Who Should Leadoff For The Sox Next Year?

'Dustin Pedroia' photo (c) 2011, Keith Allison - license: http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.0/Bobby Valentine is going to do things differently than Terry Francona. With last season ending the way it did, he has no other choice but to bring change to a franchise that seems to have grown too comfortable with itself.  The only question is just how radical will this change be?

One of the more interesting things to see will be what he does with the lineup. For the past few years, the order has been fairly consistent, but if Valentine really wants to shake things up, there are certainly moves he could make.

The lynchpin of this argument is the center fielder, Jacoby Ellsbury. After leading off almost exclusively since the beginning of the 2008 season, Ellsbury exploded for 32 home runs and 105 RBI’s last season. With those numbers he would be hitting third or fourth on most other teams, of course with Boston’s loaded lineup, there has always been a more powerful hitter to take that spot. Now, the main question becomes, should Ellsbury be moved down in the lineup, and if so, who hits leadoff?

As to the leadoff question, there are two obvious candidates besides from Jacoby Ellsbury: Carl Crawford and Dustin Pedroia.

Make no mistake, Ellsburu has been a very good leadoff option. His speed is an invaluable asset, but it has also been declining. He peaked at 70 steals in 2009, missed most of the season in 2010, and stole 39 last year. On that note, the ability to steal bases is important in a leadoff man, but it is not essential. Ideally, you want a player with a high on base percentage, intelligence on the base paths, and a low strikeout percentage. Ellsbury doesn’t excel in either of those three categories. Yes, he steals a ton of bases, but he also gets caught stealing a fair amount. Over the last three seasons, he has stolen 116 bases, but he has been caught stealing 28 times, meaning about 20% of the time, he makes a poor decision. On top of that, his career OBP, .354, is only .053 points higher than his career average, .301. He doesn’t take too many walks, that’s just a fact. (Career 6.9 BB%…yeesh). Finally, his career K% of 12.3 is not bad, but not great. He also set a career high in that category last year with a 13.4% percent. When you start swinging for the fences, you inevitably get a whiffs too.

After last year, it’s hard to justify putting Carl Crawford anywhere in the order, but a salary of 20 million dollars usually ensures that you’ll be hitting somewhere. After bouncing all over the lineup in his first few months in Boston, Francona finally settled Crawford in the six hole. Many see Crawford as an ideal leadoff hitter, mostly because of his speed, but at the end of the day, he has many of the same problems as Ellsbury. He doesn’t walk enough (career 5.3 BB%), his speed all but disappeared last year (only 18 steals for a guy that had less than 46 steals only once in the previous eight years), and he strikeouts more than you’d like (14.7 K% with an abysmal 19.3% last year). Granted, all of Crawford’s numbers were down last year, but he still has never fit the ideals of a perfect leadoff man.

Now a quick glance at Dustin Pedroia’s credentials: a career 9.4 BB%, a career .373 OBP (almost .070 higher than his career average), a miniscule career 8.4 K%, and at least 20 steals in three of his five major league seasons. After reading those numbers, it’s hard not to endorse the Laser Show as the leadoff man. Sure, he doesn’t steal as many bases as Crawford and Ellsbury, but he’s just as smart as both of them on the base paths (he too gets caught stealing a little too much (about 24% of the time), but again, getting on base is more important than the ability to actually steal one. (And Pedroia possesses both of these skills). After analyzing the numbers, he seems like the obvious choice.

If Crawford returns to the hitter he once was, and if Ellsbury can continue to hit like he did last year, an ideal order may look something like this:

  1. Pedroia
  2. Crawford
  3. Ellsbury
  4. Gonzalez
  5. Youkilis
  6. Ortiz
  7. Ross
  8. Saltalamacchia
  9. Aviles/Punto

Now, there are a few problems with this lineup. One, the middle of the order is far too left-handed. Even so, Crawford is the only one of these lefties who really struggled against lefties. In his career he’s hit .262 against lefties compared to .306 against righties. Ellsbury has hit .299 against lefties and .301 against righties, Gonzalez .272 against lefties, .303 against righties. Yes, it would be a bit of a problem, but no matter what, the lineup will be lefty heavy.

