The leadoff spot. It’s something we haven’t talked about much here. To be fair, there hasn’t been a tremendous need. The offense has been rolling along, despite injuries to key players like Jacoby Ellsbury, Kevin Youkilis, and Carl Crawford. Instead, our focus has been on the bullpen’s early struggles, and the starting rotation’s woefully inconsistent results.
Still, it’s a bit of a concern. If this excerpt from Tim Britton’s (Providence Journal) always spectacular notes column is any indication, it doesn’t like my concerns will be addressed in the immediate future.
“After Aviles hit home runs in three straight games at Citizens Bank Park — including leadoff blasts in back-to-back games, something a Red Sox hitter hadn’t done since 1913 — there seems little doubt who will be hitting leadoff for the immediate future.
‘I see him as the guy that’s going to be that,’ Valentine said. ‘If we need a leadoff hitter, he’s going to lead off and set a very aggressive pace for our team. I think we need that.’
Aviles hasn’t just gotten on base, either. In his last six games, he’s doubled four times and gotten on base at a .400 clip. He’s boosted his on-base percentage from .287 to .303 in the process.”
Through last night’s game, the Red Sox have produced a .251/.287/.435 slash line out of the leadoff spot. While the .435 SLG mark is nice, slugging shouldn’t be the primary skill of a leadoff man. The primary skill should be getting on base. By getting on base, hitters avoid outs–the only true currency of baseball. The longer a team can prolong giving up their three outs per inning or 27 per game, the more runs they’ll have the ability to score over the course of a game.
As the power of deductive reasoning should tell you, a .287 OBP means that Red Sox leadoff hitters are producing a crazy number of outs. According to the incomperable Baseball Reference, our leadoff men have created an eye popping 149 outs in 203 plate appearances–or 73.4% of time time. Leading the charge is Bobby V’s chosen Ellsbury replacement, Mike Aviles. While his 70% out creation rate certainly bests his competitors, it’s hardly advantageous for any player; especially one batting in a premium spot in the order.
Avoiding outs is an especially important skill for someone batting leadoff. Why? Essentially, he sets the tone for the batting order that comes after him. Outside of the first plate appearance of the game, your leadoff hitter will bat immediately after the weakest hitter in your batting order (the ninth spot). In many cases, this means Aviles will bat after the likes of Marlon Byrd (.287 OBP) and Nick Punto (.298). If that thought isn’t enough to make you cringe already, perhaps the collective .268 OBP clip the club is achieving out of the ninth spot will. Following up a lineup slot that creates outs 76% of the time with one that does so 73.4% of the time is hardly a good idea. It’s rally killing mentality. Doing so when you’re leading up to the four best hitters in the lineup makes things even worse.
Despite what Bobby V seems to believe, the Red Sox don’t need an aggressive approach at the top of their lineup. In fact, it would behoove the Red Sox to place a patient hitter who knows how to works counts, and can draw walks at a league average pace. Perhaps someone like Dustin Pedroia, Ryan Sweeney, or (when he comes off of the disabled list) Kevin Youkilis would fit the bill. The ability to draw walks would help him minimize the impact the batting slump will have on a player’s overall performance. At the very least, he’d have one method of avoiding outs. I’m not saying the leadoff man has to take a ton of walks, but he does need to be proficient in the skill. This something Aviles has shown he’s incapable of doing.
Britton mentioned in his article that Aviles’s OBP has improved from .287 to .306 since May 14th. While his 19-point jump in a seven game stretch is pretty impressive, he’s done so while batting .400 and drawing zero walks. Essentially, once his torrid stretch comes to an end, his OBP will regress along with his batting average; thus negating some of the gains he’s made in the last week. Unless Aviles can figure out other ways of getting on base, he’s pretty useless batting at the top of the order.
Bobby Valentine needs a different solution for the leadoff spot until Ellsbury returns to action. Aviles batting leadoff may not being hindering the Red Sox from being the second best offense in the American League yet, but it will likely become a bigger problem as we go deeper into the season.