With Theo Epstein’s epic trade for Adrian Gonzalez, and just-as-epic signing of Carl Crawford, the Red Sox just got scary. Defensively, the Red Sox will put six combined Gold Gloves on the field between Varitek, Youkilis, Pedroia, Gonzalez (two) and Crawford. When Mike Cameron starts, that number bumps all the way up to nine. Offensively, they have a plethora of power, but how best to use it? Here’s my analysis of the best lineup the Red Sox can put on the field.
1) Jacoby Ellsbury: A lot of people think Crawford should bat lead, and that’s because of his power. Crawford is a more powerful hitter, no doubt about it. He’s had six double-digit home run years. Ellsbury’s had none. Crawford has had at least five seasons of 75+ RBIs. Ellsbury’s topped out at 60. Crawford’s total slugging is .441. Ellsbury’s is almost 40 points lower at .405. Crawford has more pop. Problem is, lead-off isn’t supposed to be a power position. There are some power lead-off hitters, but they’re not essential. In some ways they’re even detrimental, because power hitters tend to make outs more frequently than contact hitters, and not having lead-off guys on base negates your real power hitters ( your 3- and 4-hole guys), who have a far higher likelihood of hitting it with enough juice to score runs than the lead-off guys do. So in reality, you just want the better hitter, and that’s Ellsbury. While Crawford’s batting average (.296) is slightly higher than Ellsbury’s (.291), Ellsbury leapfrogs Crawford in on-base percentage (.344 vs. .337). A lot of that has to do with Crawford’s strikeout numbers, which are very high. Ellsbury’s highest strikeout total is 70, in 2009. Crawford has eclipsed that seven times since his 2002 rookie year. He’s eclipsed 100 strikeouts three times. He’s walked more in his last two seasons than Ellsbury did in 2008 and 2009 (97 walks for Crawford, 90 for Ellsbury), but strikeouts kill an offense a lot more than walks help it. As total hitting packages, Ellsbury has the edge if all you want is to get on base.
But what about once you’re on the bases already? Longtime Red Sox fans need no reminder how deadly a base stealer Crawford is. I think Varitek must have breathed a sigh of relief when Boston got Crawford, because he knew he wouldn’t have to try and throw Crawford out any more. But as good as Crawford is, Ellsbury is slightly better. Ellsbury stole 70 bases in 2009. Crawford has never stolen more than 60. And as smart a runner as Crawford is (he’s got Dave Roberts’ timing and knowledge), Ellsbury is actually slightly more successful. Crawford is an 82 percent base stealer. Ellsbury is an 85 percent base stealer. The bottom line is that both of these players can be elite lead-off men, but with Ellsbury you trade pop for a slightly higher likelihood of getting on base and taking extra bases. Power is nice, but the Red Sox have more than enough bats to drive home the lead-off and 2-hole hitters. The extra bases Ellsbury gives the Red Sox will translate to more runs than the extra home runs Crawford hits.
2) Dustin Pedroia: Dustin Pedroia is a prototypical 2-hole hitter: great at getting on base, with more power than the lead-off but less than the clean-up guys. And Pedroia won Rookie of the Year and AL MVP in that batting position. I don’t think you mess with that. Let Ellsbury get on base, let Pedroia move him to third with a single or a double off the Green Monster, then wait for someone else to drive them both home. Pedroia also has sneaky speed, an 82.3 percent base stealer himself. In a first-and-third situation with Ellsbury and Pedroia, a double-steal is certainly a possibility. Pedroia’s great on-base percentage (.369) mixed with his moderate power makes him a terrific second hitter. If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.
3) David Ortiz: Another case of a man making his bones hitting from the same position in the lineup year in and year out. Ortiz has also never been successful hitting in any other position. They’ve tried moving him to bat fourth, and it never works out. Ortiz does his best work when someone else backs him up and forces pitchers to give him something to hit. For most of his career, that person was Manny Ramirez. Then Kevin Youkilis took over the spot, with moderate success. Now, it will be Adrian Gonzalez (more on that later). But Ortiz stays where he is. You also have to keep in mind that Ortiz is going to be sore about not getting a better deal than his $12.5 million option. If the Red Sox also start moving him in the lineup, you’re going to start hearing a lot of grumbling. He might even ask to be traded if he struggles in the new batting order and doesn’t get his old spot back. Look, Ortiz has cemented his place in the uppermost echelon of beloved Red Sox. He’s entering the twilight of his career, so let’s give him what he wants, o.k.? Good, glad we had this chat.
