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Change could do them good

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff February 5, 2009 05:58 AM

Philosophically speaking, we know what the Red Sox are. Or at the very least, we know what they prefer to be. Nonetheless, in 2009, there is the chance we all may need to reintroduce ourselves.

The irony, of course, is that the Red Sox who start 2009 will look very much like the Sox who finished 2008, at least with regard to the batting order. For all of the frugal additions the Sox have made this off-season, their nine best position players remain unchanged. That prompts us to wonder just what we can expect from the offense this year, the first since 2000 in which the Red Sox will play an entire season without Manny Ramirez.

Just as important, it inspires us to wonder if the Sox might have to at least modify their style. If their lineup is not as deep, will they need to put more men in motion? Will they need to hit and run? And if so, would the Sox go so far as to reintroduce us to a familiar four-letter word?

Yes, we're talking about B-U-N-T.

Particularly during the Theo Epstein Era, the Red Sox' offensive philosophy has been clear, if for no other reason than the fact that the Sox stole it from the New York Yankees. During all of those seasons when the Yankees were finding ways to beat Pedro Martinez, the logic was simple: Extend the count, make the opposing starter work, get into the bullpen early.

Then, tee off.

Beginning in 2003, the season after Epstein's first winter as GM, the Red Sox scored more runs than any other club in baseball with this same, relentless approach. As manager Terry Francona has so aptly put it, the goal always was to "keep the line moving." The more men the Sox put on base, the more they scored, which is really why this entire baseball-crazy region began adopting OBP the way that financial analysts speak of GNP.

Know what on-base percentage is, in a nutshell?

It's the percentage of time a hitter avoids making an out.

Pretty simple concept, eh?

For the Red Sox, the beauty was that they had Ramirez and David Ortiz in the middle of the lineup, side by side, producing RBI totals that were downright gaudy. And as much as the Red Sox excelled last August after dealing Ramirez to the Los Angeles Dodgers in a three-team trade that brought Jason Bay to Boston, the Sox’ offense looked terribly flawed in the postseason, when the Los Angeles Angels and Tampa Bay Rays took turns shutting down Boston's vaunted attack.

At the time, admittedly, the Red Sox were undermanned as the result of injury, most notably to third baseman Mike Lowell. The bottom third of the Boston lineup looked downright anorexic at times, built of nothing but skin and bones. The problem grew in magnitude depending on the whims of Jacoby Ellsbury, whose unpredictable play sometimes created a wrap-around effect that all but suffocated the Boston lineup.

Entering 2009, that is why Ellsbury is particularly critical to Boston's success. (He is a potentially dynamic run producer.) It is why a rebound season from Jason Varitek is so important. (He doesn't need to be good so much as he needs to avoid being bad.) It is why Jed Lowrie must prove that all of those strikeouts came from a fracture in his wrist more than a hole in his swing. (He batted .195 in his final 35 games last year.)

Add the questions surrounding Lowell and Ortiz -- not to mention the never-ending questions about J.D. Drew -- and the Red Sox seem to have more questions in their lineup than they do sure things, which could require them to be a little more proactive with regard to producing runs.

Think about it: If Lowrie leads off an inning with a walk, will Varitek be allowed to hit away or will he bunt? If Ortiz is not nearly the run producer he has been, might Francona be more inclined to hit-and-run with the man before him, the bat-wielding Dustin Pedroia? And if Lowell is more like the player he was in 2006 than in 2007, can the Red Sox afford to wait for the big hit from the middle of their order, or will they have to force the issue?

Simply put, can the Sox still do things the way they used to?

For all that Jason Bay gave the Red Sox during two very productive months last season ó Bay also batted .341 with a 1.105 OPS in the postseason ó nobody in Boston should underestimate the impact of Ramirez over a full season. In 1999 and 2000, the two seasons prior to Ramirezís arrival in Boston, the Red Sox finished a respective ninth and 12th in the American League in runs scored. Beginning with the 2001 season, Ramirezís first in Boston, the Sox finished seventh, second, first, first, first, sixth, third, and second in the league in runs scored, hardly a coincidence.

