seeing more strikes, and he's swinging more often at the strikes that he sees. Yet he's making contact less often.

It's easy to look at these latter numbers and say Ellsbury is hacking more often in hopes of getting the big home run. But that theory doesn't fit the more selective Ellsbury we see from the first set. I suppose it's possible he's more accurately identifying pitches as balls or strikes but indiscriminately swinging at the pitches he identifies as strikes, regardless of whether he can actually hit them, but that seems like more of a stretch. 

There's also this:

Ground ball/fly ball percentage

  • 2008: 51.7/27.9
  • 2009: 50.1/32.2
  • Car: 50.5/30.9
  • 2011: 40.0/47.5

Now's a good time to stop and mention small sample sizes. Ellsbury has hit 16 ground balls, 19 fly balls and five line drives while striking out 14 times and walking five times. There's just not that many data points, and a hot week could change these percentages significantly.

That said, the data could be pointing to something mechanical, where Ellsbury's swing is messed up, and it's producing more swings and misses — as well as more fly balls. Or it could simply be pointing to a slump, where Ellsbury is correctly identifying the pitches to swing at, but he's just missing or getting unlucky on the ones he does hit (.162 BABIP says hello). 

The old cliche says that where there is smoke, there must be fire. There's some smoke here, but I'm not sure yet whether we need to call for the water.

56 comments… add one

  • good work as usual. This does seem to bear out what my lying eyes have told me: that Ellsbury has gotten better at pitch recognition over time but that he’s got the wrong swing to make contact on the pitches he is finally recognizing as good ones to hit. His swing, to my eye (lying eye caveat), looks very long. So while he may be identifying better pitches to hit he isn’t able to make contact with those because his mechanics are getting in the way.
    In a very long and smart way you have made me feel right about my observations, Paul. So thanks for that. I hope Ellsbury and his coaches figure things out – if his pitch recognition continues to improve (as it looks like it is) and he can work out his swing, he could be really, really good. And there’s always that pesky BABIP, which should almost automatically improve.

    SF April 21, 2011, 2:40 pm
  • Oh, and my comments in earlier threads have not been that Ellsbury is a “free swinger”, but rather that he has a poorly designed swing for his skillset. It is entirely possible for someone to have great pitch recognition while being in possession of a swing that is unable to make contact with the recognized pitches.

    SF April 21, 2011, 2:42 pm
  • “something mecvhanical, his swing is messed up”
    Seems to be a trend on our fair team. Except with King Jed, of course.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 4:09 pm
  • One stupid typo and I wind up on web site of the Yoga Society of San Francisco.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 7:05 pm
  • Bruins down 3-1, beat Montreal, 5-4, in overtime.

    Sox strand two in the bottom of the first when Youkilis grounds into a double play after Pedey, Gonzo single.

    Vintage Beckett mows ‘em down in the bottom of the first

    Papi doubled of the CF wall to open the 2nd, takes third on Lowrie groundout.

    Here’s Carl.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 10:25 pm
  • Carl starts the black hole part of the lineup with a 1U.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 10:27 pm
  • Tek Ks.
    leadoff double wasted.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 10:28 pm
  • Youks fouls a pitch off his foot in the first, now out of the game; Lowrie to third and Scutaro in at SS.
    So Scutaro is batting cleanup.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 10:31 pm
  • Michael Ryder, 2 G, including the OT winner.
    Unreal.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 10:33 pm
  • Ugh, please don’t get injured again Pedro.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 10:45 pm
  • He’s gonna stay in.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 10:46 pm
  • Scutaro F8. Sox already have left 4.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 10:47 pm
  • If Pedey has to come out, what do they do?

    They’re saying Youks left the game after fouling the ball off his left shin, and will update more after the game.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 10:52 pm
  • I just tuned in, didn’t know that about Youk. That’d be tragic for both Youk and Pedey to get injured again.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 10:54 pm
  • If Pedro has to come out then they’d probably move Lowrie to 2B, and stick Salty or someone at 3B. Ugh that’d be interesting to see.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 11:01 pm
  • Tweeted a bunch of Sox reporters about emergency IF. No reply yet.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:01 pm
  • Carl walks with 2 outs.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:02 pm
  • Wow this strikezone suddenly shrunk. No complaints here… now steal a base, Carl.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 11:02 pm
  • 1-21 Varitek up.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:03 pm
  • Woohoo, Carl earning some of his contract there.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 11:05 pm
  • Is something wrong with Crawford’s wrist? He’s got some sort of brace on his left hand.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 11:06 pm
  • Ugh, lots of fly balls but right at people. This is frustrating.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 11:08 pm
  • Would that brace be a stabilizer to protect him when he slides, perhaps?
    Carl steals, Tek walks, Ells F7.
    6 LOBs for Sox.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:09 pm
  • Beckett at 61 pitches thru 4.
    He strands a leadoff walk. ERA falls to 1.54.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:22 pm
  • Okay Red Sox, score some runs. And then give up a hit, Beckett, so I can go to bed. Cause if this continues after 5.0 IP I pretty much have to keep watching.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 11:22 pm
  • Could we get a Bruins OT playoff win in Montreal AND a naked horse in the same night?

