Who Should Hit Leadoff for the Red Sox?

On Saturday, Buster Olney mused on who would hit leadoff for the Red Sox this season. And it’s an interesting question, since the Red Sox had grown accustomed to Jacoby Ellsbury at the top of the batting order. As we’ve discussed a couple of other times this offseason, it’s one of those good problems — Boston has a plethora of talented hitters, so it isn’t like they have to shoehorn a bad hitter into the top spot. But a decision still has to be made, so let’s take a look.

The first thing we want to do is look for clues. Who hit leadoff when Ellsbury was hurt? Four players took turns last season, three of which remain on the team — Dustin Pedroia (11), Shane Victorino (eight), Daniel Nava (eight) and Stephen Drew (one). Much of those came in September, when Ellsbury missed extended time. During September, the breakdown was Pedroia (11), Victorino (five), Nava (one) and Drew (one). Last year is really the only decent barometer we have. Ellsbury missed a ton of time in 2012, but most of his fill-ins are no longer around. Nava hit leadoff 25 times, but the motley crew of Mike Aviles, Scott Podsednik, Pedro Ciriaco, Ryan Sweeney, Ryan Kalish, Nick Punto and Brent Lillibridge combined to bat in the leadoff spot a whopping 88 times. It really was a debacle of a season.

In addition to it being a debacle that was perpetrated by now ex-Red Sox players, 2012’s squad also was not helmed by John Farrell. He was in Toronto. And he acquitted himself well in his two years there, so far as leadoff hitters are concerned. In 2011, Yunel Escobar was his primary leadoff hitter, as he held down the top spot for 110 games. As we know from The Book, it is best when you have one of your three-best hitters in the top spot in the order, and Escobar was indeed tied for the third-best hitter on the 2011 Jays. In 2012, Escobar started in the top spot as well, but after he started the season with a .217/.254/.274 triple-slash line in his first 24 games, Farrell turned elsewhere. Ultimately, Brett Lawrie would spend the most time in the top spot, and while he only posted a 98 wRC+ he was indeed the third-best position player on the roster.

Last season, Ellsbury wasn’t one of the three-best hitters on the Sox. In fact, by wRC+, he was seventh-best. However, a) he had been that caliber in the past, b) the Red Sox lineup was stacked last season and c) he was the entrenched guy, so moving him off the spot in Farrell’s first year in town probably was a headache that he didn’t need. In the end, it didn’t matter — the Sox outscored every other team by 57 runs. So we’ll give Farrell a pass on that decision, and turn our attention to this year with the hope that Farrell will make an effort to get one of the team’s three-best hitters in that spot this season.

So who will be the team’s three-best hitters? Well, one player we can eliminate from the discussion right away is Jackie Bradley. The youngster still carries with him much promise, but after his poor showing in 2013, his projections are modest. Of the 10 players that you would consider starters for the team, Bradley’s wOBA projection is in the bottom three or four in each system, and his projected .308 wOBA by ZiPS comes in dead last. There will inevitably be talk about him taking over at the top of the lineup, but until he puts a good half of baseball together (at least), that talk should be tempered.

Aside from Bradley, we can also rule out Will Middlebrooks and A.J. Pierzynski. Neither are good enough hitters, and it’s likely that neither is going to play frequently enough to keep the stability at the top of the lineup. With those three removed, we find the following players left:

2014 Projected wOBA
Name ZiPS Steamer FANS
David Ortiz .377 .376 .393
Mike Napoli .350 .352 .363
Dustin Pedroia .340 .348 .357
Xander Bogaerts .333 .325 .358
Shane Victorino .331 .335 .334
Jonny Gomes .327 .338 .325
Daniel Nava .322 .339 .347

As you can see, Ortiz and Napoli are projected to be the two best hitters across the board. Either would be a great choice at the top of the order, but they’ll probably fill in the two, three or four-holes. I would also rule out the Gomes/Nava combo because I like to have that consistency at the top of the lineup unless the platoon in question is so good as to justify the exception. I don’t see that here. This leaves the realistic grappling for the top spot between Pedroia, Victorino and Bogaerts.

