Jacoby Ellsbury went down early on in 2012, and that torpedoed Boston's leadoff production for the year. Ellsbury had not hit much yet before his shoulder injury, and didn't produce much after his return. In between, the Red Sox could not get games started on the right foot, either, and those struggles lasted throughout the games.
In 2013, should Ellsbury return to form, then this won't be a concern: he'll likely be back in the leadoff spot, unless he goes all 2011 on Boston again and then ends up in the middle of the lineup, where his bat might now actually fit in. But it's worth paying attention to how poor the leadoff hitters were last season, to see where more production is needed, as well as to remind that, should Ellsbury leave as a free agent following the year, Boston will be back to needing to fill this hole once more.
Don't take that to mean Boston needs to re-sign Ellsbury now. But they will have to acquire or produce someone for the role, should he take off.
Leading off games in 2012, Red Sox hitters were, in a word, horrific. In 162 plate appearances (one for each game!), they hit a collective .237/.284/.322. According to split-adjusted OPS+, that was nearly one-third worse than the average leadoff hitter. Not contextualized enough for you? Jose Iglesias' OPS at Triple-A Pawtucket was nearly 20 points higher than what Boston's leadoff men did to open up the game. His walk rate was better, too.
That's just the first plate appearance, though. How did the leadoff men do overall, since they likely had at least three other chances per game to make up for their earlier inadequacy? Better, but not by a whole lot. Overall, in 751 plate appearances, hitters in Boston's first slot put up a .260/.304/.369 line, 12 percent below-average by OPS+, but that's even a bit misleading. OPS+ doesn't weight on-base percentage over slugging, and in a leadoff role, you would love for your hitters to draw walks and lengthen plate appearances. Your average MLB leadoff hitter posted a .324 on-base percentage -- 20 points of OBP is a significant value difference, especially in the lineup slot that sees the most plate appearances. The lack of walks and power led to Boston's ranking 24 of 30 in leadoff production.
Here is all of the damage that came from the leadoff spot, broken up by player:
Despite missing considerable time, Ellsbury led the club in plate appearances from the leadoff spot. It's no wonder he did, given how poor the other options were at this job. Mike Aviles hit for a ton of power early on in the role, but eventually, his lack of walks and a slumping bat cast him out of the leadoff slot. A .286 on-base percentage over 170 plate appearances is just painful. Ellsbury can't comment too much, though, given he barely nudged out Aviles' production from a walks standpoint, and was far worse in the role since he had nowhere near the pop in his bat.
Scott Podsednik managed a .347 on-base percentage, but that was highly influenced by his batting average. Which, by the way, fell from .387 in the season's first half to that .330 placement, thanks to hitting just .263/.282/.292 in the second half. Daniel Nava was the closest thing to an ideal leadoff hitter Boston had all season. Now, let's put that into context. Nava wasn't invited to spring training. He wasn't on the 40-man roster at the start of the year. He played for much of 2012 with a cyst in his wrist that hampered his production. Despite that, he still put up the closest thing to a leadoff line of any Red Sox batter, going .245/.347/.351 in the role. It wasn't perfect, but neither was his situation, and he still managed to be exactly league-average in the role. He's not alone in that regard, as, thanks to the power outburst of Aviles, he was the only Red Sox hitter in the leadoff spot to be above-average offensively.
Nava's healthy month (June) and Aviles' early power outburst (April) led to the only two months in which Boston's leadoff production was better than average. The rest of the way, there was just one month in which Boston could even manage to be above-average in one of slugging and on-base percentage, never mind both. It was an ugly year for the role, nearly regardless of who was filling it.
As said, though, if Ellsbury is 100 percent again -- even if he's more like the Ellsbury of old and not the power-centric one -- this problem has solved itself. Hey, if Daniel Nava is healthy completely, and plays left field (where he was above-average) and leads off, again, issue no longer an issue. Having reasons to believe things will be better in the future doesn't make the work of 2012 any less ugly, though.