The question I've been hearing the most this offseason hasn't been about what moves the Red Sox will make with their pitching staff, or what the team will do about right field. The thing everyone seemingly can't wait to find out is if Jacoby Ellsbury will be able to sustain the break out season he had in 2011. One concern some fans may have coming into 2012 is whether or not Ellsbury can stay healthy. This would be the most important thing for him to sustain after missing all but 18 games in 2010. However, other than that season, he has been able to play in at least 145 games a year since he became a regular. Because of this, I see no reason to call 2010 anything other than a fluke year until proven otherwise. This just leaves his actual performance to maintain, and that could be a bit trickier.
According to fWAR, Ellsbury's 9.4-win season was the best baseball has seen since Alex Rodriguez's 9.8-win season for the Yankees in 2007. Of course, playing Gold Glove defense at a premium position helps that case, but that is something that must also be sustained. Whether you prefer Baseball-Reference or Fangraphs for your defensive statistics needs, both liked Ellsbury in 2011. His UZR/150 stood at 15.7, he had 6 defensive runs saved, and Total Zone Fielding had him as 3 runs above average. However, all of these stats have fluctuated for him from year-to-year, with this season producing career-best numbers. This leads me to believe that we should see some regression with his defensive prowess. However, he should remain an above-average defensive center fielder, which remains plenty valuable in this league.
His defense wasn't the part of his game many people found surprising, though. That would be his bat. Always seen as a solid top of the order hitter with good speed, Ellsbury jumped amongst the elite hitters in the game in 2011. He had career highs in just about every stat imaginable, including his .321/.376/.552 triple-slash line, .402 wOBA and 150 wRC+. He also posted power numbers unforseen in his professional career, hitting 32 home runs (12 more than the rest of his career combined) and a .230 ISO. Now, to expect these numbers to stay as high as they were this year is probably too much, but I am not expecting as much regression as one may think. His .336 BABIP isn't overly high for a speedster like Ellsbury, and is only 11 points higher than his career number. He also stayed steady with his walk-rate (7.1%) and actually increased his K-rate (13.4%). As he plays through his prime, which he is in the middle of, his walk-rate should increase, and his K-rate should also regress a bit back to his career average, both of which would actually improve his stats enough to negate the regression from his BABIP. As for his power numbers, there will be some obvious regression, but, again, not as much as one may think. His line-drive rate improved steadily to 22.9%, not an unsustainable rate, which indicates he's putting a better swing on the ball. There will be some definite regression from his 16.7 HR/FB ratio, which is about 7 higher than both the league average and his career average. However, the combination of his improved contact and Fenway's hitter-advantage, he can still keep that ratio above average.
If any readers are expecting another 9-win season out of Ellsbury next year, I'm going to have to tell you straight, that ain't happening. However, Ellsbury remaining a 6-7 win player is not outside the realm of possibility, and that is still a great contributor. As a point of reference, Joey Votto, Adrian Gonzalez and Miguel Cabrera were all between 6.5-7.3 fWAR this past year. A lot of his value will continue to come from his glove and baserunning, but his bat will be no slouch either. I will do formal predictions for him, and everyone else, around and during Spring Training, but I expect him to remain an elite lead off hitter and center fielder.