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:23 pm
  • Red Sox again let Jimmy Chitwood off the hook.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:27 pm
  • Whew, long out #3 in the 5th. Still a… good game by Beckett.
    Get some goddamn runs.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 11:34 pm
  • No hits through 5 off Beckett.
    One more inning for the AP no-hit advisory.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:37 pm
  • Nice, two more runners ready to be stranded.
    Reverse-jinx deployed.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 11:41 pm
  • 2 on, 0 outs for Carl.
    He squares but pulls back.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:42 pm
  • Carl sac bunt, 1-4. Why would he sac Papi to third. Swing away, baby.
    1st and 3rd, 1 out. Tek up, steal, Carl.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:43 pm
  • I’m wrong. Carl was out at first.
    Lowrie at 2nd.
    And Tek Ks.
    2 outs. Gawd.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:45 pm
  • Wow, Torii Hunter barely tried to catch that blooper. RUNS FOR BECKETT!

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 11:45 pm
  • Ells with a 2-run flare.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:45 pm
  • Infield single. Well at least I can go to bed.

    Atheose - SF April 21, 2011, 11:51 pm
  • no need for the AP advisory.
    1st hit is a high bouncer back to Beckett, who had no chance to get Aybar.
    good night, ath.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:51 pm
  • Damn, Beckett’s been terrific.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 21, 2011, 11:57 pm
  • A-Gon giveth with the 11th inning RBI double, but taketh away with the horrific baserunning almost immediately following. Lowrie up with the bases loaded and one out, 3-2 Sox. Papelbon warming.

    Devine April 22, 2011, 1:36 am
  • It’s great to see Beckett pwning the American League again. His success against the Yankees makes this string of amazing starts that much more impressive, since they are, um, better than the Blue Jays and Angels.
    I have to say, though, it seems to me (without looking at any numbers) about two-thirds of the time, Beckett gets his ass handed to him by the Yankees, and the other third of the time he hands their asses to them (almost no average starts). Still, I think that’s better than you’d get with a lot of pitchers who face the Yankees year after year for multiple starts.
    4-2 Sox on Lowrie’s SF.

    Devine April 22, 2011, 1:40 am
  • Kendrick (6 HR on the year) up with a man on 2nd and 2 out in a 2-run game. One more out, Pap.
    Strike one.

    Devine April 22, 2011, 1:52 am
  • Strike two.

    Devine April 22, 2011, 1:52 am
  • One and two.
    Foul. Splitter dinked to the right of 1st.
    Fouled again. Straight back on the fastball.
    Fouled again. Straight back again.
    Long talk with Tek.
    No swing at the splitter. 2-2.

    Devine April 22, 2011, 1:56 am
  • Fouled to the right, “sliced” as they say.
    Close to the corner, but outside. 3-2…
    K!!! Victory!!!
    5 of 6 feels good. Also, the starters have been amazing for quite a few starts in a row now.

    Devine April 22, 2011, 1:58 am
  • Question for SFs:
    If Varitek keeps putting up the 0′s for the pitchers but is a complete zero with the bat, do you stick with him all season? He could wind up with the worst batting line of all-time at this rate. The pitchers look great with back there and the rest of the lineup is still dangerous.

    James YF April 22, 2011, 8:12 am
  • I wonder if there is too easy a causation/correlation narrative developing with Tek.
    I am very happy that the pitchers are doing better, but how can we know that it is Tek and not just sample size expansion?
    It is, nonetheless, a very good question James poses. I think the Sox actually might be better off DHing for Tek (particularly when Beckett and Dice-K pitch), though the idea that the pitchers might end up on the basepaths probably makes this a non-starter of an idea – too risky and too radical.