So, in theory this all makes perfect sense. If all the numbers play out like they were supposed to, this would work out. The problems start with that dirty word intangibles. The fact is, Pedroia doesn’t like to bat leadoff. Over the past three years, he has had 105 at bats out of the first spot in the order, and he has batted an uncharacteristic .219. He’s become comfortable in the two-hole, and moving him to leadoff seems to make him overthink his approach at the plate. That being said, with enough plate appearances he may be able to get into a solid routine, it’s hard to imagine the little guy failing at anything he does.

On top of that, there is a very strong chance that Ellsbury will regress in the coming year. He had an inflated .336 BABIP last year, so there is no doubt that he was getting a bit lucky. Even more concerning is the fact that even with his absurd power outbreak, his fly ball to groundball ratio hardly changed at all from his last full season (32.2% in 2009, 34.1% last year). His HR/FB rate sky rocketed though from 4.6% in 2009 to 16.7% last year. This means that a fair amount of his home runs came from luck. Mainly, it’s not like he suddenly started swinging for the fences, his swing was actually very similar to how it always was. With this inevitable regression in mind, does it make sense to bat him third, or even anywhere besides leadoff? Probably not, it would be a bit of a waste if he only hit .300 and 20 home runs and was third or fourth in the order, especially with Gonzalez likely to hit for more power in the coming year. Moreover, of the three candidates he enjoys leadoff the most, and that is an important factor.

Crawford and Pedroia both have made it clear that they do not like to bat leadoff, and while it would be unwise for Valentine to cater too much to the players desires, it does make enough sense to bat Ellsbury there. He may not be an ideal leadoff hitter, but there’s enough to like about him to keep him where he is. We won’t know for sure until that first game in Detroit, but if I had to make a prediction today, I’d say the lineup stays static. Valentine will surely make some changes, but this is one thing I expect to stay the same.

Categories: Boston Red Sox

Alex Convery is a student at the University of Southern California where he studies screenwriting. He spends his time procrastinating. Follow him on twitter here: www.twitter.com/alexconvery

30 Responses to “Who Should Leadoff For The Sox Next Year?” Subscribe

  1. digger January 31, 2012 at 8:11 AM #

    Ortiz should hit leadoff.

  2. Ryan January 31, 2012 at 10:37 AM #

    I don't think Ellsbury's babip is screams unsustainablity. He's a great contact hitter in a home ballpark that tends to have high babip. I don't bet on him having 30+ homers, but his BA should be about the same.

    • ChipBuck January 31, 2012 at 2:12 PM #

      I have to agree. Last season, his BABIP was .336, and his career mark is .325. Additionally, he had a 22.9% line drive rate according to Fangraphs (BIS data). It's probably fair to assume we'll see that number drop to around a flat 20%, but even then he should still post a fairly high BABIP.

    • Alex Convery January 31, 2012 at 2:13 PM #

      Point taken, but without a high OBP a high average from your leadoff hitter has limited value.

  3. Cory January 31, 2012 at 11:12 AM #

    Great article Alex. I would say the one thing missing when considering a lead off hitter is pitches per plate appearance. Pedroia gets about 4.2, Ellsbury gets about 3.8, and Crawford gets about a 3.8.

    If Pedroia can shake his small sample size of woes leading off, he would be a great lead off hitter.

    • Alex Convery January 31, 2012 at 2:15 PM #

      Yes, great point.

  4. marcos January 31, 2012 at 11:37 AM #

    pedroia should hit cleanup

    • migz January 31, 2012 at 12:54 PM #

      no. this idea is dumb.

      • Dave January 31, 2012 at 1:22 PM #

        It's actually not as dumb as it sounds. Pedroia has excelled when put in the cleanup spot. He might be the size of a batboy, but the dude thinks he's Joe Morgan. I don't have the figures in front of me but his OPS when batting 4th is very high

        • Alex Convery January 31, 2012 at 2:06 PM #

          Dave's right. Over the past three years, Pedroia has 101 at bats from the cleanup spot. He has hit .347 with a .978 OPS. Pretty crazy.