The question at hand is whether simply to stick one of the three best hitters at the top, or whether to try and best leverage the team’s best baserunner. The Book also says that to leverage your best baserunner, put him in front of a batter who hits predominantly singles and doesn’t strike out a lot. That’s Pedroia. As much fun as it is to see Pedroia pop a laser shot over the Monster, he’s a singles and doubles hitter. During the past three seasons, the only players to hit more singles have been Elvis Andrus, Ichiro Suzuki, Starlin Castro and Michael Young. Only Robinson Cano, Adrian Gonzalez, Alex Gordon and Ben Zobrist have hit more doubles. Pedroia also keeps his strikeouts in check — only 14 qualified players have struck out in a lower percentage of their plate appearances during the past three seasons. Putting Victorino (who will likely be the team’s best basestealer/runner) at leadoff in front of Pedroia would leverage Victorino’s baserunning about as well as you could.

However, you also want the player at the top of the order to draw a lot of walks, and Victorino doesn’t really do that. You’d also be hard pressed — based on these projections — to call him one of the top three hitters in the lineup. You could definitely call Pedroia one of the top three hitters in the lineup, and Bogaerts may eventually have a case as well.

Bogaerts is really the X-factor here (you see what I did there?). The FANS expect him to be one of the team’s three-best hitters this season, and while that may be optimistic, the talent is obviously there (also, the FANS projections are pretty good, as you can read about here). Bogaerts also has a keen batting eye, which make him an ideal candidate to hit at the top of the order. He struck out a fair amount in his very brief major league debut, but a) The Book reminds us to not consider strikeouts when constructing a lineup, and b) Bogaerts’ strikeout numbers in the minors were not egregious, and he should adjust as he gets more plate appearances. If he hits right from the jump, he would probably make for a better candidate at the top of the order than would Victorino, simply from the standpoint of being able to see more pitches. Victorino was right around league average, at 3.83 pitches per plate appearance (the American League average was 3.86), but Bogaerts was up at 4.10.

Again though, it’s important to consider how the team has operated. Victorino hit in the top two spots in 115 of the 117 games he started last season, so it will likely take some extended dominance from Bogaerts and/or an extended slump from Victorino to knock him from that perch. If it’s a foregone conclusion that Victorino will be in one of the two top spots, then it would seem that the better alignment would be to have him in the leadoff spot, with Pedroia behind him in the two-hole. Eventually though, if Bogaerts develops as expected, Pedroia in the one-hole and Bogaerts in the two-hole could be a devastating combination.



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Paul Swydan is the managing editor of The Hardball Times, a writer and editor for FanGraphs and a writer for Boston.com. He has written for The Boston Globe, ESPN MLB Insider and ESPN the Magazine, among others. Follow him on Twitter @Swydan.


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Nick
Guest
Nick
2 years 6 months ago

He won’t be one of their three best hitters but JBJ will be hitting leadoff by the end of the year. The Red Sox are smart but they’re more conventional with their lineup construction than you would probably think.

jackson
Guest
jackson
2 years 6 months ago

Lineup construction really doesn’t matter that much

nd
Guest
nd
2 years 6 months ago

It may only be a couple of expected runs you are giving up, but why operate suboptimally when you can avoid it?

Matt S
Guest
Matt S
2 years 6 months ago

It’s probably worth a few runs over the course of the season to keep everybody happy – including players, management, ownership, and fanbase. Not to mention any additional production you get from the players being comfortable.

channelclemente
Guest
channelclemente
2 years 6 months ago

opinion, not fact.

Catoblepas
Guest
Catoblepas
2 years 6 months ago

evidence? also, it really isn’t the team constructing the lineup collectively, it’s farrell, and as paul took pains to point out, he appears to have thought his choice of leadoff hitter through in every season he’s managed. saying the red sox are conservative with lineup construction therefore doesn’t seem to mean a lot, and using that to conclude that they’ll put a rookie leadoff who had a wOBA of .279 in his (admittedly small) call up doesn’t make much sense either.

