Jacoby Ellsbury struggles to find place in Yankees' lineup
SEATTLE — Murmurs ran through the Safeco Field crowd of 38,503 Sunday afternoon every time the talk of major-league baseball — New York Yankees right fielder Aaron Judge — stepped into the batter's box.
The 6-7, 280-pound rookie — who leads the majors with 32 home runs while hitting .310 — went 0 for 3 with a pair of walks in a 6-4 victory over Seattle.
Meanwhile, the Yankees' most highly paid position player — center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury — created not even a stir when he was inserted as a pinch-runner in the eighth inning.
Ellsbury is making $21.14 million in the fourth year of the seven-year, $153-million contract he signed when he came to the Yankees as a free agent in 2014.
Judge may be the best bargain in baseball. His rookie salary this season is $544,500.
Ellsbury? It's quite the opposite.
The website NJ.com — part of NJ Advance Media — referred last week to the Madras native and former Oregon State All-American as a "handsomely paid underachiever." Manager Joe Girardi benched Ellsbury — who is batting .249 with four home runs and 17 RBIs in 68 games — for the final three games of the Seattle series.
Girardi moved left fielder Brett Gardner to center and inserted rookie Clint Frazier in left. Frazier went 1 for 5 with two RBIs Sunday and is batting .295, though his on-base percentage (.302) is lower than Ellsbury's (.324).
"I told Jacoby we're going to go with the hot hand right now," Girardi told the Portland Tribune. "It's always subject to change. We're at a time now where we can't be as patient as we were in April and May.
"He has to be ready to play. If there are certain matchups that I like, I'm going to play him. I told him I'd try to give him a heads-up when those matchups are coming."
Ellsbury traces his fall from grace to May 24, when he suffered a concussion and a neck injury crashing into the center field fence while making a catch of a deep fly ball against Kansas City.
The 6-1, 185-pound Ellsbury missed 29 games and, after a two-game rehab stint at Triple-A Scranton-Wilkes Barre, was reactivated on June 26. Now he has lost his starting job, at least temporarily.
"Of course I want to play," Ellsbury said. "My numbers were great to start the season. The first two months, I came out of the gates strong. I felt really good. Then I had the concussion. I just haven't been hitting the same since."
Ellsbury was hitting .281 with four homers, 14 RBIs and eight stolen bases in 39 games before he began his stint on the disabled list. Since his return, he is batting .177 with no round-trippers, three RBIs and four steals in 18 games. He said he feels good physically but needs time to regain his rhythm at the plate.
"It's been just three weeks," Ellsbury said. "That's a small sample size. I'll get it back. I'm going to work hard to get back to where I was."
That's going to be difficult if he is mostly riding the pines. In the last three games of the Seattle series, he appeared only as a pinch runner twice.
On Saturday night, he came into the game and ran for shortstop Didi Grigorius with the Yankees trailing 5-4 in the top of the ninth. Ellsbury — who three times has led the American League in stolen bases, including a career-high 70 in 2009 — stole second base, then scored on a single to tie the score and send the game into extra innings, a game in which the Mariners won 6-5 in 10 innings.
"The jumps that 'Ells' gets makes a difference," Girardi explained Sunday. "Didi has better-than-average speed, but he's not a base-stealer like Ells. That's why I chose to do it."
Ellsbury intends to take advantage of his opportunities, however they come about.
"You just never know," he said. "One thing can happen to change everything. You have to be ready to play. That's what it comes down to. Like (Saturday) night. You just have to stay prepared."
Still, pinch running is a come-down for a player who has been a starter since coming up to Boston late in the 2007 season as a 23-year-old rookie. Girardi doesn't intend to let him waste away on the bench.
"When a player is used to starting, it is hard for him to not play every day," the Yankees skipper said. "It can be difficult. That's why you don't go too long without playing him. You get him back in there. But we're at a time in the season where we're going to go with the hot hand."
