Adam Kaufman

Leadoff Task for Red Sox? Fix the Leadoff Spot

Grady Sizemore 5.jpg

The 2013 Red Sox led Major League Baseball with 853 runs. Since 2002, Boston’s finished in the game’s top four spots in runs scored every year other than 2006 (10th) and 2012 (8th).

Just a few weeks into their new season the Sox rank 20th among 30 teams, having crossed the plate only 76 times through 20 contests.

You can’t say this is a shock, but there are reasons for the massive steps back.

Shane Victorino has yet to play, Will Middlebrooks has appeared in only four games (both are presently rehabbing in Pawtucket), Dustin Pedroia’s hasn’t displayed any power (he’s slugging .375, without any home runs), David Ortiz is hitting more than 50 points lower than he did a year ago, A.J. Pierzynski lacks patience at the plate, Daniel Nava may have ensured himself a future trip to the minors upon Victorino’s imminent return, and new center fielders Grady Sizemore and Jackie Bradley Jr. have been terribly inconsistent offensively.

It’s hard to say precisely how to fix the problem between getting healthier and receiving production from the usual middle-of-the-order suspects, but there is a logical place to start.

At the top, naturally.

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This isn’t a case of ‘Jacoby Ellsbury, revisited.’ It would have been insane for the Red Sox to hand their long-time leadoff man a seven-year pact worth $153 million and, eventually, his new team in the Bronx will agree.

But, boy, do they miss him.

Thus far, Boston’s used five table-setters. On Patriots Day, Sizemore, Nava, Pedroia, and Jonny Gomes were joined by the newest candidate, Brock Holt.

Why not? “He’s had very good at-bats against both lefties and righties,” manager John Farrell explained prior to a disappointing 7-6 loss to the Orioles. “Throughout his Minor League career, he’s been a top of the order hitter.”

Holt delivered with two hits in four at-bats, a run, and an RBI on a sac fly in the fifth inning. He did his job, certainly well enough to earn another opportunity before an inevitable return trip down I-95. Someone has to go when Middlebrooks is ready.

But, for the most part – and it’s no secret – that spot’s been a major problem area in the lineup. Boston’s leadoff hitters have combined to bat .190 with a .543 OPS (the worst totals on the team other than those of the eight-hitters), eight walks, 10 runs scored, four RBI, and two stolen bases.

For point of reference, Ellsbury put up a .298/.355./.426 slash line in 134 games in 2013, along with 92 runs scored, 53 RBI, and 52 stolen bases.

What’s the answer? Is it playing the percentages and matchups, as Farrell has done often to this point, having a platoon (which was intended between Victorino and Nava), or letting one man get comfortable in that spot of the order as often as possible?

Some believe in a Victorino/Nava split, which I don’t. Victorino hasn’t had tremendous success there in his career and doesn’t walk frequently, and Nava hasn’t proven reliable anywhere in the order this season. Others have suggested Bradley, who I happen to like at the bottom of the order in effort to remove the ‘weakest link’ stigma of the nine-hole. Or Xander Bogaerts, who has thrived when given an chance in the middle of the lineup. Maybe, for now, it’s Holt.

I’ve been clear since the spring how I feel on the subject.

Farrell’s squad, as the skipper has noted, would be best suited to pick one player and let him work through whatever struggles may come along with the post-Ellsbury transition. I nominate Sizemore and, yes, I do so with the knowledge he’s been terrible in that spot this season. He’s batted. 100 with a .256 OPS in seven games, as compared to far superior totals when hitting fifth (.412/1.127) or sixth (.300/1.017).

This isn’t to suggest he’s the same guy he was before his series of career-altering injuries, but he’s mighty experienced in the role with 713 of his 908 career games spent seeing a pitcher’s first efforts. There also isn’t an expectation he’s ready to play every day, though he has appeared in all but four games to this point. The day-game-after-a-night-game situation has basically been his only hindrance.

The lineup, when healthy, simply slots far better with Sizemore at the top, and he’s awfully familiar with the patience required to expand the strike zone.

If Farrell called me – a call I’m never expecting to receive, by the way – my lineup would look like this:

Grady Sizemore, LF
Dustin Pedroia, 2B
David Ortiz, DH
Mike Napoli, 1B
Shane Victorino, RF
Xander Bogaerts, SS
A.J. Pierzynski, C
Will Middlebrooks, 3B
Jackie Bradley Jr., CF

If you’d prefer someone different than Sizemore, that’s fine. But there is something to continuity, consistency, and getting comfortable for a player’s confidence, routine, and overall mental state. We know how superstitious some athletes can be, after all.

In the meantime, it’s a smorgasbord, a mish-mosh, a hodgepodge, an all-out whozit’gon’be every time Farrell posts the lineup card.

How fitting that Ellsbury (.321/.394/.464 batting leadoff this year) will be the next guy to step in the batter’s box at Fenway on Tuesday. Odds are, he’ll be in that top spot for all three games. It remains to be seen who his counterpart will be three outs later.

There’s no way to know if such a change in approach will result in more runs or a better outcome with runners in scoring position for the balance of the order but, like that position at the top, it’s a start.

Follow me on Twitter at @AdamMKaufman

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