When the New York Yankees inked Jacoby Ellsbury to a seven-year, $153 million contract, he and Brett Gardner were supposed to be table setters in the Bombers’ lineup.
New York finished second in baseball in runs scored (764) behind the powerhouse offense of the Toronto Blue Jays, fourth in home runs (212), fourth in slugging percentage (.421), and fifth in OPS (.744).
The top notch offensive numbers were primarily based on a solid first half. Post-midsummer classic, the team ranked 23rd in AVG sitting behind porous teams like the Tampa Bay Rays, Colorado Rockies, and the Milwaukee Brewers.
Up until May 19th, the two lived up to the title of “Dynamic Duo.” Going into play that day against the Washington Nationals, Ellsbury had the highest batting average in the American League (.324) and only one other player had more steals than Gardner (10).
However, that night became the start of a dismal campaign for the 1-2 punch, after Ellsbury suffered a sprained right knee, putting him on the shelf until July. Upon his return, the center fielder slashed .220/.266/.326 for the remainder of the season. He was so bad that manager Joe Girardi benched the speedster during the Yankees’ Wild Card loss to the Houston Astros.
Gardner, on the other hand, hit just .206 during the second half after an appearance in the All-Star game in Cincinnati.
“We were struggling to get on base, struggling to score runs collectively as a unit,” Gardner told Kevin Davidoff of the NY Post. “It’s important to really do your job up there, get on base and set the tone.”
The ideology of bringing in Ellsbury to create this top of the lineup threat was to not only set the table, but to produce when the aging sluggers in the middle weren’t cranking home runs.
There is no way the Yankees offense scores 764 runs for the second consecutive year without improved production from Ellsbury and Gardner.
Because of age, it’s likely that every other player in the starting lineup will experience a decrease in production. It’s known by nearly everyone that athletes (no matter what sport) over 30 lose value until they retire.
Besides the young and athletic Didi Gregorius and Starlin Castro, the rest of the lineup is on the back end of their major league careers. The two will also bat in the latter half of the lineup so they are not as nearly as important as Ellsbury or Gardner.
Alex Rodriguez (40), Mark Teixeira (35), Carlos Beltran (38), Brian McCann (32) and Chase Headley (31) are expected to bat behind Ellsbury and Gardner, making not only their speed imperative, but their ability to get on base, too.
In his article for the Post, Davidoff mentions how Ellsbury and Gardner actually had a combined on-base percentage of .332 in 2015, compared to .328 they had in 2014. Impressive and promising, but they only swiped 41 bases in 55 attempts last year after going 60-for-70 the year before.
“You can’t steal 47 bases if you don’t try to steal 47 bases,” Gardner told Jared Diamond of the Wall Street Journal. “All that starts with getting on base more often.”
That may not be the whole story.
Gardner had an OBP of .343 in 2015, only .002 less than his 2011 percentage, when he stole 49 bases on 62 attempts. He even had the same total batting average (.259).
The “speedster” got on base just as much as he did in the year in which he set his career high in stolen bases, so why is he saying he needs to get on base more?
He can’t say he doesn’t want to get thrown out in front of the Yankee sluggers because his success rate is still among the best in baseball. What’s the excuse?
News flash! The key, is health.
Ellsbury had the highest batting average in the AL before his knee injury and Gardner suffered a sports hernia in 2014 that was operated on.
Now, it could easily be age catching up to them (Ellsbury is 32, Gardner 33), but it’s evident that when healthy they could be the dynamic duo that are owed a combined $205-million.
One thing’s for sure, though, they pulled off borderline miracle last year. If the Yankees want an encore in regards to production, they need Gardner and Ellsbury’s wheels to be in high gear.