Steve Holt!!
Guest
Steve Holt!!
2 years 6 months ago

I like Bogaerts for the lead off slot. He has the amazing ability to draw a walk on a 3-2 fastball right down the pipe, as demonstrated in the playoffs against the Tigers. Must have Jedi-mind-tricked the up on that one.

Nick
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Nick
2 years 6 months ago

Assuming he hits for enough average to have a very good OBP I meaan

Atreyu Jones
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Atreyu Jones
2 years 6 months ago

I suspect that Farrell will (not that he necessarily should) use Victorino:

Victorino-Pedroia-Ortiz-Napoli
and
Victorino-Nava-Pedroia-Ortiz (in some of the games in which Nava is playing)

Then again, he seemed to prefer Pedroia-Victorino last September, so what do I know.

Jack
Guest
Jack
2 years 6 months ago

A little confused.

You say “The Book also says that to leverage your best baserunner, put him in front of a batter who hits predominantly singles and doesn’t strike out a lot.”
and then later you say “The Book reminds us to not consider strikeouts when constructing a lineup.”
So should we consider it when deciding if Pedroia is the right fit?

psualum
Guest
psualum
2 years 6 months ago

Considering sabermetrics likes to act like speed is basically worthless, The Book would probably say that while the best way to leverage your top baserunner is to put him in front of a contact heavy singles hitter, you shouldn’t actually look to construct your lineup around that fact.

Los
Guest
Los
2 years 6 months ago

Ummm…Trout > Cabrera because of speed so not sure where you get that opinion.

KJ
Guest
KJ
2 years 6 months ago

My guess is Victorino gets the first shot at leadoff, if Xbox heats up quick, he might get moved up there, with JBJ in the spot by the end of the season if he puts it together.

psualum
Guest
psualum
2 years 6 months ago

but if the XBox heats up to fast it’ll get the red ring of death and it’ll end up on the DL :)

Owen
Guest
Owen
2 years 6 months ago

Yeah, let’s head this one off at the pass. Xbox is not, and will never be, an xceptable nickname for Bogaerts. You may use X-man, X-factor, Bogey (I’m sure that’s what Tito would have called him), or PlayStation 4. Xbox just makes no sense at all.

Stewie
Guest
Stewie
2 years 6 months ago

How the fuck does PlayStation 4 make more sense then Xbox?

nv
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

Bradley had a rough time of it in his various cups of coffee in MLB last season, but he had a great season in AAA.

If Ortiz hadn’t been hurt in April and Bradley hadn’t hit .500 in Spring Training, he would have been a late-season callup to the big club after hitting something like .270/.370/.470 in Pawtucket, and we would all be really excited about him. Those are numbers that you’d be happy to see from a 23 year-old corner outfielder in AAA, and Bradley put them up as a plus-glove centerfielder. There’s a reason he’s the number two prospect in a deep system.

If he makes a few adjustments, he could take over the leadoff role by midseason.

Bobby A.
Member
2 years 6 months ago

Victorino, me thinks

Matthew
Member
Member
2 years 6 months ago

I don’t understand why a Nava platoon is out of the question. He was 7th in all of baseball in OBP last year vs. RHP. That is what you want from a lead off hitter. To start the season here is what I’d do.

VS. RHP : Nava,Pedroia,Ortiz,Napoli
VS. LHP : Victorino,Pedroia,Ortiz,Boegarts

But I think it is very possible JBJ or Xbox ends up with the job

Jim
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

I think the Sox will use a platoon at catcher and left field this year. These are my projected lineups:

Vs RHP – 1) Victorino 2) Pedroia 3) Ortiz 4) Napoli 5) Bogaerts 6) Pierzynski 7) Nava 8) Middlebrooks 9) Bradley Jr

