It's an idea the Red Sox just haven't been able to get away from: Dustin Pedroia, leadoff hitter. While most of his time with the team has been spent batting second, with a none-too-brief sojourn in the third spot these past couple years, Boston's second baseman has always been one of the names tossed into the mix when the Red Sox find themselves in need of a leadoff batter.
Typically speaking, this has been because of an injury to Jacoby Ellsbury. The speedy center fielder very much made the leadoff decision easy for the Red Sox in years past, particularly once he started reaching base with regularity. When he was not available, the team would typically run through every possible option at the leadoff spot, each with their various flaws, rarely giving anyone much of an opportunity to establish themselves in the role before Ellsbury was back and ready to take over.
Now, however, Jacoby Ellsbury is gone for good, and Boston's first attempt at a replacement--the Daniel Nava/Jonny Gomes platoon--proved incapable of reaching base with enough consistency to be worthy of the spot. And so, once again, they turned to Dustin Pedroia.
In the past, Pedroia's brief forays in the leadoff spot have not gone well. In 2008, he lasted 17 games there, hitting .208/.256/.264 in a year which saw him named American League MVP. He was little better when they tried again in 2009, and we started to hear that, while Dustin Pedroia was never one to back away from a challenge, he might just not be comfortable batting first.
For some players, that might make sense. For all that the scenario surrounding any given at bat in baseball might be different, in the end it still comesdown to little more than the batter vs. the pitcher. There's no inherent difference between a batter hitting leadoff and one hitting ninth. Still, with expectations that a leadoff batter will try to see lots of pitches and get on base above all else, it's possible for certain batters to feel pulled in the wrong direction. It's not hard to see why their production might suffer as a result.
Dustin Pedroia, however, has never seemed like the sort of player who would struggle in such a situation. After all, the only thing that separates Dustin Pedroia from an ideal leadoff hitter is his lack of elite speed on the basepaths, and that doesn't come up until everything at the plate is in the past. With his top-notch contact skills and penchant for walks, Pedroia sees plenty of pitches no matter where he's hitting and has a career .369 OBP.
Photo Credit: Tom Pennington
More convincing than any appeal to logic, however, is the simple fact that the leadoff spot is where Pedroia made his name. It's easy to forget, but before there was Ellsbury - Pedroia at the top of the order, there was Pedroia - Youkilis. Back in his first full season with the Red Sox, Pedroia set the table time and again as the leadoff batter, hitting .328/.393/.492 out of the leadoff spot.
Even in that season, he saw more time batting second than first, but when it came time for the Red Sox to put their best foot forward in October (which most certainly did not involve Julio Lugo batting first) it was Dustin Pedroia getting them started. The only time he did not lead off as the Red Sox made their way to their second World Series in four years was when they lost the designated hitter in the National League.
So if you're surprised that this year leadoff duty seems to be working out just fine for Pedroia, you probably shouldn't be. So far, in 18 games leading off for the 2014 Red Sox, Dustin Pedroia is hitting .282/.386/.449. Compare that to a .729 OPS batting second and some could draw the conclusion that Pedroia just doesn't feel comfortable batting second anymore. Really, though, all it means is that Pedroia started the season both cold, and batting second. Much as, in years past, he ended up cold and batting first. Simply put: correlation does not imply causation.
How long will Dustin Pedroia stick in the leadoff spot? Honestly, that probably depends more on other players than Pedroia. Given his contact skills and the possibility that there's still a 15-homer season in there somewhere, Pedroia might be more valuable hitting second. But that's only feasible if the Red Sox find someone who can replicate his ability to reach base. Despite his struggles at the plate early in his career, Jackie Bradley Jr. might be the most realistic chance, given how well he fit the bill in the minors.
In the meantime, however, the Red Sox seem content with Dustin Pedroia batting first. And why not? It's the Pedroia-first lineup that's started to get the Red Sox off to quick starts after weeks of futility in the first inning. Unless those phantom leadoff troubles make themselves known once again--and do so in convincing magnitude, mind--there's no reason for the Red Sox to move away from Pedroia in the leadoff spot.