4) Adrian Gonzalez: The fourth slot in the lineup is all about power. Nothing else matters. And with Gonzalez, it’s simple math when compared with Youkilis. Gonzalez has hit at least 30 home runs every year for the last four seasons. Youkilis has never hit 30 home runs in a season. In the last four seasons, Gonzalez has hit 419 RBIs. Kevin Youkils has hit 354. Gonzalez hits a home run every 18.9 at-bats. Youkilis needs 24.8. Gonzalez’s slugging is .504. Youkilis’ is .497. Even Youkilis’ vaunted walking ability is not so much better than Gonzalez’s. Youkilis walked 233 times between 2008 and 2009, his last two full seasons. But Gonzalez’s 212 walks in his last two seasons are nothing to sneeze at, either. So ask yourself, who’s your best chance to drive in runs? Gonzalez is the clear answer. But don’t worry about Youkilis: history has shown he can bat in multiple spots in the lineup without missing a beat. He actually batted better from the 5-hole (.326) over the last three seasons than from any other position.
5) Kevin Youkilis: Anyone else think a 3-4-5 of Ortiz-Gonzalez-Youkilis would scare the poop out of most pitchers? The fifth through seventh positions in an AL lineup tend to be increasingly weaker power hitters, saving any real speed for the last two spots. Hopefully the lineup turns over mid-inning, giving your power hitters a chance to drive in those baserunners. So who’s the best hitter of what’s left? That answer is clearly Kevin Youkilis. He won’t lost too many at-bats across the season by dropping a spot in the lineup, and he’s more than capable of driving in the power hitters who are in turn driving in the lead-off guys. A three- or four-run inning is more than possible with a lineup this deep in power.
6) J.D. Drew: Believe it or not, this is actually the last year of J.D. Drew’s contract. This is great in two ways. First, it means that Drew is on his way out, soon to be replaced by a better or at least more likable right fielder. Drew’s not a bad guy, but his even, unemotional attitude doesn’t play well in a town where grit is so highly valued (think Trot Nixon). Second, the only time Drew always does well is during contract years. His best year was in Atlanta, where he knew he was on a one-year leash. In Los Angeles, his home run total jumped from 15 to 20 in his last two years because of his contract status. And the same can be expected this year. Will he be amazing? No. But we might get some more flashes of the man who’s hit so many postseason home runs, whose coolness translates to a hot bat. But again, the sixth hitter is just a worse power hitter than the fifth and better than the seventh. And that’s what Drew is: the middle of the second echelon of hitters.
7) Jason Varitek/Jared Saltalamacchia: I had to think about this one, because if Jed Lowrie starts, he’s far more likely to hit a home run than either catcher (Lowrie hit a home run every 19 at-bats last season; Varitek’s career AB/HR is 26.8, Saltalamacchia’s 39.2 over his four healthy seasons). But once you get into the bottom three hitters, you also have to start taking speed into account again. Lowrie has stolen a couple of bases (literally), while Varitek hasn’t swiped a bag since 2007, and Saltalamacchia never has. So you save any speed or on-base ability for the 8-hole, and you keep your weakest power hitter in the seventh slot. That’s the catcher, whichever you get. And if Marco Scutaro starts at shortstop, this lineup still works. Scutaro actually can steal bases, and his career AB/HR is a dismal 55.3. He’s not a guy you want in any position where a home run is even remotely expected, so he’s stuck in the 8-hole. Which leads us to….
8) Marco Scutaro/Jed Lowrie: The eighth position in the lineup is kind of a no man’s land. There’s no real expectation of run production, nor is there a real expectation of getting on base. So in general you take your weakest hitter and put him there, then you hope for the best. And that’s what Scutaro and Lowrie are. I liked Scutaro last season. He played 150 games while dealing with recurrent shoulder and nerve pains. That kind of consistency and resiliency is commendable. And I still think you need to give Lowrie a full year at least on the major-league bench, if only to decide whether you’re going to trade him or make him the shortstop of the future. The best place to give Lowrie at-bats is from the eighth slot, where the expectations are the lowest.
9) Carl Crawford: It does seem a little like a crime to relegate a hitter as good as Crawford to the bottom of the lineup, especially when you’re paying him so much. But the 9-hole isn’t what it is in the NL. AL lineups are now built to string the ninth position back to the first and second. A lot of teams have a speedy hitter bat last, because if both he and the lead-off man can get on base, they can both score with a two-out double from the second or third hitter in the lineup. And that’s what the Red Sox have in Crawford and Ellsbury: a deadly duo that can get on base and swipe bags while they’re on the base path. That tandem will really be dangerous in the middle of the game, when the batters won’t be going 1-2-3, then 4-5-6, then 7-8-9. And if Boston gets any production from Drew, the catchers or the shortstops, Crawford will be in a great position to drive runs in while getting on base himself. Bat him last, then watch the fireworks. The Red Sox can already generate runs through the top and middle of its lineup. Crawford enables them to score from the bottom of the lineup, too. Shades of 2003.
So there you go. The lineup that I think maximizes run-scoring potential for the 2011 lineup. This could very well be different from what Boston goes with (Crawford’s salary and high profile might force them to move him up to second, for instance), but if they do use this lineup, remember that you saw it here first.