The ALDS starts tomorrow, and when it does, the Red Sox should bring a new lineup to the party.
A few things seem set in stone, and are not a problem:
- Dustin Pedroia bats first
- David Ortiz and Mookie Betts are in some order in the 3-4 spots
- Hanley Ramirez bats fifth
That’s about it. We’ve seen the other spots shift around a good bit, and for the most part, that’s not terribly surprising. When it comes to the bottom of the order, jostling guys around depending on who might be feeling it a bit more or less is pretty commonplace, and doesn’t exactly promise to make a huge difference in the outcome of any games. In fact, the reality is that most lineup changes don’t have that huge an impact so long as they’re restricted to just the order of the batters, and not the actual names involved.
That being said, one spot has stood out as a bit of a black sheep: the two-hole. Xander Bogaerts laid solid claim to it for most of the last couple months, but as his numerical slide during that period dragged on, he started to stick out like a bit of a sore thumb between Pedroia, Ortiz, and Betts. The shortstop has more-or-less plateaued at a fairly reasonable point after a miserable August, but it takes some serious end-point gymnastics to make him look particularly good in recent stretches. In the final few games of the season, that made him a central figure in John Farrell’s lineup experiments, with Bogaerts moved down to sixth a couple of times.
That’s all well-and-good. As it stands, perhaps Bogaerts should not be batting second, in particular because even during a reasonable September he’d been less of an on-base threat than a power hitter. But the proposed solution was kind of a mess. Sorry, Brock Holt fans. The possibility exists that he’s Boston’s best option at third base right now, but even before an 0-for-14 slump to end the season, Holt’s numbers since returning to a semi-starter role have been entirely pedestrian. He’s fine hitting seventh or eighth, but when he gets a fifth at-bat in a game where David Ortiz and Mookie Betts might not, you’re doing something wrong.
This brings us to the one batter whose place in the lineup is clearly too low right now: Andrew Benintendi. The rookie has shown no problem adapting to Major League pitching, hitting .295/.359/.476 right out of the gates with the Sox. Those numbers aren’t that much lower in 44 plate appearances since returning from injury. A Benintendi at-bat looks like it’s coming from someone who’s been in the league for six or seven years, not six or seven weeks. He’s been a perfect fit in the Red Sox’ extremely disciplined lineup, it’s just a question of where in the lineup that fit has been. Except that one game immediately after the Sox clinched the East where half the starters were given the day off, Benintendi has hit eighth or ninth in every single one of his starts this season.
Well, the answer here seems kind of obvious, doesn’t it? Even if you buy into the big platoon splits (Benintendi has a .429 OPS against lefties in 33 plate appearances, which isn’t even 5% of the number needed to really establish that split), the Indians are throwing three right-handed starters against the Red Sox. Against them, Benintendi’s OBP jumps up to .400 (though, again, the sample size means you probably shouldn’t be paying more attention to that than his overall .359 against all pitchers). It’s fair to say that, late in the game, you might want to avoid the relatively untested left-handed rookie against the likes of Andrew Miller, but the Red Sox are in the perfect situation to handle that thanks to the presence of Chris Young. whose OPS against lefties has only just recently dipped down out of four-digit territory. He’s not even an automatic out against righties, which makes putting him in as a pinch hitter at #2 somewhat less concerning.
I certainly get that asking a rookie to bat second in their first trip to the playoffs is kind of a lot. And if you want to put Xander back in that spot I can’t say I really blame you. But Andrew Benintendi should not be batting ninth. Even the “second leadoff hitter” philosophy (which is itself fairly questionable) would not suggest you should sacrifice the quality of the earlier spots to enable it. Jackie Bradley Jr. would, frankly, be the obvious pick if you had to go in that direction given his middling numbers of late.
Just not Andrew Benintendi. Yes, he’s young and inexperienced. Yes, be it second or sixth, these are big spots to put him in. But based on what he’s shown us so far, there’s not much reason to believe he can’t handle it. No small part of this 2016 turnaround is a result of the Sox turning over the keys to their young home-grown players. Now is not the time to start doubting what a talented young rookie can do for a playoff team.