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:
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