The identity of the leadoff spot has been changing in recent years. Gone are the days in which the manager would simply stick his fastest man first, and let the stolen bases flow freely. It's been the better part of a decade since the OBP revolution, and now for many teams it's not about finding the guy who can force his way into scoring position, but about who's going to force his way on base, setting up the best hitters to knock him in.
In this area, the Red Sox seem to have lagged behind with Jacoby Ellsbury. He's got decent on base numbers, but throughout his career in the leadoff spot, there usually has been a better option. So it is with great satisfaction that I hear Buster Olney predicting the following:
I very much approve.
This isn't just a matter of getting Dustin Pedroia's high on base percentage up first, though. It's just about having your best batters first. After all, the higher a player's position in the lineup, the more likely they are to get that one extra plate appearance or at bat per game.
Consider the effect over a season. If the games end after each given spot in the lineup with equal frequency, then that's 18 extra plate appearances per spot. Do we really want to sacrifice 18 at bats from each of those four guys to give them to Jacoby Ellsbury and his career line of .291/.344/.405? I'll pass.
Of course, there is one reason this might not work: Pedroia. The reason why Jacoby Ellsbury has been batting leadoff for so long is because the Sox just can't find someone to replace him. They've played around with Drew and Pedroia, but neither player managed to maintain their numbers when in the new spot.
It's possible that this is a mental thing, and if it is, then it could be a real issue. But it's also worth considering that he has a career .261 BABIP from the spot compared to a career .310 mark. That seems more like random chance than anything else.
We certainly won't know for sure if this is how things pan out until the season gets underway, but Terry Francona has been willing to move Ellsbury out of the top spot in the past, and with him coming off a lost season and the additions of Crawford and Gonzalez putting high lineup spots at an even greater premium, it seems entirely possible. I, for one, will be hoping that Olney is right.