Oh, and by the way, that sixth-place finish in 2006? That was the year of Ramirezís infamous hiatus in August and September. In the first of those months ó Ramirez went into Operation Shutdown roughly halfway through August ó the Red Sox finished eighth in the league in scoring. In September, they dropped to 14th, dead last in the American League.

Of course, these Sox have far more going for them than those Sox, who were built to rely heavily on the two sluggers in the middle of their lineup. Nonetheless, the Red Sox have the potential to be a very different offensive team in 2009, which cannot help but make you wonder if the Sox eventually will be faced with altering a philosophy that has served them so well.

Or, at the very least, tweaking it a little.

Tony Massarotti can be reached at tmassarotti@globe.com and can be read at www.boston.com/massarotti

11 comments so far...
  1. It's hard for me to believe that a team that employs Bill James will suddenly resort to "small-ball" and start bunting.

    Posted by AK February 5, 09 10:36 AM
  1. Now we are crediting the Yankees with coming up with the trend towards emphasizing high OBP and plate discipline? I thought that a different franchise somewhere in the Bay Area pioneered that strategy. I feel like there was a book written about it... Oh yeah, MONEYBALL. It's not always about the Yankees.

    Posted by Kiko February 5, 09 11:14 AM
  1. Tony, you're an idiot. I didn't think you were this dumb and subject to sensational over reacting. Sox will be top 5 in the league in runs scored and bottom 5 in the league in Sac bunts, mark my words.

    Posted by 1L February 5, 09 11:29 AM
  1. The loss of Ramirez creates an obvious gaping hole in the Sox line-up and philosophy, both. The other huge problem is the seeming inability of David Ortiz to do anything but bash, the results be damned. After Ellsbury and with Coco gone, they have good base runners but no real speed. Francona will have no trouble flashing back to managing the Phillies and adapting to a more pro-active NL style game management. It will be interesting to see how adept his players are at doing the same. Superior pitching will require fewer runs and will take them as far as they manage to go.

    Posted by RocksInHerHead February 5, 09 11:43 AM
  1. 3rd place.

    Posted by remembermadison February 5, 09 01:18 PM
  1. Don't forget Ortiz was hurt in September of 06 as well.

    Posted by ckjake February 5, 09 01:20 PM
  1. Tony, the Red Sox' emphasis on plate discipline and OBP has its roots in Sabremetrics and Moneyball, not the Yankees. Have you forgotten that Billy Beane was the Red Sox' manager in 2003, if only for a day? I can't imagine why John Henry should have wanted to hire him, if he actually wanted Brian Cashman. They are two people with very different philosophies. And the flawed 2006 season was more the result of the lack of good pitching, than anything else. You are a good man, Tony, but you are shooting from the hip far too often these days. You are getting cocky and arrogant and you don't think much about the things you write anymore. Do your research!

    Posted by FaninScotland February 5, 09 03:57 PM
  1. Mazz, have a brewski or something. Cheer up, buddy! I'm looking forward to the season, and 09 promises to offer a great pennant race in the AL East. Gloom and doom in February is tiresome, especially when one's team is as talented as this one. Lots could go wrong. Lots could go right. I'm enjoying the upside: the possibilities for great seasons for each one of these guys. Here's to resounding comeback years for all our wounded warriors, both beloved vets and welcome newcomers. Here's to the breakout season we've been anticipating from Jacoby Ellsbury, that would catalyze so much for this offense. Here's to good health and great ballgames.Let's have fun this year.

    Posted by Anonymous February 7, 09 08:44 AM
  1. Bring back Gorden Edes!

    Posted by Baseballfrankfurt February 9, 09 08:41 AM
  1. Kiko,

    you moron. of course the NYY pioneered the griniding it out aspect. if you read Moneyball, you'd know that OAK, while focusing on OBP, did it from an economics point of view. how to put a team together.

    Posted by Tay February 10, 09 04:14 PM
  1. Hate to say it but here goes, third place. Hope I'm wrong.

    Posted by Garry Wilbur February 11, 09 02:19 PM
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Charles P. Pierce writes for the Boston Globe Magazine. A long-time sportswriter and columnist, Pierce is a frequent guest on national TV and radio.
Tony Massarotti is a Boston Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. He is currently spotlighted as a featured columnist on Boston.com.
Tom Caron serves as studio host for NESN's Boston Red Sox coverage.
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