Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Countdown to spring training: Center field

Jacoby Ellsbury (will turn 26 in September)
2008: .280 batting/.336 on-base/.394 slugging
2007 (in majors): .353 batting/.394 on-base/.509 slugging
2007 (in minors): .323 batting/.387 on-base/.424 slugging

There's no longer any question about who's going to play center field on a regular basis for the Red Sox. Coco Crisp is gone, shipped to Kansas City in a deal for power arm Ramon Ramirez. There's no platoon anymore, no reason to wonder if Terry Francona is going to yank Ellsbury from the lineup to help him get over a 10-day slump. Rocco Baldelli and Mark Kotsay both will see occasional starts in center field, but Ellsbury is the guy.

Where, then, is he going to hit in the batting order?

Baseball Prospectus, in its Red Sox projections released this week, puts Ellsbury where everyone else puts him -- right at the top of the batting order. That seems to be the consensus. He's the fastest guy on the team, right? Stick him right up top and let him "wreak havoc," as we writer-types love to say, on the psyche of opposing pitchers. He'll single to center to open the game and immediately steal second base. The pitcher then will be so frazzled he'll walk Dustin Pedroia, and, in a panic, he'll throw a get-it-over-fastball to David Ortiz that ends up in the bullpen in right field.

There's no reason that can't happen on occasion, of course. A version of the above scenario -- Ellsbury steals a base and scores a run in the first inning -- happened eight times last season. Five other times, Ellsbury walked or singled to lead off the game and then stole a base but was stranded.

Ellsbury, however, had a .336 on-base percentage last season -- lower than that of any Red Sox regular except Jason Varitek. When he was the first batter of the game -- as he was 114 times last season -- he hit .284 with an on-base percentage of .316. When he was the first batter of an inning, he hit .279 with a .305 on-base percentage.

That means that, when Ellsbury led off an inning, the Red Sox started the inning with an out almost 70 percent of the time. Compare his on-base percentage when leading off to a few other players who might be candidates for his spot in the batting order:

(Numbers from the 2008 season)
* Kevin Youkilis: .283 (.390 overall)
* Jacoby Ellsbury: .305 (.336 overall)
* Dustin Pedroia: .372 (.376 overall)
* J.D. Drew: .394 (.408 overall)
* Red Sox team average: .321 (.358 overall)

To put it a different way, here's how it works out if each of the above players hit leadoff for 162 games:
* Youkilis would get on base to lead off the game 46 times
* Ellsbury, 49 times
* An average Red Sox player, 52 times
* Pedroia, 60 times
* Drew, 64 times

It becomes a philosophical question: Do you want a guy who gets on base less but can steal more bases when he does? Or do you just want your leadoff hitter to get on base as often as possible?

Should you prefer the latter, a pitch-grinder like Youkilis would seem like a natural fit based on his style. The more you can get a pitcher to throw seven or eight pitches to the first batter of the game, the better off you'll be. But based on his numbers and his personal comfort level, it doesn't seem to be an option.

“For me, I don’t care where I hit except for leadoff,” he told the Boston Herald on Tuesday.

So Youkilis is out. But look at those numbers for Pedroia and Drew. Those aren't necessarily uncharacteristic, either. Pedroia OBP'ed .350 when leading off an inning in his rookie season, and Drew's career OBP when leading off an inning is .388.

You give Ellsbury extra credit because he can steal 50 bases a season and get caught less than 20 percent of the time. But Pedroia stole 20 bases last season and got caught just once. (Drew stole four bases and got caught once; he's stolen more than 10 bases four times in his career, but just one time since 2002.)

Ellsbury is a phenomenal talent. But there are plenty of questions surrounding his ability to hit and get on base the way a World Series contender needs its team to hit and get on base. Once he can do that, his ability to steal bases and put pressure on pitchers will make him a big-time weapon at the top of the batting order. But until then, it might make some sense for the Red Sox batting order to look something like this:

Pedroia, 2B (.376 OBP last season)
Drew, RF (.408)
Ortiz, DH (.369)
Bay, LF (.370)
Youkilis, 1B (.390)
Lowell, 3B (.338)
Lugo/Lowrie, SS (.355/.338)
Varitek, C (.313)
Ellsbury, CF (.336)

You could hit Ellsbury seventh, based on the fact that he's a better hitter than Lugo, Lowrie and Varitek. But if he hits ninth, he'd still have a chance to be a catalyst in front of Pedroia, Drew and Ortiz in every at-bat except his first.

It's not the most conventional way of doing things. But the Red Sox aren't the most conventional team, either.


floydiansea said...

I often wonder why more teams don't put speedy people 9th in the lineup. Your proposed lineup is feasible to me. After the first inning, it doesn't much matter who batted first. Keeping the whole line going, that's the key.

floydiansea said...

Switching gears to the National League for a moment ... Adam Dunn will join the Nationals.

The question: How much will this help that franchise? C'mon, it's Washington, D.C. That's not dreadfully far from you. ;)

Dunn hit a combined .236 with 40 homers, 100 RBIs and 164 strikeouts last season with the Reds and Diamondbacks. In each of the past five seasons, he has hit at least 40 homers and struck out at least 164 times. So we're clearly not looking at the best player of all time, but he's not David Eckstein either.