Ellsbury has been a well-respected player through his 10-plus big-league seasons, carrying a .284 career average with a .341 on-base percentage. The pinnacle came in 2011 when, as Boston's leadoff hitter, he put together a season for the ages.
In his only All-Star campaign, Ellsbury ranked among the league's top six in nearly offensive category, including total bases (364, first), hits (212, third), runs (119, third), doubles (46, tied for third), home runs (32, tied for third), stolen bases (39, fourth), average (.321, fifth), on-base plus slugging (.928, fifth), slugging (.552, tied for fifth and RBIs (105, tied for sixth).
Ellsbury became the fourth player in major league history to reach 200 hits, 30 homers, 100 RBIs and 35 stolen bases in a season. He won Gold Glove and Silver Slugger awards, was named the American League Comeback Player of the year and was runner-up to Detroit pitcher Justin Verlander for the league's Most Valuable Player trophy.
Ellsbury has hit only .263 in his four seasons as a Yankee. His best season was his first — .271 with 16 homers, 70 RBIs and 39 steals in 2014.
Now he is a member of a crowded outfield group that includes Judge, Gardner, Frazier and center fielder Aaron Hicks, who has been out since June 26 with a strained oblique muscle.
New York newspapers have not been kind in their appraisal of Ellsbury.
"Frazier is making Yankees' $153M man disappear," said a New York Post headline.
A headline in the New York Daily News went further: "Yankees need to find way to ditch Ellsbury for Frazier."
A trade is a possibility, though it might require the Yankees to pay some of the $63 million they will owe Ellsbury for the final three years of his deal.
Though Ellsbury turns 34 on Sept. 11, he feels there is still plenty of good baseball left in him.
"I feel good physically," he said. "Everybody is different. It's about how you take care of yourself. I take care of myself really well. I train hard in the offseason, do everything you need to do."
He said he would prefer to stay with the Yankees.
"I've enjoyed my time in New York," Ellsbury said. "I love the city and enjoy the group of guys I'm playing with."
Ellsbury is an elder statesman on a team that is being built around Judge, 25, and promising catcher Gary Sanchez, 24.
"They have great potential," Ellsbury said. "They have all the tools. It'll be exciting to see what they can do in the years to come."
Judge came onto the national scene with his victory in the Home Run Derby during All-Star Weekend.
"You go back in time, there can't be too many like Aaron in terms of size and ability," Ellsbury said. "He is very gifted athletically. He works hard. He continually wants to learn and get better.
"He is off to a tremendous start. The fans got a taste of it in the Home Run Derby. He has done a great job dealing with all the attention he's gotten."
The Yankees (51-46) took three of four games from the Mariners to win a series for the first time in six weeks. Even so, New York is only 2 1/2 games behind AL East leader Boston and is sitting in the first AL wild-card spot.
"I always have individual goals, but team goals are most important," Ellsbury said. "Making the playoffs is the ultimate team goal. We're in position to make a good run at that."
Ellsbury and wife Kelsey — a Pendleton native and fellow former Oregon Stater — are parents of girls ages 19 months and 5 months.
"I love being a dad," Ellsbury said. "I enjoy each and every day. There's something new they're doing each and every day. It's a blessing to have them."
Ellsbury closely followed Oregon State's 56-6 season and its unsuccessful bid to claim the College World Series title this spring.
"I keep in touch with the coaches and catch their games when I can on ESPN," he said. "It was an unbelievable season. I know the alums and fan base were proud with what they accomplished this year. I'm sure the players are a little disappointed they didn't win it all, but they should all be proud."
In 2014, Ellsbury donated $1 million to the Beavers' locker room expansion. The locker room is named in his honor.
"I loved my time there," he said. "It was three great years. I grew as a player, enjoyed my teammates and coaching staff. I enjoyed the campus, loved being a student there.
"I wanted to help them continue their success. It's fun for past players to come back and still feel like a part of it. They've done a tremendous job ever since I left."