No one in Boston seems to want to lead off with Jacoby Ellsbury on the disabled list. (Mandatory Credit: Greg M. Cooper-US PRESSWIRE)
Ever since Jacoby Ellsbury suffered a shoulder injury seven games into the season, the Red Sox have had trouble finding a leadoff hitter to replace him. Statistically, the obvious choice looked like Ryan Sweeney, who was patient and hitting well at the time. Manager Bobby Valentine went with Mike Aviles, though, who was sort of thrust into the role because there was no one else to take it if it wasn't going to be Sweeney.
Aviles started off well enough, but he has a tendency to be something of a streaky player. His on-base percentage has fallen under .300, and while he's offset that with power, it makes him an ill fit for the leadoff spot. Sweeney was placed there instead against right-handed hitters -- Aviles retains the role against the lefty hurlers he mashes so well -- but he's done no better there than Aviles. Neither Sweeney nor Valentine are pleased or comfortable with his being the leadoff hitter, but with Ellsbury still out, and the lineup full of middle-of-the-order types (or someone like Jarrod Saltalamacchia, who, besides being a catcher, has the same slugging vs. on-base production style as Aviles), what's there to do?
To date, Red Sox leadoff hitters are hitting a collective .240/.281/.389 in 179 plate appearances this year. That's a split-adjusted OPS+ (sOPS+) of 91, nine percent worse than average. and the weakest spot in the lineup besides the nine hole. The slugging is fine, but the on-base percentage needs to climb up in order to set the table for Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz, and the rest of the lineup.
As Brian MacPherson points out, Daniel Nava might be an option. Nava led off a few times in his time with the team in 2010, in another injury-riddled situation. While no one expects him to continue to hit like he has -- Nava's OPS+ is currently 30, or more than twice what Pedroia has posted -- he has the on-base percentage thing down.
In his 216 plate appearances in the majors, Nava owns a line of .267/.389/.411. That's a 115 OPS+, and a whole lot of patience. He's drawn walks in nearly 12 percent of his plate appearances, sees four pitches per plate appearance, and has a history of drawing walks at around this rate, even in his time at Triple-A. It's something to think about until the actual outfield returns, as there's no real downside to putting him there. Even if he reverts into an exact replica of his 2010 form, he was still getting on base at a better clip than Aviles, or Red Sox leadoff hitters as a unit in 2012.
That's not all MacPherson mentioned today, as he also wrote about tonight's starter Felix Doubront, and his reintroduction of the cutter he loves to throw. In the minors, Doubront wasn't supposed to focus on just one pitch -- learning how to utilize all of your offerings is the point. In the majors, though, as is mentioned in the piece, the point is to win games in the most effective way possible. Against the lefty-heavy Indians, Doubront felt the most effective route was through his cutter:
What was particularly interesting about the way Doubront threw his cutter Saturday was how much it looked like a slider at times. That wasn't an illusion.
"My cutter, sometimes I threw it like a slider -- sometimes slower," he said. "A couple of hitters didn't like those pitches. They'd swing for a slider. I was being careful of throwing it with what hitter, in what situation, what count."
Cutters and sliders have very similar grips, but sliders tend to be a bit slower, with more of a loopy shape to their trajectory. Clay Buchholz saw his slider evolve from a low 80s offering in 2008 to a pitch that routinely topped 90 in 2010. Doubront seems to want to keep both in his repertoire for the moments when they are right.
The cutter is the pitch he's used the least during his time in the majors, but as he starts to become more comfortable with the usage, it's likely we'll see more of it. In the right hands, it's a productive pitch.
You thought Jonathan Papelbon's exit to Philadelphia meant that you wouldn't hear about him or from him much anymore, but with the Red Sox heading to Philly for the first interleague set of the year, that's changed. Papelbon had no shortage of things to say, whether about himself (or Cinco Ocho, depending on the topic and feeling), the Red Sox clubhouse at the end of 2011, or just how weighty Alfredo Aceves' cojones are. Don't worry, it's not all negative -- Papelbon thinks Aceves is phenomenal, for one -- but you can be forgiven for gritting your teeth a few times at the Papelbonisms spread all over the interview.