Vs LHP – 1) Victorino 2) Pedroia 3) Ortiz 4) Napoli 5) Bogaerts 6) Gomes 7) Middlebrooks 8) Ross 9) Bradley Jr

joey
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joey
2 years 6 months ago

what exactly is the importance of the top of the order drawing a lot of walks? Victorino reaches base at a decent rate, regardless. It seems a no-brainer to slot him there.

pft
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pft
2 years 6 months ago

“In addition to it being a debacle that was perpetrated by now ex-Red Sox players,”

Huh? I seem to remember Pedroia being in the middle of things with Bobby V and publicly calling him out over his musings on Youkilis slow start. Also, the players boycotted Pesky’s funeral in August as a protest against management and guys like Pedroia, Lester, Lackey and Papi did not attend. Only Padilla attended if memory serves me correctly.

Remember also, Bobby V came about because “Francona” lost the clubhouse in the chicken and beer scandal. Lester, Lackey and Papi were the key guys (along with Beckett) in that.

Anyways, as for the leadoff question, I expect to see the following lineup

Victorino
Pedroia
Papi
Napoli
Gomes
XB
WMB
AJP
JBJ

jackson
Guest
jackson
2 years 6 months ago

When was Papi in the chicken and beer scandal? I just remember Lester, Beckett, and Lackey

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 6 months ago

He stormed into a Francona press conference whining about a lost RBI

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
2 years 6 months ago

That has nothing to do with the chicken and beer scandal, though. It was a separate event.

Hendu for Kutch
Guest
Hendu for Kutch
2 years 6 months ago

That was a practical joke perpetrated by Pedroia, which the media conveniently left out of about 99% of the stories.

http://www.masslive.com/redsox/index.ssf/2011/08/big_papis_press_conference_blo.html

Nate Davis
Guest
Nate Davis
2 years 6 months ago

Ortiz did attend Peskys funeral. Along with Padilla, Buchholz, and Saltalamacchia. Pedroias wife was 8 1/2 months pregnant at the time and attendance was not mandatory. It was a poor showing, however. Pesky was a legend.

pft
Guest
pft
2 years 6 months ago

Memory is not what it used to be I guess. Not buying Pedroias excuse though and Lester, Lackey, Doubront who are in the good character HOF now as a result of 2013 did not attend either. Point being it was not only the departed players who were disgruntled

Stan
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Stan
2 years 6 months ago

What exactly is the “chicken and beer scandal”? That was nothing but a media-created frenzy about an activity that probably happens in every MLB clubhouse.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
2 years 6 months ago

It really doesn’t happen in every clubhouse, though. Not during the games.

Oil Can Boyd was heated when he heard about that.

scatterbrian
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scatterbrian
2 years 6 months ago

“I like to have that consistency at the top of the lineup unless the platoon in question is so good as to justify the exception.”

Does this exist anywhere, in your opinion? I’m particularly curious what I Crisp/Gentry platoon could provide.

Xeifrank
Guest
2 years 6 months ago

I love reading lineup construction articles and reading some of the reasonings why certain hitters should or shouldn’t bat in certain spots. Some of the reasoning is great, but then you see things thrown in like certain parts of the batting order needing stability.

Dusty Baker
Guest
Dusty Baker
2 years 6 months ago

Jonathan Herrera. I think it’s pretty obvious.

Kirk Gibson
Guest
Kirk Gibson
2 years 6 months ago

No, it has to be Brock Holt due to his high level of grit. He could play shortstop.

James
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James
2 years 6 months ago

David Ortiz

Jameson
Guest
Jameson
2 years 6 months ago

I should

Brad
Guest
Brad
2 years 6 months ago

Who gives a shit?

George
Guest
George
2 years 6 months ago

Apparently you do, since you read the article.

Just a guy
Guest
Just a guy
2 years 6 months ago

How do you know he read the article? It seems likely he read the post’s title, since the comment was phrased as a rhetorical question in answer to it, but even that isn’t a given, since a drive-by commenter could conceivably ask that question about any possible post about anything.

james wilson
Guest
james wilson
2 years 6 months ago

Pedroia hates hitting 1. Very unlikely that Farrell will stick him with that long term. He’s best suited to 2, always has been. Nava doesn’t thrive leading off. Nobody knows what side of the plate Victorino is going to hit from this year, including Victorino.

