The following article is part of Jay Jaffe’s ongoing look at the candidates on the BBWAA 2023 Hall of Fame ballot. For a detailed introduction to this year’s ballot, and other candidates in the series, use the tool above; an introduction to JAWS can be found here. For a tentative schedule, and a chance to fill out a Hall of Fame ballot for our crowdsourcing project, see here. All WAR figures refer to the Baseball-Reference version unless otherwise indicated.
2023 BBWAA Candidate: Jacoby Ellsbury
|Player||Pos||Career WAR||Peak WAR||JAWS||H||HR||SB||AVG/OBP/SLG||OPS+|
Jacoby Ellsbury spent just 11 seasons — and not even a full 11 — in the majors and somehow managed to earn the enmity of the fan bases of both the Red Sox and Yankees, the only two teams for which he played. At his best, he was a speedy center fielder with some pop — a first-round pick and an All-Star, not to mention the first known Native American of Navajo descent to play in the majors. He led the AL in stolen bases three times, played a key role on two World Series winners, and netted a staggering seven-year, $153 million contract when he hit free agency.
Yet Ellsbury had a difficult time staying healthy and in the lineup. He missed nearly all of 2010 and half of ’12, the two campaigns on either side of his lone All-Star season, then averaged 130 games over the first four years of his Yankees deal before falling off the map. He rarely spoke to the media, which fed into a perception that he was detached or even apathetic, particularly when he made slow progress rehabilitating his injuries away from his teams, both of which happened to play in media-saturated cities. “Ellsbury is the inscrutable star,” wrote the Boston Globe’s Christopher L. Gasper in 2015. “We will never know the real Jacoby Ellsbury. He will never let us in. It’s not personal. It’s just his personality.”
“Though the quiet, amicable Ellsbury wasn’t loathed in the Yankees’ clubhouse, nor was he beloved, he never gave off the vibe that he burned to win,” wrote the New York Post’s Ken Davidoff in 2019. That comment came after Ellsbury spent all of 2018 and ’19 on the injured list, then was released by the Yankees with a year remaining on his contract — and just before the Yankees filed a grievance in an attempt to recoup some of his remaining salary, claiming that he had used an outside facility without their permission to rehab the injuries that kept him off the field. He and the team ultimately reached a confidential settlement, but he never played again; his final major league game was just 19 days after his 34th birthday.
Jacoby McCabe Ellsbury was born September 11, 1983 in Madras, Oregon, the oldest of four children. His father Jim is white, and his mother Margie is a full-blooded member of the Navajo and Colorado River Indian Tribes. Jacoby became a member of both tribes as well, and spent his early childhood on the Warm Springs Reservation before moving to Madras, a town of about 5,000 people at the time, for kindergarten. In Little League, Ellbsury excelled against much older kids, and despite throwing (and batting) lefthanded, spent time at catcher. At Madras High School, he lettered in basketball, football, soccer and cross country as well as baseball, in which he earned all-state honors and set a state record with a .567 career batting average.
The Rays drafted Ellsbury in the 23rd round in 2002, but he turned down their bonus offer of $90,000 to accept a scholarship to Oregon State. He helped the school to its first College World Series in 53 years in 2005, his junior year, and made numerous All-American teams along the way, including those of Baseball America and USA Today/Sports Weekly. Fresh off their first championship in 86 years, not to mention the free-agent departure of Johnny Damon, the Red Sox chose Ellsbury with the 23rd pick of the 2005 draft, signing him for a $1.4 million bonus. He began his professional career at Low-A Lowell that summer, hitting .317/.418/.432 and stealing 23 bases in 35 games.
Ellsbury rocketed through the Red Sox system, splitting 2006 between High-A and Double-A stops, after which he cracked Baseball America’s Top 100 Prospects list at no. 33. After 17 more games at Double-A Portland, he was promoted to Triple-A Pawtucket, where he stole 33 bases in 87 games. The Red Sox called Ellsbury up twice during his run at the latter stop, first from June 30 to July 5 — he debuted with a 1-for-4 showing against the Rangers on that first date, collecting a single off Rob Tejeda — and then for a doubleheader on August 17. His debut made him the majors’ first player of Navajo descent.