        • ChipBuck January 31, 2012 at 2:15 PM #

          I could see Pedroia hitting cleanup with Youkilis hitting second. How about this idea:

          Ellsbury CF
          Youkilis 3B
          Gonzalez 1B
          Pedroia 2B
          Ortiz DH
          Crawford LF
          Sweeney/Ross RF
          Salty/Shoppach C
          Aviles/Punto SS

      • marcos January 31, 2012 at 8:37 PM #

        is it dumb because he is 5'7"???

        • marcos January 31, 2012 at 8:37 PM #

          @migz

  5. donna January 31, 2012 at 11:40 AM #

    i know this sounds crazy, but… Youk. I am too lazy to look up his pitches per plate appearances but i always love the way he guts out EVERY pitch. The way i see it, the RS win more often when they push the pitch count and really develop patience at the plate. when they start games with long at-bats, i know it will be a great game.
    That being said, Ells is still my favorite lead-off, but as a thought experiment, i throw out the idea of Youk, followed by Pedroia, Ells, Gonz, Papi, Ross/Kalish, Crawford, Salty, SS

    • Cory January 31, 2012 at 12:05 PM #

      If SB's are not a factor this could work. Or maybe Ryan Sweeney.

    • ChipBuck January 31, 2012 at 2:08 PM #

      Youk would be a very good leadoff hitter, but I fear it's too unconventional for Bobby V to seriously consider the idea. I don't mean that to say that V won't try some unconventional things (he will), but it might be too far outside of the box.

    • Anthony Cunningham February 1, 2012 at 1:44 AM #

      I don't think it's crazy at all. You're right that he sees many pitches and he draws a lot of walks. Pedroia (if I remember correctly) didn't like hitting leadoff the year they put him there for a good while. He remarked about how it changed his approach. Arguably, you don't need a base-stealer at the top of the lineup since the lineup is good enough to bring runners around. If Crawford hits sixth or lower, that allows for the possibility of doing more running with the idea being to produce some runs at the bottom of the lineup.

  6. stoveleague January 31, 2012 at 12:10 PM #

    Ellsbury had such a good season leading off last year, it only makes sense to move him down in the order.

    • Cory January 31, 2012 at 1:56 PM #

      The same argument can be made for him to hit lower in the order.

  7. Mr Punch January 31, 2012 at 1:21 PM #

    Apart from his preference/record, you want Pedroia batting second to break up the string of lefties. The strongest argument against Ellsbury leading off is that the bottom of the order is so weak that he won't be coming up with men on base; but that also puts some emphasis on the SB.

    Of course, we're talking about 2012, and Crawford presumably won't be much of factor until well into the season.

  8. Tim January 31, 2012 at 1:27 PM #

    The team scored plenty of runs with last year's lineup, "shaking things up" for its own sake is generally a bad idea.

    • ChipBuck January 31, 2012 at 2:06 PM #

      Agreed, but it doesn't mean last year's lineup was optimal. I'm fine with seeing some different variations as long as they make sense.

    • Alex Convery January 31, 2012 at 2:10 PM #

      This may be true, but you have to account for regressions with Ellsbury, Ortiz, and even Gonzalez (he'll probably hit for more power, but almost certainly for a lower average). Crawford's expected improvement and the more stable situation in right field should about balance things out, but we can't just assume that because they scored a lot of runs lat year that they'll do the exact same every year.

  9. Doug January 31, 2012 at 1:31 PM #

    I'd be curious to see:
    Ellsbury (L)
    Crawford (L)
    Pedroia (R)
    Gonzalez (L)
    Youkilis (R)
    Ortiz (L)
    Ross/Sweeney (R/L)
    Saltalamacchia (S)
    Aviles (R)

    The rational being that Pedroia and Crawford don't like to lead off, and Ellsbury does. While Ells does seem like a great option in the 3 spot on many teams, this team is stacked with depth and power lower in the order. There are a lot of run-producers in this lineup, and while Ellsbury could drive in more runs lower in the order, others can take that role with this roster, while it seems that there is no one else who can thrive in the leadoff spot.

