Let's get this out of the way early: I am fascinated by baseball statistics.
I'm not alone in that category, as thousands of people dedicate their lives to crunching numbers, all in the name of the game.
But while stats are invaluable, they are far from infallible.
There is no better example than the case of Jacoby Ellsbury. The man has the speed, quickness and instincts to steal 70 bases in a season in the majors, yet defensive numbers say he's a terrible outfielder. And that's supposed to make sense?
Despite the statistics, Ellsbury was named Defensive Player of the Year on MLB.com. Granted, the honor was voted on by fans, but it proves a point: The kid can play defense.
Stat geeks will tell you that those magnificent diving catches are the result of Ellsbury's speed making up for his bad read of the ball off the bat. That's all well and good, but chances are, if the ball ends up ensnared in Ellsbury's glove, the Red Sox are happy. Terry Francona probably sleeps a little easier knowing he's got such solid defense in center, and Red Sox pitchers likely don't mind knowing that no bloop will fall in shallow center and no blasts will hit the dirt in the triangle.
Yet according to FanGraphs, Ellsbury's ultimate zone rating was -18.6 in 2009 — good for dead last among center fielders. Only Toronto's Vernon Wells had nearly as low a rating (-18.2), and only two other players (Colorado's Dexter Fowler and the Cubs' Kosuke Fukudome) were in the negative double-digits.
But for anyone who wants to live and die by the defensive statistics, then what is there to say about Ellsbury's 2008 statistics? In 2008, Ellsbury's UZR was a cool 16.5. Yes, on the other side of zero. So if the stats are to be believed, Ellsbury spent the 2008 offseason eating Cheetos and working on deadening his reaction skills. His jump was just too good — nearly dangerous — for his own good, so he must have wanted to get much, much worse. You know, for safety's sake.
The reality is that only so much can be determined through numbers and stats, while other things can be surmised through a pair of eyeballs. Ellsbury's defense leads the list.
According to The Sports PhD, "UZR attempts to measure how well a fielder can turn a batted ball into an out." If that's the case, why don't we take into account the park in which Ellsbury plays half his games. For starters, he's got a wall in right-center field that's 420 feet deep. And that wall is 17 feet high and extends deep into a unique corner, thanks to the jutting out of the Red Sox' bullpen.
To put it simply, center field is a mess.
Then there is the whole matter of the 37-foot wall looming over Ellsbury's right shoulder. The Green Monster complicates matters for outfielders — notably in that they can't catch baseballs that are 10 feet up on a wall. Ellsbury is fast, no doubt, but he's yet to master the art of parkour. That apparently would boost the UZR in 2010.
Fenway undoubtedly works against an outfielder at Fenway Park. Batted balls that are outs in 29 other parks bang off the Monster; bombs to center field that clear the fences of most ballparks can become some of the trickiest outs of the season.
It should be said that Ellsbury's arm is below average. With the addition of Mike Cameron to the outfield, Ellsbury will have the weakest in the bunch. But while he won't be gunning many runners down at the plate, Ellsbury can and does cover the most ground out of anyone in Boston's outfield.
There are also the "traditional" statistics that we could look at. Like, for example, his career fielding percentage of .997. Or the fact that he didn't make an error in his career until June 17, 2009.
And we could look at video evidence. Like right here (don't tell Gary Thorne that Ellsbury can't play defense). Or, if catches in the postseason are more your thing, there's this one. Hey look, another one! A random page of Ellsbury's video highlights displays six highlights of catches out of 12 videos. In case you aren't catching on, defense is kind of his thing.
Jacoby Ellsbury is simply a solid defensive player. The argument that he is subpar brings to mind Mike Lowell's assessment of scouts and reporters who said that his bat speed slowed tremendously in 2005. In his autobiography, he wondered where exactly those scouts kept their bat speedometers and how exactly those things worked.
In the case of Lowell, the scouts and pundits were dead wrong. In the case of Ellsbury, so too are the stats.