The Red Sox offense in 2017 has simultaneously been disappointing and not as bad as it seems. They’ve certainly gone through some frustrating stretches — and find themselves in the midst of one right now — but overall they’ve been something around a league-average unit. Obviously, they want and need to be better than that, but considering injuries and how many players have hit to levels below expectations thus far, it’s not the worst result.
Part of the reason the Red Sox lineup seems like it’s been worse than it actually has is that they haven’t been able to get off to strong starts. It seems as if they are playing from behind in every game. Runs are worth the same whether they are scored in the first or the ninth inning, of course, but there is certainly value in giving yourself and your pitching staff a little bit of breathing room early in the game. Although this definitely wouldn’t solve this problem completely, it is part of the reason that it’s time for Jackie Bradley to jump up to the second spot in the lineup between Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts with Andrew Benintendi sliding down into the bottom half of the order.
Really, the reasoning for this is fairly straightforward. Right now, Bradley is one of the best hitters in the Red Sox lineup. Meanwhile, Andrew Benintendi is in the midst of a slump that is rendering him one of the worst hitters on the roster. Making moves based on small sample streaks and slumps isn’t generally a good idea, but using it to change something as inconsequential as lineup order isn’t too bad of an idea. Plus, Boston’s offense needs a jolt, and the most common way a manager kickstarts a lineup is by shaking up the order.
Bradley, with the way he has hit this season, is a perfect fit for the second spot in the lineup. At least, he’s a perfect fit as long as Betts isn’t there, as the right fielder is really the perfect fit for that spot. On the surface, Bradley’s numbers aren’t all that impressive. Through his first 146 plate appearances the center fielder is hitting just .228/.322/.441, good for a 97 wRC+. In other words, he’s actually been a bit below league average. That doesn’t really do his performance justice, though.
In many ways, this is arguably the best Bradley has looked at the plate. He has continued to cut down on his strikeouts, which of course was his achilles heel when he was first promoted to the majors. He’s currently striking out just 21 percent of the time. He’s also drawing more walks than ever before with a rate of 11.6 percent. He’s been able to do this while hitting for just about the same amount of power as he did in 2016, with a .213 ISO this season compared to a .219 mark last year.
The one thing holding Bradley back at the plate this season has been success on balls in play, as his .244 batting average on balls in play for the season is well below-average. However, there are few signs that point to this being a sustainable deficiency. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics, he is hitting the ball hard at the same rate as he did last year — when he posted a .312 BABIP — and at a rate that puts him in the top-third of the league. On top of that, he is no longer using right field so often with his lowest pull-rate since 2014. Opponents have frequently deployed shifts against Bradley during his career, but if he keeps spreading his contact around the field as he has so far this year, the number of shifts he faces will drop. That, in turn should only help to accelerate the positive regression for his BABIP.
So, Bradley has been a good hitter this year and everything points to his overall line reflecting that fact more as the year goes on. The argument against his moving up in the lineup, though, will be that he’s always been a better hitter further down in the lineup. While this is true, it’s not a good reason to keep holding him down. The fact is, Bradley really hasn’t had a chance to succeed towards the top of the lineup. Over his career, he’s had only 141 plate appearances above the sixth spot in the lineup, and 101 of those came in the fifth spot. It would be totally unfair to say he can’t succeed in the second spot when he’s only had four starts in that lineup slot.
On the other end of things, this move would serve to take a little bit of pressure off Benintendi. Everything points to the rookie turning things around at the plate, but the generally calm, cool and collected youngster looks like he’s starting to press in the midst of this slump. He’s behind on even the least impressive fastballs and appears to simply be guessing at the plate, and usually guessing wrong. A move down in the lineup should take a little bit of pressure off Benintendi and let him get back into a groove.
Lineup changes, over the course of an entire season, don’t have a huge effect on the team. Unless you’re doing something crazy like batting your best hitter in the last spot in the lineup, batting orders only add or subtract a handful of runs from a team over 162 games. On the other hand, when a team is slumping a shakeup seems to have an intangible effect on a lineup. Making a move just hoping for a spark may not be the best move, but in this case John Farrell would be moving a good hitter to the top of the lineup and a slumping hitter towards the bottom. Bradley should be a strong fit between Betts and Bogaerts, and could help the Red Sox get off to the hot starts they have been missing over the last few weeks.