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Optimizing Boston’s Line-Up

The Boston Red Sox had a banner offseason, bringing in both Adrian Gonzalez [1] and Carl Crawford [2] to bolster their offense and their chances in the American League East. Now that they’ve added two more weapons to their lineup, Terry Francona [3] has to figure out how to piece it all together — given the numerous options the Red Sox have accumulated, that’s easier said than done.

The projected starting nine for the Red Sox leans very heavily to the left-hand side. Gonzalez and Crawford have displaced Adrian Beltre [4] and Mike Cameron [5] from last year’s starting lineup, giving the team two additional bats from the left side. Along with Jacoby Ellsbury [6], J.D. Drew [7] and David Ortiz [8], the Red Sox will have five regulars who bat from the left side, and all of them are used to hitting near the top of the order. Balancing the order so that the lefties aren’t all bunched together will be a challenge for Francona.

Complicating the process is the fact Crawford feels he “sucked at it” when asked to hit first, and while he’s said that he will hit wherever Francona asks him to, he’s admitted to being more comfortable in another spot in the order. Crawford’s skills scream leadoff hitter, but that might not be a viable option if the Sox determine that his production could suffer in a spot he doesn’t like to hit.

Putting the Red Sox lineup together isn’t easy, but with the help of the research done by Tom Tango and Mitchel Lichtman in “The Book: Playing the Percentages in Baseball”, we can make some suggestions on how the batting order should be arranged, based on their 2011 ZIPS projections:

1 — J.D. Drew — .260/.362/.473 projected line

There are two main things you want in a leadoff hitter: a high on-base percentage and relatively low power. Drew has more power than a classic leadoff hitter, but he does get on base — his career OBP is .387 — and he doesn’t hit so many home runs that his power would be wasted by launching too many solo shots. While he’s not a big base-stealing threat, the rest of the Sox lineup is so good that they shouldn’t be trying to steal too many bases at the top of the order anyway. They are better off with their speed guys hitting lower in the order.

2 — Kevin Youkilis [9] — .280/.382/.505 projected line

While OBP is king for the first spot in a lineup, you want your second hitter to be a bit more balanced, as he can create a lot of value by driving that runner in with an extra-base hit. In order to avoid allowing a lefty specialist to get multiple outs against LH bats earlier in the game, it’s best to put a right-handed bat behind Drew. Youkilis gets the edge over Dustin Pedroia [10] here, which also puts two high on-base guys at the top of the order.

3 — David Ortiz — .260/.363/.509 projected line

While the No. 3 spot is traditionally considered the spot for the team’s best hitter, the No. 4 hitter actually comes to the plate with runners on base more often, and the No. 3 hitter leads the team in at-bats with two outs and no one on. On a team with fewer quality hitters, Ortiz would hit clean-up, but surrounded by this much talent, Ortiz should slide in to this less important role. Having only one right-handed batter between him and Drew isn’t ideal, but it’s a byproduct of the Sox’s LH-heavy lineup.

4 — Adrian Gonzalez — .316/.407/.569 projected line

The cleanup hitter should be your best hitter with power and that’s exactly why the Red Sox acquired Gonzalez. While every other position in the batting order has a reasonable alternative, this is where Gonzalez belongs. Set this one in stone, even though it gives the Red Sox three left-handed bats in the first four lineup spots.

5 — Dustin Pedroia — .300/.370/.471 projected line

The ability to clear the bases is the most important skill for the No. 5 hitter and Pedroia fits the bill nicely, especially at home. Given the run of lefties at the top of the order, a right-handed bat is a necessity here. You could also flip Youkilis and Pedroia here if you wanted a bit more power in the No. 5 spot, but given that the No. 2 hitter gets an extra at-bat every third game as compared to the No. 5 hitter, it’s more important to have the superior hitter higher in the order.

6 — Carl Crawford — .312/.359/.491 projected line

While Crawford fits the mold of a prototypical leadoff hitter, he’s actually perfectly suited to hitting sixth in this lineup. With lesser hitters coming up behind him, his ability to steal bases and get himself in scoring position will be more valuable, and there’s a lower cost of getting thrown out when you don’t have the big bats due up. Hitting lower in the order will allow Crawford to be more aggressive on the bases and maximize the utility of his speed. He also has enough power to drive in Gonzalez and Pedroia and extend rallies.

7 — Marco Scutaro [11] — .272/.341/.381 projected line

While many of the ideas in “The Book” went against conventional wisdom, they also confirmed that you want your base-stealer batting in front of someone who hits a lot of singles and doesn’t strike out very much. With Crawford one spot ahead of him, Scutaro’s high contact rate can lead to a lot of RBI singles after Crawford steals his way into scoring position.

8 — Jacoby Ellsbury — .284/.336/.397 projected line

Ellsbury loses the battle for the No. 7 spot mostly due to his handedness. He’s a similar hitter to Scutaro, but putting the right-handed bat between Crawford and Ellsbury will keep teams from being able to leverage their left-handed relievers as easily. Also, Ellsbury should be more willing to run when getting on base from the No. 8 spot because he will be followed by a poor hitter rather than by the top of the order.

9 — Jarrod Saltalamacchia [12] — .230/.308/.382 projected line

With few exceptions, you want your worst hitter at the bottom of the order simply because he’ll get the fewest number of plate appearances. Salty is pretty clearly the worst hitter of the bunch and that will also be true of Jason Varitek [13] on days that he catches. It’s OK to have a base-clogger hitting ninth when the top-of-the-order guys can all hit the ball over the wall.

It’s not a conventional batting order of speed at the top and power in the middle, but grouping the Red Sox lineup this way gives them the best chance to score the most runs. And, if Crawford doesn’t like being asked to hit sixth, well, at least it’s not the leadoff spot.