Sunday, July 5, 2009

Francona downplays lineup movement

Over the last three weeks or so, David Ortiz has hit fourth, fifth and sixth in the Red Sox lineup. Jason Bay began the season hitting sixth and has spent most of the last month hitting cleanup -- but he's hitting fifth for the second time in three days today against the Mariners.

Jason Varitek has hit sixth, seventh and eighth in the last three weeks. He'll hit eighth today. Jacoby Ellsbury has bounced all over the place -- from leadoff to second to seventh to eighth. He'll hit sixth today.

J.D. Drew has started a game hitting first, second, third, fifth and sixth for the Red Sox this season. He's started games at every single spot in the batting order in his career. He'll hit leadoff today against the Mariners -- as he has done in each of his last four games.

In many ways, where a player hits in a lineup is overrated. The leadoff hitter only is guaranteed to lead off an inning once per game -- if you take the first inning out of the equation, in fact, Dustin Pedroia has led off more innings (69) than Ellsbury (62).

It gives all of us something to talk about. But having a set lineup every day, a lineup that has everyone in exactly the spot either conventional wisdom or sabermetrics would dictate, isn't as big of a deal as we'd like to make it.

"If you can get some sort of consistency, I think the players appreciate that," Francona said. "I do think it makes it easier for them. I believe in that a lot."

He then paused.

"I believe there are times you just can't do that," he said. "Now, it's not like we have David hitting eighth or first or second. We're staying pretty close. We're actually staying pretty consistent through the order. We don't have a guy one day first, one day ninth. There's some consistency. ...

"I don't think you hit players where they're uncomfortable."

Consider the movement of Pedroia in the batting order.

Pedroia hit second in the batting order from April 6 to May 30 -- and he hit .328 with an OPS of .842 in that span. He then hit leadoff from May 31 to June 28 and hit .214 with a .565 OPS. Since he was returned to the second spot in the batting order, though, he's hitting .250 with a .667 OPS. He's not exactly setting the world on fire.

A year ago, Pedroia spent 17 games in the leadoff spot in the lineup and hit just .208. Clearly, that spot didn't agree with him -- except when you consider that he actually was 6 for 16 (.375) when leading off the first inning and 9 for 56 (.161) at all other points in the game. Pedroia hit leadoff in the team's first game of the season, in fact, and singled up the middle.

And when injuries gave Francona reason to put Pedroia in the cleanup spot a year ago, the second baseman went 12 for 18 with two home runs and seven RBI.

What's the difference? It's not clear even the players know.

In fact, the way Francona and Pedroia talked about the difference between hitting leadoff and hitting second made it sound like they'd come up with a company line to explain something that isn't really explainable.

"Pedey's trying too hard to do the right thing," Francona said. "We just want him to be himself. ... This kid's too conscientous. He wants to be the perfect leadoff hitter. He wants to get on base every time. I just want him to be himself."

"Trying to do so much, that's what I've been doing," Pedroia said. "I want to do so well and get a hit every time I'm up, and sometimes that backfires -- especially when you have a lot of energy."

Much was made of the dilemma Francona faced a few years ago with Ortiz and Manny Ramirez, trying to decide who to hit third and who to hit fourth. The big dilemma was protection in the lineup. Kevin Millar and Jason Varitek hit fifth more often than anyone else, and neither exactly were could be considered Tony Lazzeri to Ortiz and Ramirez's Ruth and Gehrig.

"I do remember calling them in," Francona said. "I called Manny and David both in at the same time, and I said, 'One guy hits third, and one guy hits fourth. You help me.' Both of them said, 'Third.' David understood it. I don't know if Manny did. I was like, 'We've got to figure this out.' They both were like, 'OK, third.' I was like, 'OK, now, from there, let's go a step further and get one guy fourth. That took a while. ...

"Manny was worried about, obviously, protection. I wanted to get David hitting third. I wanted to have Manny hitting fourth. But I wanted them to feel good about it. As a manager, you can do what you want and it can be the right thing on paper, but if your players don't buy into it, it may not be right. Manny had the ability to take walks regardless of who was hitting behind him. I didn't know if David would do that. We're trying to get the most out of both of them."

That's all a manager can do. Some guys feel more comfortable hitting in certain spots. Youkilis, for example, is not comfortable hitting leadoff even though his on-base percentage and ability to work counts makes him a perfect fit at the top of any lineup. Francona hit Youkilis at the top of the order throughout the 2006 season -- the first baseman had a .400 on-base percentage when leading off a game -- but has not done so since.

It's not a science. It's not just about the numbers.

It is, though, fascinating to talk about.

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