The AL East-leading Red Sox brought Ellsbury back in September when Manny Ramirez had to miss time due to an oblique strain, and he hit a sizzling .353/.394/.509 with three homers and nine stolen bases in 127 PA. After being limited to pinch-running and defensive replacement duty in the Divisional Series, he took over center field from the slumping Coco Crisp late in the ALCS as Boston rallied from a three-games-to-one deficit against Cleveland, then went 7-for-16 with four doubles in a four-game sweep of the Rockies in the World Series, highlighted by a four-hit, three-double performance out of the leadoff spot in Game 3 and two more hits in Game 4.
With his rookie status still intact, Ellsbury climbed to no. 13 on Baseball America’s prospect list in 2008. He got the start in center field on Opening Day, then split time at all three outfield spots, with 63 starts in center, 36 in left, and 30 in right, via which he took more plate appearances (609) than the struggling Crisp, the oft-injured J.D. Drew, and the traded-at-the-deadline Ramirez. Ellsbury hit only .280/.336/.394 (88 OPS+) but stole an AL-high 50 bases in 61 attempts and played strong enough defense to boost his WAR to 3.0. The Red Sox won 95 games and claimed the AL Wild Card spot, and Ellsbury started the postseason by going 6-for-14 with three doubles in the first three games of the Division Series against the Angels. They won that series, but he didn’t get another hit in October, going 0-for-18 as the Red Sox closed out the Angels before falling to the Rays in the ALCS; he didn’t bat at all after Game 4 of that seven-game series.
Taking over as the full-time center fielder after Crisp departed via free agency, Ellsbury improved to .301/.355/.415 (98 OPS+) in 2009 and stole 70 bases in 82 attempts; no player has had more steals in a season since. The Red Sox again claimed the AL Wild Card spot but went three-and-out in the Division Series against the Angels, during which Ellsbury led the team with the meager total of three hits.
Ellsbury’s career suffered its first major setback in 2010. An April 11 collision with Adrián Beltré left him with what as originally diagnosed as bruised ribs, but after 10 days with little improvement, a CT scan revealed he’d suffered hairline fractures of four ribs. He returned for three games in late May before being sidelined by back pain, upon which Dr. Lewis Yocum discovered a fractured posterior rib, an inflamed nerve, and a strained latissimus dorsi. Contradictions between the team’s version of the story and his own created controversy, and teammate Kevin Youkilis publicly questioned Ellsbury rehabbing in Arizona rather than staying with the team. After he returned to play nine games in August, he suffered yet another rib fracture upon colliding with Rangers pitcher Tommy Hunter while running out a groundball, ending his season.
Ellsbury quieted his critics at least temporarily with a career year in 2011. He played 158 games, and for once he hit for power, launching 32 homers (12 more than in 349 previous major league games), stealing 39 bases, and batting .321/.376/.552. Underlying that power surge was a sudden ability to punish inside fastballs and both the highest pull rate (39.6%) and lowest groundball rate (43%) of his Boston tenure. He made his only All-Star team and led the AL in total bases (346) and WAR (8.3), ranking fifth in batting average and OPS+ (146) and sixth in slugging percentage. While the Red Sox missed the playoffs thanks to their 7–20 September collapse, it was hardly Ellsbury’s fault, as he hit .358/.400/.667 that month. He finished second to Justin Verlander in the AL MVP voting.
Unfortunately, Ellsbury didn’t get much chance to follow up on that career year; in the seventh game of the 2012 season, he dislocated his right shoulder while sliding into second base when Rays shortstop Reid Brignac landed on him. The initial estimates that he’d be out six to eight weeks were off, as he ended up missing 79 games; in the 74 games he did play, he hit just .271/.313/.370 with four homers and 0.9 WAR. He rebounded in 2013, hitting .298/.355/.426 (113 OPS+) with an AL-high 52 steals (in 56 attempts) and 5.8 WAR (10th in the league) thanks to exceptional defense, then added a .344/.408/.438 showing in 71 postseason plate appearances, helping the Red Sox to their third championship in a decade.
