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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