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Guys Who Don't Walk, and Other Offensive Thoughts

There's been a lot of talk on this site recently about Jacoby Ellsbury, specifically whether he should lead-off or not. Many people expressed the view that his on-base percentage (OBP) was too low to justify leading off. People attributed this to Jacoby not walking enough, and being overreliant on hitting to get on-base. And the numbers would seem to confirm this: a .347 OBP largely stemming from a .306 batting average, with only 13 walks. Not awful, but commenters wanted more out of the lead-off spot. With Pedroia and his .414 OBP now leading off, this discussion has tapered off.

What I find interesting is the amount of attention Ells got at leadoff, when there are other issues with the offense. A closer investigation of the Red Sox offense reveals some interesting issues and unexpected observations.

Let's start with Ellsbury. He's been hitting much better recently (.340 avg / .404 OBP in the past 12 games), so his season numbers look better than when the discussion on leading-off started. . Among the 83 American League players with enough plate appearances for the batting title, Ells' .347 OBP is 42nd, which is very close to the median average. In other words, he's been pretty average. Moreover, there's a long list of players he's ahead of in his category, including Curtis Granderson (.344 OBP), Aaron Hill (.343), Jermaine Dye (.337), Alex Rios (.322), Grady Sizemore (.302) and Vernon Wells (.309).

I agree that Ells should be further down in the order, but it's not because he's a bad hitter - by OBP he's around league average. The Sox just have better options to lead-off. That said, Ells is taking an unfair amount of flak. His 13 walks are fourth lowest on the team among regular starters. Nevertheless, he's ahead of Lugo (9), Lowell (9) and Green (6). Lowell's low walk total is the real surprise, and his 3.9% walk rate is the lowest of the everyday players (Ellsbury's is 5.2%). Combined with his team-high 14 double plays grounded into (GIDP), and you're looking at a real drag on the Sox offense. It's a good thing he's hitting .300 and slugging over .500, because he's not getting on base at the rate you'd like. Nick Green gets a pass from fans because he's not Julio Lugo and he's hitting well for a AAA call-up. His OBP is decent at .341, but it's been inflated by 5 hit by pitches (HBP).

[Aside: the American League HBP leader is Kelly Shoppach, with 11. The Sox are 2nd in the league in total HBP with 30, after the Indians' 40.]

In addition to Lowell, I'm concerned about Jason Varitek. Unlike our third baseman, Tek can take a walk (10.8%). Moreover, when he makes contact, he's hitting the ball HARD: 22 of his 38 hits have gone for extra bases, including 10 HR. He's the only Sox regular besides Bay who has hit more doubles, triples and HR than singles. The reason I'm concerned is that Tek is one year removed from a god-awful season, and he still isn't hitting right handed pitchers (.239 AVG / .320 OBP). Given his age and recent history, I would not be at all surprised to see him go into another long funk for the rest of the season.

The biggest problem in the lineup is DH, obviously. Ortiz's 53 OPS+ is dead last among regulars, and looking through his stats, the only positive is that he's walking around 11% of the time. His K-rate has jumped to 27% which is higher than any point in his Sox career, and he is missing badly on fastballs that in years past he would have crushed.

Thankfully, even with Ortiz's struggles, the Sox have a good offense (4th in the AL in runs scored). In Theo's eyes, a short-term trade is probably not necessary. I don't expect to see Adam Dunn or Nick Johnson walk into the clubhouse; the Sox are more likely to get a bit player in the Eric Hinske or Mark Kotsay mold. The trade deadline is probably going to be very boring from the Sox POV.