Jacoby Ellsbury and Peter Bourjos, a tale of two centerfielders

USA TODAY Sports

Sure, Jacoby Ellsbury was the big-name free agent outfielder this offseason. However, the Cardinals snagged Peter Bourjos via trade at a much lower cost, and he might be just as good.

In one of the first moves this offseason, the St. Louis Cardinals acquired centerfielder Peter Bourjos from the Los Angeles Angels along with prospect Randal Grichuk for third baseman David Freese and relief pitcher Fernando Salas. Reactions to the trade were mixed, though most critics liked the deal for the Cardinals. Still, several commentators noted Bourjos' reputation as a glove-first player who might not be able to hit enough to stay in the lineup.

Less than two weeks after the Bourjos-Freese trade, Jacoby Ellsbury went off the market, as the New York Yankees snatched him up with a seven-year, $153 million deal. While Ellsbury, like Bourjos, has been injury prone, he possesses a reputation as an excellent all-around player. In addition to his elite baserunning and strong defense, his hitting ability including his power production, have been praised.

However, the two centerfielders are a lot closer to being equals than you might think. Here's a comparison of their hitting numbers.

Player AVG OBP SLG
Jacoby Ellsbury .297 .350 .439
Peter Bourjos .251 .306 .387

This looks like Ellsbury is the far superior hitter. However, this is where park factors come in. Angel Stadium of Anaheim is a much tougher park than Fenway. After adjusting for this, Ellsbury has a 109 wRC+, while Bourjos has a 96 wRC+. Ellsbury is still on top, but it's a lot closer.

This comparison might not be fair to Bourjos, who is just entering his age-27 season. Here are Ellsbury's hitting numbers through his age-26 season.

Player AVG OBP SLG
Jacoby Ellsbury .291 .344 .405

That comes out to a 94 wRC+, which is a shade lower than Bourjos' 96. I wouldn't bet on Bourjos hitting 32 home runs at any time in his career, but don't write him off as punchless. He possesses a .146 career ISO, which is higher than Ellsbury's .141 ISO and significantly higher than the .114 ISO Ellsbury posted through his age-26 season.

One of the biggest knocks on Bourjos' offensive game is his poor strikeout and walk rates. While Ellsbury is an excellent contact hitter, striking out in just 12.8 percent of plate appearances, Bourjos has struck out in 22.1 percent of plate appearances while walking in just 5.5 percent.

Furthermore, Bourjos has a career line drive rate of only 14.5 percent, which contributes to his reputation as a slap hitter. Still, the combination of a high ground ball rate and his ability to use his speed to bunt for hits has allowed him to produce a .309 BABIP. He's also an excellent baserunner, so despite his poor offensive reputation, he's come out as four runs above average over his career.

Defense is where Bourjos really shines. Despite missing time due to injuries, he's fourth among outfielders in defense since 2010. He owns a career UZR/150 of 20.2, compared to Ellsbury's 8.0 in centerfield. DRS has a similar love for Bourjos. Sure, there are concerns about the reliability of defensive metrics, but with that rating, we're just quibbling about whether Bourjos is the best centerfielder in baseball or one of the best.

Through his age-26 season, Ellsbury totaled 7.3 fWAR. Bourjos has compiled 9.0 fWAR despite getting nearly 400 fewer plate appearances. Up to this point in his career, Bourjos has been a better ballplayer than Ellsbury was.

But, in the last three years, Ellsbury has been one of the game's best players. Including his monster 2011 season where he hit 32 home runs and totaled 9.1 fWAR, Ellsbury has a .303/.356/.469 line with a 123 wRC+ over the past three seasons. His UZR/150 in center is 13.7, and his 16.3 fWAR is the 10th most in baseball in that span. That comes out to 5.8 fWAR per 600 plate appearances.

Even with his stepped-up performance over the last three years, Bourjos and Ellsbury are a lot closer than you might think. Bourjos has averaged 4.8 fWAR per 600 plate appearances, only a little lower than Ellsbury's peak. Add in Ellsbury's solid but less stellar younger years, and he's averaged 4.4 fWAR per 600 plate appearances.

Finally, let's take a look at how Bourjos and Ellsbury are projected to perform going forward. Since Bourjos is under team control for the next three years, I'll go with that. Here is a nice table containing Ellsbury's Oliver Projections. Both tables are based on a season of 143 games and 600 plate appearances.

Ellsbury AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def WAR
2014 .278 .337 .396 101 4.5 3.3
2015 .277 .336 .390 99 4.5 3.1
2016 .273 .331 .379 95 4.5 2.8

And here is a nice table containing Bourjos' Oliver Projections.

Bourjos AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def WAR
2014 .250 .313 .387 99 17.0 4.2
2015 .249 .313 .382 97 17.0 4.1
2016 .245 .311 .375 95 17.0 3.9

A big issue here is that Oliver doesn't regress the defensive numbers. It's a little ambitious to say Bourjos will continue to churn out +17 seasons in centerfield and Ellsbury should be better than +4.5 in his first season. Still, Oliver thinks they're a lot closer with the bat than you might expect.

Last but not least, here's a table with the Steamer projections for 2014.

Player PA AVG OBP SLG wRC+ Def WAR
Ellsbury 662 .276 .334 .417 104 6.9 3.8
Bourjos 486 .254 .311 .397 99 6.4 2.3

Steamer doesn't think as highly of Bourjos' defense going forward, but it too thinks the players are comparable offensively. If you take the average of the Oliver and Steamer defensive projections for Bourjos you get a player that is Ellsbury's equivalent on a rate basis.

Ignore the narratives, Peter Bourjos isn't a poor man's Jacoby Ellsbury. He's certainly poorer than Ellsbury, but they're baseball players of very similar quality.

. . .

All statistics courtesy of FanGraphs.

Chris Moran is a former college baseball player and current law student at Washington University in St. Louis. He's also an assistant baseball coach on the baseball team at Wash U. In addition to Beyond The Box Score, he contributes at Prospect Insider and DRaysBay. He went to his first baseball game at age two. Follow him on Twitter @hangingslurves

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