After going year-to-year during arbitration, the 30-year-old Ellsbury hit free agency on a high note, and with the help of agent Scott Boras, he capitalized in a big way. With the Yankees reportedly unwilling to go beyond seven years and roughly $170 million to retain Robinson Canó (who would soon land a 10-year, $240 million deal from the Mariners), the team instead signed Ellbury to a seven-year, $153 million deal with an option for an eighth year (2021). At the time, the contract was the third-largest ever for an outfielder, trailing only the eight-year, $160 million pacts of Ramirez and Matt Kemp.
Ellsbury began his Bronx tenure with a vague approximation of what he’d just done in Boston (.271/.328/.419, 111 OPS+ with 39 steals), and though he was healthy enough to play in 149 games, his DRS declined from 13 to -3 and his WAR from a star-level 5.8 to a still-solid 3.6. Unfortunately, things quickly went further south. Over three more seasons, he hit a combined .261/.331/.372 (89 OPS+), averaging eight homers, 21 steals, and 2.1 WAR; he topped out with a 97 OPS+ in 2017 and with 2.7 WAR in ’16, the only year of those three he avoided injuries. In 2015, he missed seven weeks after spraining the lateral collateral ligament in his right knee; after batting .324/.412/.372 through the season’s first quarter, he hit just .224/.269/.332 after his return in July and was never really the same hitter again. In 2017, he missed a month due to a concussion and a neck sprain after running into an outfield wall making a run-saving catch; if his season had a highlight, it was his taking over the all-time lead in reaching via catcher’s interference (h/t reader Bob Timmermann). Unlike in Boston, Ellsbury had little impact on playoff teams, as the Yankees missed the postseason in both 2014 and ’16, lost the Wild Card Game in ’15, and fell one win short of the World Series in ’17. Ellsbury was a bit player during those postseason appearances, going 0-for-9 with two walks in seven games.
Ellsbury never returned to the field for a regular-season game. He began 2018 on the injured list due to a right oblique strain, then had to shut his rehab down due to a left hip injury and soon was discovered to have plantar fasciitis. While the team hoped he could ramp up to begin baseball activities after the All-Star break, he was ultimately diagnosed with a tear in his left hip labrum, requiring season-ending surgery. Continued plantar fasciitis problems wiped out his spring training in 2019; in June, it was reported that he had suffered some kind of shoulder injury as well, and once again, he never got healthy enough to resume baseball activities.
In November 2019, the Yankees released Ellsbury, still owing him $26.1 million for his final guaranteed season and a $5 million buyout of his club option. Two days later, the team filed a grievance in an attempt to recoup his otherwise-guaranteed 2020 salary, claiming he had undergone outside medical treatment without team approval while rehabbing his injuries. Via The Athletic’s Ken Rosenthal, some in the players’ union believed that unlike in 2018 and ’19, when the Yankees were reimbursed 75% of Ellsbury’s salary via insurance (likely after paying significant premiums), they had not insured his contract for ’20. Rosenthal also reported that Dr. Viktor Bouquette, who had treated Ellsbury, claimed not to have treated his work-related injuries, and that Boquette’s Progressive Medical Center “focuses not on rehabilitating specific injuries but on reducing inflammation in patients by identifying and treating its underlying causes.”
Reading between the lines, had Ellsbury been able to return, the Yankees probably would have overlooked the formalities, but because he didn’t, the team decided to exact a pound of flesh. In April 2022, the Post reported that the Yankees and Ellsbury had reached a confidential settlement “at least a year ago to avoid an airing of grievances,” and that the reduced salary helped the Yankees avoid exceeding the second Competitive Balance Tax threshold in 2020, which would have knocked their first pick in the ’21 draft down 10 spots.
Though Ellsbury became a free agent upon his release and planned to make a comeback, he never got so far as to sign with a team. The Cubs, whose president Theo Epstein and general manager Jed Hoyer had ties to Ellsbury’s time with the Red Sox, showed a flicker of interest, but nothing ever came of it.
It’s unfortunate that Ellsbury’s fadeaway only reinforced the enigmatic nature of his career and his public persona. At his best, he was a dynamic, championship-caliber player. We just didn’t get to see that much of his best.