    Crawford needs to be surrounded in this order. Batting with Ellsbury on the base paths with the power coming up behind him might be the best spot to bat in MLB. He’ll see more fastballs and more strikes here, which is part of what will make him thrive.

    Pedroia, while not seeming like a standard 3 hitter, should thrive in that role. His career numbers batting third and forth are amazing, and he is able to hit the ball hard and drive people in.

    The rest of the lineup seems to fall in after that, with Ross and Sweeney splitting time in RF based on match-ups.

    What this order does is maximize the L/R split, with only Ells and Carl (and maybe Ortiz and Sweeney) batting from the same side in a row. It bats people in places to maximize their potential and their productivity.

  10. ChipBuck January 31, 2012 at 2:04 PM #

    A couple of things…While Ellsbury's HR/FB% seems like an aberration, most of his home runs (per Hit Tracker) were of the "No Doubt" variety. Very few were "Lucky" or "Just Enough," meaning luck probably didn't play into it too much. Sure, wind could have been a factor, but his power appears to be real. I think we'll probably see him closer to 20-25 HRs in 2012.

    • ChipBuck January 31, 2012 at 2:05 PM #

      (continued)

      Also, I don't think the stolen base numbers by Ellsbury or Crawford are indicative of their speed, so much as their desire to steal bases. One, Ellsbury has a ton of XBHs last year, where in years past he was getting singles instead. With stealing third a lot tougher than stealing second, he didn't have as many opportunities to run wild. Two, in addition to struggling early in the season, Crawford had a hamstring injury that lingered over the course of the season. This should be rectified in 2012. Three, the Red Sox offense was so good last season (in comparison to the league), that the need to steal was less important. Making an attempt and getting caught would have been far more detrimental to scoring runs. Also, with a bunch of statues frequently on ahead of them (especially Crawford), they were playing a lot of station to station baseball.

    • Donal January 31, 2012 at 10:17 PM #

      To add on to this point, Ellsbury's average fly ball went 40 feet further last year than it did in 2010. I wouldn't consider that luck, that's the real deal.

  11. hammyofdoom January 31, 2012 at 10:14 PM #

    Its interesting, the Red Sox don't really have a guy who you look at and go "Thats a leadoff dude right there", instead they have 5 guys for the 2-6 spots. Their speed guys/OBP guys either have enough power so that you want them lower in the order, or they just don't like batting leadoff and didn't really prove themselves much last year. I mean its a pretty good problem to have, but with Ellsbury and Pedroia both capable of over 20 homers and 40 doubles, they aren't ideal leadoff players. I mean the only guy who seems to like it is Ellsbury, so I guess I'd have to say him but I do think Pedroia is the best fit when it comes to overall numbers. The top 2/3 of this line up is kind of ridiculous no matter what

  12. Bosoxfan February 4, 2012 at 1:52 PM #

    I'd like to see:

    Crawford (L)
    Pedrioa (R)
    Ellsbury (L)
    Gonzalez (L)
    Youkilis (R)
    Ortiz (L)
    Ross/ Sweeney (R)
    Salty (S)
    Aviles (R)

    I think Crawford must lead off, or at least try this season. Pedroia should remain in the 2 spot, because he's just more comfortable there. Ellsbury moves down to provide a high average, speed, power hitter. Then the rest shakes out the way it does because you can't line up 3 lefties in a row

  13. Willey February 8, 2012 at 10:07 AM #

    Ellisbury is one of the best leadoff hitters in the game. Pedrioa ditto when it comes to hitting second. Adrian Gonzalez is their best hitter, so he should be in the #3 spot. Why would you change that? You have five guys (including Youkilis and Ortiz) that get on base about 40% of the time. Their offense was amazing last year, ranking first in almost every important statistical category, and all they lost was JD Drew and a few platoon players. Only a retarded baby would meddle with it.