Perhaps it’s that I already miss questioning every decision made by the manager of the Red Sox (shoutout to John Farrell), but I just can’t help myself from feeling early-season pessimism when it comes to one particular managerial decision in Boston. As Alex Cora has mentioned a few times throughout spring training, Mookie Betts will be leading off for the Sox this season. I highly doubt this pessimism is actually linked to me missing Farrell. I just have this weird personal thing where if a guy ever drives in eight runs in one game, I don’t want to see him hitting leadoff ever again. Bizarre, I know.
I’m not complaining about Betts’ numbers hitting leadoff. There is absolutely nothing wrong with a career .292 batting average, 169 extra-base hits (including 57 home runs) and 207 runs batted in over 329 games in the lineup’s top spot. My issue is that Betts is simply too good to be hitting leadoff. Although it’s a much smaller sample size, Betts is actually more effective in the fourth spot. Over 243 career plate appearances batting cleanup, the Tennessee native has a .309 batting average, the highest of the eight batting positions he’s held throughout his career. Betts has driven in 40 runs in the fourth spot on 67 hits - including 15 doubles, one triple and seven home runs.
Is he the No. 4 hitter when he’s teammates with J.D. Martinez? No, probably not. A guy who finished sixth in MVP voting last season and second the year before that is also probably better suited for the middle of the order, though. Obviously a lot more goes into MVP voting, but it’s worth noting that only twice since 1991 has someone who hit in the No. 1 spot for a majority of the season gone on to win the MVP award that same year, Jimmy Rollins in 2007 and Ichiro Suzuki in 2001. MVP-caliber players just aren’t usually hitting in the leadoff spot. So why would you put a potential MVP candidate who has a knack for facilitating offense in the leadoff spot? I’m no manager, but there has to be a better way to organize this lineup that doesn’t involve Betts hitting leadoff.
For starters, I think the leash needs to be a little shorter on Hanley Ramirez this year. Despite putting together one of the worst statistical seasons of his career, Farrell penciled Ramirez’s name into the fourth or fifth spot of the lineup 107 times of the 133 games he played in 2017. Comparatively speaking, Betts hit from one of those spots in just 18 of the 153 games he participated in last season. If Ramirez can’t get his bat going, he needs to be pushed to the bottom of the order, if he plays at all. If Betts’ numbers indicate that he’s getting hot, which he has a tendency to do, he needs to be put in a position where he can do the most damage offensively.
My hope is that Martinez provides something that Betts likely missed last season. The invaluable lineup protection David Ortiz gave Betts in 2016 was one of the many things that made it a career year for the 25-year-old star. Pitchers didn’t want to put runners on base when they knew they would see Ortiz later in the inning. Betts drew only 49 walks in 158 games in 2016 compared to 77 walks in 153 games last season. According to Fangraphs, 47.6% of the pitches Betts saw in 2016 were in the strike zone. Last season, that number dropped to a career-low 43.9%.
Subconsciously, I think I am concerned that Betts is not going to sign a long-term contract in Boston, especially if the Sox are planning two more arbitration hearings before he becomes an unrestricted free agent in 2021. He doesn’t strike me as the type of guy who would leave a team over his spot in the batting order - and there’s really no indication that he has any issue leading off. Maybe I am wrong, I just can’t help but think that Betts wants to be the centerpiece of a team. And if this year’s arbitration case is any indication, he knows he could and should get paid like a centerpiece.
There was one thing that rubbed me the wrong way about Cora’s December interview with WEEI discussing - among many topics - his decision to bat Betts leadoff. Cora spent a majority of his two-minute explanation saying he wants the Sox to be more like the Astros. He compared Betts to George Springer, saying he wants the Red Sox to put pressure on the opposing pitcher right away, much like the Astros did. I love that idea and it obviously worked for the 2017 World Series champions, but I don’t think a first-year manager should spend the whole season trying to emulate what worked for another team last season.
Pete Abraham of the Boston Globe did provide useful insight on the topic of Betts hitting leadoff recently, discussing in his Beat Writer’s Notebook how often the Houston lineup changed last season. That gives me hope that Cora will change things that aren’t working with a little less apprehension than Farrell operated with during his time in Boston. According to Abraham, the Astros used 144 different lineups throughout the 2017 regular season. Cora also told WEEI about his intent to use Andrew Benintendi and Pedroia (once healthy) in the leadoff spot in addition to Betts - proving that the manager’s wheels are already turning. I can get behind that.
All in all, I think Cora will have a positive impact in Boston and I think it’s going to be a close race for the American League East as a result. If he does have the first-year success I envision, however, I have a really hard time believing it will be directly related to Betts hitting leadoff.