Saturday, April 23, 2016

Can Ellsbury Provide the Missing Spark for the Offense?



Most of the games during the Yankees’ recent 1-7 slide have followed a familiar pattern. Very few of the losses were blowouts. New York’s pitching has not been spectacular, but they’ve kept them in games. The real issue has been the inability of the offense to muster more than 2-3 runs per contest. The result has been a number of frustratingly close defeats. The first half of Friday night’s matchup against the Rays followed this pattern. The Yanks were down 3-2 in the fifth. Although they had two runners in scoring position, they also had two outs. The team’s struggles with RISP have been well documented in the early going, so the odds seemed against a clutch hit.


With a full count to Brett Gardner and two outs, Jacoby Ellsbury made a bold call that resulted in easily the most exciting and memorable play of 2016. He stole home against the deliberate Matt Moore, something he hadn’t done since April 2009, ironically against
the Yankees. After the game, Girardi expressed his admiration, telling reporters, “It's not a play you see every day. The last time I saw it, he did it against Andy Pettitte. That kept me up a few nights. It's good to be on this side." The decision was daring because there was two strikes on Gardner. If Moore threw him a pitch down the middle, he would have to swing, possibly putting Ellsbury in danger of being hit with bat or ball. Of course, the gamble paid off, and the run tied the game at three. The play completely reversed the momentum of the night and began the rally that led to an eventual 6-3 victory.



Despite his hefty salary and lengthy commitment, Ellsbury has been looking more and more like a platoon option (at best) in 2016. The only reason he was in Friday’s game at all was because Aaron Hicks, who started in centerfield, had to leave the game with a sore shoulder. With Hicks day-to-day, Ellsbury will have the next few games at least of playing regularly, even though the team will be facing several left-handed starters in a row. Ellsbury got off to a miserable start to the season (a 54 wRC+ in his first 51 PAs), but has started to turn things around the last three games, going 6-12 with two doubles and two RBI.


Friday’s steal of home felt like a statement. Ellsbury was signed to be the spark at the top of the Yankees lineup. They are at their most dangerous when he and Gardner are healthy and causing havoc at the top of the lineup. The further he gets from the knee injury that hobbled him in the second half of 2015, the better the chances are that fans will see that dynamic player return. An aggressive Ellsbury who is fighting to regain his everyday job may be the catalyst the Yankees need to reverse this losing streak and  dig themselves out of the AL East cellar.

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