Just when it looked like the Yankees were going to fall back into their regular pattern of offensive futility yesterday, the big money guys stepped up and delivered a win. Jacoby Ellsbury singled to lead off the bottom of the 9th, promptly stole second base off Cincy closer Aroldis Chapman then moved to third on a wild pitch, and scored the walk-off run on Brian McCann's clutch RBI single. It only took almost 100 games, but the Yanks finally got a big win thanks to their 2 biggest free agent hitter acquisitions and ended the series on the right side of a sweep.
That's the high level story today, the one that's more fun for the media to write and more fun for the fans to read. The truth is that McCann's game-winning hit was really more the byproduct of good BIP luck and poor Reds defense than anything he did to hit the ball. Had somebody caught the ball, who knows if Ellsbury would have been driven in with 2 outs. Where McCann's glory was defense-assisted yesterday, Ellsbury's was all earned. Ellsbury led the Yankees with 4 hits in 4 at-bats, 1 of them a double, 1 R, 1 RBI, 1 walk, and 2 stolen bases. He was everything for the offense, driving in an early run and basically creating the winning run by himself. It was his first 4-hit game since May 2nd, and the latest in a string of very productive, and more powerful, performances from the 3-spot in the lineup. It's taken a while, but it looks like Ellsbury is starting to figure out how to handle that spot.
After yesterday's big game and Friday night's 2-run homer, Ellsbury is hitting .292/.324/.492 in July. That slugging percentage is his highest in any month so far this year and the shift towards more power and less OBP has been very apparent this month. Ellsbury's .816 OPS in July is almost identical to the .809 he put up in June, except in June he had a .390 OBP and a .419 SLG. He had 4 doubles and 2 HR in June and the same power output in May. He's already reached the 4-double mark this month and the homer on Friday was his 3rd. The 11 July ribbies are 1 away from tying his monthly season high. With 11 days remaining, Ellsbury is fixing to have his most productive month of the season.
And what's great about that is that he's hitting for more power without completely changing the type of hitter he is or getting away from his greatest strengths. Ellsbury is still on track to score 12+ runs this month and he has 5 stolen bases in 15 July games. The only big change has been in his BB rate, which is down at 2.9% this month after being around 10% for the first 3. Being more aggressive and swinging at more pitches has led to Ellsbury hitting for power this month, but it's done so without heightening his K rate. At 14.7% this month, he's striking out below his average rate for the season.
That begs the question of whether or not he's consciously changing his approach at the plate to generate more power. The lower K rate suggests he isn't, and a look at Ellsbury's spray charts seems to confirm it. Check out his chart from April, when he hit .312/.369/.452 in 103 PA:
There's a high concentration of GB outs to the right side and a generally even distribution of balls hit to all parts of the outfield. Ellsbury mainly drove the ball back up the middle or the other way for base hits and pulled down the right field line for power when he had the chance. That BIP distribution shifted to more right side infield groundouts and flyouts the other way when he slumped in May, but look at Ellsbury's spray chart for this month:
Really not that different from April. Same high concentration of groundball outs to the right side, same even distribution to the outfield. There's been more power to right, sure, but the outfield BIP location doesn't make it look like those home runs have come as a result of Ellsbury's consciously changing his approach to hit the ball to right field more. He's still hitting the ball to center and left, he's just had more success this month when he has hit the ball to right. Perhaps that's because he's looking for more pitches to hit now instead of taking pitches for walks.
If that's the one conscious change Ellsbury has made to his approach this month, then good on him. It's hard to produce the way a typical #3 hitter would if you're not looking for pitches to hit and pitches to drive. Ellsbury is obviously not a typical #3 hitter and never will be, but he's good enough to be similarly productive when he puts the bat on the ball and he's done that a lot more this month. As long as it doesn't eliminate his speed factor, and it hasn't thus far, I don't have a problem with Ellsbury being more aggressive at the plate. It's working out pretty well for him and the Yankees right now.