As the Top of the Order Turns

The last eight months or so have not been kind to Jacoby Ellsbury and Brett Gardner, insofar as fan sentiment is concerned. Ellsbury's struggles over the last calendar year are well-documented, and folk have grown tired of Gardner's annual second-half swoon. This is not to say that these gripes are unfounded or unwarranted - Ellsbury is still batting .239/.292/.361 (77 wRC+) over the last calendar year, and Gardner is still a career .236/.326/.351 (88 wRC+) hitter in the second-half. And this is not my attempt to have it both ways, or renege on the fact that I have picked on both players quite a bit of late (even saying that I would deal Ellsbury for Melvin Upton in the off-season ... though, when taking contracts into consideration, I stand by that).

Rather, this is to point out two simple facts that have gone semi-unnoticed: Ellsbury and Gardner are playing quite well right now, and the team has played better as a result (at least in part).

At the end of April, the Yankees record stood at 8-14, on the heels of a 8-0 drubbing at the hands of the Red Sox. Ellsbury was batting .235/.278/.341 following an 0-for-4 effort, and it seemed as though nothing was going right. Since then, however, the team has gone 13-8, and Ellsbury has spearheaded the offense by hitting .348/.455/.587 over that time. He has reached base in nine straight games, as well. 

What changed for Ellsbury?

His walk rate has increased by 6.7 percentage points this month (from 5.4% to 12.1%), and he shaved nearly 5 percentage points off of his strikeout rate (16.1% to 10.3%). Ellsbury is also pulling the ball less (38.6% down to 29.3%), and working from gap-to-gap instead (32.9% to center up to 48.8%). This could be indicative of him selling out for power early in the season in an effort to bust out of his slump, which is also somewhat supported by him hitting fewer flyballs. We are still dealing with small sample sizes, to be sure - but, for whatever it's worth, he looks noticeably better by the eye test, as well.

As for Gardner ... well ... he's doing Gardner things, and has been all season. He is currently batting .246/.370/.391 (117 wRC+), with 8 SB in 9 attempts, and is swinging at only 33.8% of pitches (compared to a career norm of 35.7%, and a drop of 3.4 percentage points from last year). Gardner's .370 OBP puts him 18th in the American League, and his 13.9% BB% is 18th in the Majors. His table-setting skills have been a consistent asset to the Yankees inconsistent offense in 2016, and that cannot be overstated.

With Ellsbury and Gardner both hitting well, the Yankees offense has improved quite a bit this month. The offense as a whole posted a 83 wRC+ in April (26th in baseball), and scored the fewest runs of any team (though, they did deal with a few rainouts). In May, their 96 wRC+ is 17th in baseball, and they are 13th in runs scored. This may not be the elite offense that the Yankees had for most of 2015 - but it's a start.

It would be inane to give Ellsbury and Gardner all the credit, and the pitching staff has done a heck of a job of late, as well. However, the lineup is dependent on those two getting on-base, and as long as they are hitting the offense should be at least competent. And, despite my proclivity for pessimism, what we've seen of late does seem sustainable.