Monday, June 1, 2009

Ellsbury move reveals Francona's lack of sentimentality

Fans and writers alike were all over Terry Francona for the first six weeks of the season about dropping David Ortiz in the batting order. Francona held out as long as he possibly could before making the move.

Not a soul breathed a word about dropping Jacoby Ellsbury in the batting order. (Well, OK. That's not entirely true.) Four days after Ellsbury's 22-game hitting streak ended, though, Francona dropped him in the batting order.

This ought to tell you something about a manager many criticize for being too loyal or too sentimental. The general theory about Francona's reluctance to pull the trigger with Ortiz was that he either was living in the past or was too afraid to butt heads with a player he considered more of a friend than an employee. He was too much of a players' manager, some said, to do what was right for his team.

But Francona loves Ellsbury, too. The kid works hard. He plays hard. The ladies go wild for him.

And when it became obvious that his 22-game hitting streak was a mirage and his .332 on-base percentage at the top of the Red Sox lineup was not, though, he put him where he probably needs to be at this point in his career: At the bottom of the Red Sox lineup.

Ellsbury is as fast as anyone in the league. But when you hit in front of Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis and Jason Bay, speed isn't as important as getting on base. If Pedroia hits a double up the gap, it doesn't really matter if you can score from first or not. With Youkilis, Bay and J.D. Drew coming up, odds are you're going to end up crossing the plate.

You can't score, though, if you don't get on base -- and Ellsbury, even with a 22-game hitting streak on his resume, has an on-base percentage seven points lower than the American League average. No player in baseball has as more plate appearances as Ellsbury without walking at least a dozen times.

Check out this comparison:
* Ellsbury: 228 plate appearances, 11 walks
* Pedroia: 227 plate appearances, 28 walks

It simply makes the most baseball sense for Ellsbury to hit eighth or ninth given where he is in his development as a player -- just like it made the most sense for Ortiz to keep hitting third for as long as possible. Ortiz, at his best, is the epitome of a No. 3 hitter. He's a guy who can hit doubles and home runs while still seeing plenty of pitches and even taking a walk once in a while. Only when it became clear that his slump was more than a slump did Francona drop him in the order.

No one's saying he can't be a leadoff hitter later in his career. He just can't be a leadoff hitter right now -- and by moving him down in the order, Francona showed he's not afraid to put statistics in front of sentimentality.

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