I’d be surprised if there was one single player to lead off more than half the games into the break. There will be guys hitting at the bottom of the order who will take a turn at the top, something for them to look forward to. Instead of a rotational DH to rest players, they’ll have a rotational lead off spot to let pretty good hitters step up and eventually someone will stick.

John C
Guest
John C
2 years 6 months ago

Yes, Pedroia has made it clear in the past that he doesn’t like to hit leadoff. Since he’s not comfortable there, the Red Sox don’t ask him to do it. Plus, if he’s 100 percent healthy again and able to drive the ball, he’s going to hit 15-20 home runs to go along with his 40-50 doubles, and no one’s going to want him hitting anywhere but third.

Cool Lester Smooth
Guest
Cool Lester Smooth
2 years 6 months ago

Does Bogaerts’ pitches-seen stat encompass his minor league numbers?

If not, when does that number usually stabilize? Because it’s a bit generous to call 50 PA a minuscule sample size.

Also, walks aren’t that important for the leadoff man. All that matters is whether he gets on base, not how he gets on, and Victorino normally does a pretty good job of it.

John C
Guest
John C
2 years 6 months ago

Walks are actually very important for a leadoff man, since they increase your OBP, but if you can get on base by other means, like having a very high average and/or getting hit with pitches a gazillion times, that works just as well. You are correct that it doesn’t matter how you get on base, only that you do get on base.

Victorino usually walks more than he did in 2013, anyway. It seemed like pitchers were more willing to challenge him than they were in Philly, probably because of what was coming up after him in Boston.

Scott C
Guest
Scott C
2 years 6 months ago

Considering Victorino’s injury history (back, hamstring) I would rather not see him getting the extra at bats you can expect from the lead off spot. His value is as much providing stability in the outfield and keeping him on the field is important. If he leads off you can expect that he will have a bit more wear and tear that he has shown over the last few years has a direct effect on his number of games played.

George
Guest
George
2 years 6 months ago

Opening day lineup will be:

Victorino RF
Pedroia 2B
Papi DH
Nappoli 1B
Nava LF
Boagaerts SS
Pierzynski C
Middlebrooks 3B
Bradley CF

Lester SP

That will change many times over the course of the year though, as lineups usually do. The opening day lineup will look like that though, with maybe a few minor differences.

KCDaveInLA
Guest
KCDaveInLA
2 years 6 months ago

I’m sure Xander Boegarts is a nice guy, but I’m really hoping he doesn’t become a star – the less we hear someone called “Xbox”, the better.

Just a guy
Guest
Just a guy
2 years 6 months ago

In the classic construction of “J-Lo,” “X-Bo” is far superior to “Xbox” since it doesn’t have the consumer product tie-in. The “A-Rod”-style “X-Boeg,” on the other hand, doesn’t quite roll off the tongue.

Jesus Mejia
Guest
Jesus Mejia
2 years 6 months ago

Well, the thing with walks in the top of the lineup is that those guys tend to take more pitches per at bat and more and more quality at bats overall, so is not just an OBP thing. But i get it, if you dont have that premiun leadoff guy you can go with the guy that hits average consistently and you would be creating runs sometimes even more runs than in the walk case.

Paul,the only thing i disagree here is on Jack Bradley, his sample in MLB is small Really small, and he has a great walk and obp record in the minor leagues,i think he can translate that to mlb and be a 270/350-360/420 slash line guy. If you add that to his stellar defense you are talking about above average WAR and runs creation from the leadoff spot.

JiminNC
Guest
JiminNC
2 years 6 months ago

Pedroia might well show more power in 2013 while hitting with ten fingers instead of nine: the torn ulnar collateral ligament in his thumb in the first game of the season should be factored into any predictions for 2014.

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