    SF April 22, 2011, 8:46 am
  • i don’t see how varitek could withstand a whole season behind the plate at his age…they can absorb his depleted offense with the strength in the rest of that lineup, but catching takes a toll…they need to get creative quickly if they don’t think salty’s the answer, especially if tek wears down…it’s all fun and games now, but it’s a long season, and catching is probably the toughest [on your body anyway] defensive position…sox fans, who’s the backup to the backup? as in plan C…anybody in the minors?
    about ellsbury…yep, my impression, and paul’s data and conclusions confirm that his swing is messed up because he’s simply swinging too hard…that lengthens the swing, and creates an uppercut effect…that would explain the increase in fly ball %age…someone needs to remind him to shorten his stroke, return to being more of a slap hitter, and leave the homerun hitting to the other guys…

    dc April 22, 2011, 8:54 am
  • i guess i should have read this before i made my comment about the catching situation:
    http://www.boston.com/sports/baseball/redsox/articles/2011/04/22/not_the_time_for_red_sox_to_shift_catching_gear/

    dc April 22, 2011, 9:11 am
  • The interesting thing about Tek is that pitchers gush over him; in interviews they go on and on about the pre-game preparation he does regarding opposing lineups, and how confident he makes them feel behind the plate. It’s tough to dismiss Tek as a key part of the starters’ success when you hear things like that.

    Atheose - SF April 22, 2011, 11:28 am
  • Remember how much Papi gushed about having Manny hitting behind him, but also what the stats showed?
    My gut tells me that the pitcher-catcher relationship is more intimate and important, the pitcher’s comfort level and confidence has a bigger bearing on performance than does lineup order. But I do wonder what the empirical data would tell us about this.

    SF April 22, 2011, 12:24 pm
  • “…My gut tells me that the pitcher-catcher relationship is more intimate and important, the pitcher’s comfort level and confidence has a bigger bearing on performance than does lineup order. …”
    yep, i used to think that was a lot of hooha sf, but i’m becoming a believer…after years of hearing that tek was a “great handler of pitchers”, and posada wasn’t, and thinking that it was made up crap just to make tek look more valuable that he really was, i’m inclined now to think that there’s something to it…there’s probably no more fragile an ego in baseball than that of the pitcher, and there must be value in being comfortable that your partner behind the plate knows what he’s doing…still perhaps a bit overrated since many teams call pitches from the bench, but whatever…i heard somewhere that in addition to injury concerns, the dodgers let russell martin get away because he didn’t have a particularly good rapport with pitchers…it’s been said that the yankee staff loves him, including burnout…go figure

    dc April 22, 2011, 1:48 pm
  • Before we spend too much time solving problems (Sox catching), or gushing of something that isn’t the problem we anticipated it might be (Martin) we need to remember it’s April.
    The Tek-Salty combo might indeed prove to be a disaster in six weeks, or Salty might figure it out and be able to catch 110 games. We just don’t know. about the only thing I am banking on long-term regarding the Red Sox catching is 1. Tek probably can’t catch more than 65 games; 2. there is no one in the Sox system who is ready to catch and hit at the big league level; 3. there isn’t much out there on the market, particularly now that Mauer is on the shelf.
    This will need time.
    Martin, he might prove to be a shrewd signing or he might prove to be a flop. I just don’t think it’s wise to draw such definitive conclusions right now. Still so many variables.

    I'mBillMcNeal April 22, 2011, 2:16 pm
  • “…Mauer is on the shelf…”
    and that’s irrelevant…he was never available to the sox anyway…he clearly wanted to stay in minn, and they just as clearly wanted him to…
    and nobody’s really “gushing” over martin…just pointing out that what was advertised as one of his problems doesn’t seem to be, yet anyway…and sure salty could figure it out, even though that was not the case in texas, so it was a big gamble to assume he could catch 100 games…they can hide his bat, but not his defense and handling of the pitchers…maybe tek can tutor him on the days he’s not catching…there’s value in that too…

    dc April 23, 2011, 10:18 am
  • Actually, Cashman is gushing over Martin and saying stoopid in the process by comparing him to Munson. It may have been his best signing yet, and it helps to keep the spotlight away from Feliciano and Marte when Tabata is tearing up the NL and none of the “Big Three” are legit starters. After five years of “Cashman control” they have yet to develop a starting pitcher. Can’t wait for Kevin Millwood! Maybe Carlos Silva too!

    James YF April 23, 2011, 10:57 am
  • As for the Sox, they’ve known they needed a catcher for a long time and while the organization loves Salty, what ever happened to performance mattering?
    As for alternatives, the Nationals got Wilson Ramos for Matt Capps. Of course Martin was out there. Even Jose Molina would be an upgrade over Varitek at this point.

    James YF April 23, 2011, 11:05 am
  • If the Salty experiment doesn’t work out, I expect Boston to go pretty hard after Iannetta in Colorado, who is sharing catching responsibilities right now. I think they’ve targeted him in the past.
    As it stands, clearly having Varitek back there hitting the way he is will hurt them.

    Nick-YF April 23, 2011, 9:46 pm

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