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Running away

Posted by David Sabino  December 5, 2013 03:49 PM

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Jacoby Ellsbury stole 241 bases for Boston including this straight steal of home in 2009 against his new team.

The initial sting of Jacoby Ellsbury’s defection to the Yankees has worn off and the Red Sox have moved onto other business, including the pursuit of a possible replacement for their starting centerfielder of the past six seasons. One of the most common sentiments heard by Sox loyalists, especially on social media, is that although Ellsbury was a good player when on the field, the Yankees grossly overpaid for someone who saw more than his fair share of time on the DL, spending weeks and months on the sidelines in 2010, 2012 and again in 2013.

However for as much as he was injured as the Red Sox centerfielder, and for as fluky as 2011 season, when he placed second in the AL MVP race after hitting 32 home runs was, Ellsbury’s speed—specifically his ability to steal bases—is what made him one of the most valuable offensive players for the Red Sox and in all of baseball over the past half dozen seasons.

Using Fan Graph’s weighted stolen base runs metric we’re able to compare Ellsbury’s value in terms of runs produced by stolen bases to other speedsters. It should come as little surprise to those who followed his exploits on the bases, that even with the missed time, Ellsbury has been responsible for more runs as a result of stolen bases than anyone in the game.

This was true in 2013 when, despite missing most of September with a fractured foot, he led all players with a wSB rating of 8.3, which means that he was responsible for roughly eight more runs than the average baserunner due to stolen bases. He was a full 3.1 runs better than the next-highest on the list, Alex Rios of the White Sox and Rangers and a full 5.7 runs better than the next-highest Red Sox player on the list, Shane Victorino, who came in at 2.6.

Over the course of his big league career Ellsbury is baseball’s leader as well. Starting in 2008 when he took over as Boston’s regular in centerfield, Ellsbury’s 25.0 wSB is the highest in the majors, even while docking him for all of the games he missed over that span. His rating is again significantly higher than the next player, Rajai Davis (23.3), whose value is primarily as a baserunner (often as a pinch runner.) In fact when it comes to pure speed, Davis has Ellsbury beaten as determine by speed score which factors in all baserunning, ranking third (7.9 over that time) over Ellsbury’s 17th-ranked 7.5. (As an aside, Ellsbury’s new outfield mate, Brett Gardner, placed first in speed score at 8.2, while Victorino was ninth at 7.6).

Spending $153-million over seven years for an outfielder in his 30s was probably a bit much for the Yankees, but no matter who the Red Sox brain trust gets to replace him, Ellsbury’s defection will be felt on the scoreboard.

Here are the weighted stolen base runs leaders during Ellsbury's stint as a Red Sox regular. (source: Fangraphs.com)

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Stats Driven is powered by David Sabino, who over the last two decades has been a source of statistical analysis on the pages of Sports Illustrated, New York Times, and Chicago Tribune. David has written about all seven recent Boston-area championships for Sports Illustrated Presents commemorative issues, was the creator of such long time features as SI’s Player Value Ranking, NBA Player Rating and long running fantasy football and baseball columns.

He has also authored or made contributions to many books, including the Sports Illustrated’s 100 Fenway: A Fascinating First Century.

Now living in Marblehead, he’s focusing his attention on the Boston sports scene, specifically delving into the numbers affecting the Red Sox, Patriots, Celtics and Bruins, with the goal of informing and entertaining real fans. You can follow him on Twitter at @SabinoSports.

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