Last spring, lineup construction was one of the hottest topics of discussion surrounding the Red Sox. With so many weapon’s at Terry Francona’s disposal (not to mention the number of left handed hitters), the combinations were seemingly endless. Based on the 123 different lineups Tito sent out to the field last year, it appears he was in agreement.
This spring, our beloved Tito has been replaced by the affable, yet enigmatic Bobby Valentine. Although Bobby V’s roster isn’t quite as talented as Francona’s 2011 situation; it’s deeper, better balanced, and more versatile. Even more so than last season, the number of lineup combinations are simply dizzying. With new managers comes new ideas, priorities, and quirks. Bobby V has never been one who’s willing choose a set lineup and stick to it. He’s a tinkerer, one who throughout his career has averaged 122 different linups per season. As a master strategist, we can be sure he’ll mix-and-match players in the lineup in hopes of uncovering an edge on the competition.
Despite all of this, Jacoby Ellsbury‘s positioning in the order is a hot button issue for a lot of fans and writers. He’s long been the Red Sox’s leadoff hitter, but many have questioned if he’s outgrown the role in light of his offensive outburst last season. As a result, I thought I’d take a quick look at which spot Ellsbury might fit best in the Red Sox’s 2012 lineup–with the caveat he will likely be moved around somewhat by Bobby V depending on a game specific scenario.
Should Ellsbury Hit Leadoff?
Despite popular conventional wisdom, Ellsbury’s never been the ideal leadoff hitter. Sure, he has blazing speed and steals a lot of bases, but those are the leadoff man’s secondary goals. A leadoff man’s primary goal is to get on base. Although Ellsbury’s career .354 OBP is above the league average rate, the issue is that it’s primarily tied to his batting average. While this isn’t a concern for him when he’s hitting .321 (as he did last season), it becomes a much bigger issue if his batting average were to drop to the .260-.270 range. If such a scenario occurred, his OBP would plummet as well; thus creating an environment where Ellsbury would likely hinder run creation rather than promote it. While this might seem like an unlikely proposition, it’s not terribly far fetched. This happened to Carl Crawford last season, when when his average crashed to a career low .255 mark, his OBP bottomed out at an unacceptable .289. He became an “out machine,” which is what Ellsbury would also become in the same scenario. Since your leadoff man is supposed to set the tone for the top of the lineup, the last thing you’d want out of him is someone that creates a ton of outs. An ideal leadoff hitter would be someone who can not only hit for average, but also draw a healthy number of walks. Dustin Pedroia and Kevin Youkilis come to mind as the most obvious candidates for the slot if Ellsbury doesn’t fill it.
Should Ellsbury Hit Second?
Having Ellsbury hit second is interesting for a couple of reasons. First of all, hitting second allows him the benefit of hitting behind a top of the order hitter, rather than eighth and ninth spots. This would theoretically give him additional chances to hit with runners on; thus increasing the potential impact of his plate appearances. Secondly, hitting second in the order takes a little bit of the pressure off of Ellsbury in terms of getting on base. While number two hitters still need to be good at getting on base, they aren’t looked upon as much to “set the table.” He’ll be able to continue playing his game, while still being able to utilize his speed on the base paths. This appears to be a solid spot in the batting order for someone with Ellsbury’s skill set.
Should Ellsbury Hit Third?
This is one of the more popular narrative these days. After jacking 32 home runs last season (only six of which were of the “Lucky” or “Just Enough” varieties by Hit Tracker Online), many have wondered if it might be time to move Ellsbury down to a more premium spot in the batting order. To an extent, this makes sense. Even more so than hitting second, he’d be afforded the opportunity to hit with runners on base by batting third. That said, there’s still a question over whether or not his power is sustainable. History is littered with hitters that break out with huge powers one year, only to see them fall back to earth the next season. It’s possible that some (or even many) of his line drive shots that reached the seats a few rows beyond Fenway’s bullpen in deep right-center, turn out to be doubles or warning track fly outs in 2012. While I believe we’ll see Ellsbury display 20-25 home run power for the next couple of seasons, I don’t feel comfortable handing over such an important spot in the order over to him just yet. If he puts together a similar campaign in 2012, then fine. Until then, I’d rather leave the number three slot to someone that has a more proven track record.