Editor’s Note: Numbers are through Thursday’s action.
We’re not all that far removed from me saying how much I hated Mookie Betts leading off, and doing so without providing a single suitable alternative. Well, I know you guys have been sitting there waiting, constantly refreshing Over The Monster’s homepage to see if I finally came through with an idea that I thought made a little sense. And I would like to let you all know that I have done just that. I know it’s going to sound crazy, just about as crazy as having a “best player in baseball” candidate hitting in the No. 1 spot, but bear with me for a second. What if Andrew Benintendi hits leadoff for the rest of the season, even when Betts returns from the disabled list?
Benintendi has been absolutely scorching hot. So hot that it’s hard to even remember how much he struggled through the first month of the season. Remember back on April 24 when Benintendi was hitting .227/.344/.373 with one home run through 20 games? He had just struck out in four of his five at-bats against Toronto and it felt like he had been thrown out on the bases as many times as he had driven in a run. I don’t quite remember that either and that’s probably because since then, he’s hitting .333/.395/.641 with an OPS of 1.037. He has driven in 31 runs, scored 33 times and hit ten home runs with 25 total extra-base hits over that time frame. Not bad.
Sports Illustrated pointed out a couple subtle changes to Benintendi’s stance and hand placement over the last few weeks that could’ve led to this turnaround. As noted by SI.com, Benintendi began opening up his stance on April 26 — a few days removed from that four-strikeout effort — and has been tearing the cover off the ball ever since. Given that torrid hot streak and the clear increase in offensive production lately, one might ask why I insist on him hitting leadoff going forward. If you disagree and think Benintendi would make a bad leadoff hitter because of how good he has been, it should mystify you even further to have Betts hitting in the lineup’s top spot.
I think Benintendi can give the Sox exactly what manager Alex Cora said he wanted out of Betts in the No. 1 spot, “pressure on the opposition from pitch one.” The big difference is that I think Betts can consistently give you more offense deeper in the lineup so therefore he deserves those opportunities. You’re not losing anything by making the switch, but you’re gaining something by shifting Mookie toward more RBI opportunities. He has played in at least five fewer games than every guy in the top 30 on the home run leaderboard, yet he’s still only three off the league lead. I’m not trying to get all Moneyball on you here, but let’s give that guy the most possible chances to drive in runs.
According to Baseball Savant, Benintendi’s sprint speed (27.7 feet per second) is tied for the second fastest on the Red Sox, behind only Betts (28.2) — so you won’t be losing much speedwise either. However, Benintendi has had his baserunning woes this season and he’s currently tied for fourth in the league for outs on the bases with three so far. He ran into 11 outs on the bases last year, too — which was the second most in the league behind only Jose Ramirez. Maybe him hitting leadoff will force him to take a little more responsibility when it comes to baserunning. It’s never good to get thrown out running the bases, but it’s even worse to get thrown out with Betts and J.D. Martinez coming up behind you.
I get that Cora really likes Betts in the leadoff spot and he said recently that nothing is going to change in that regard. Going into this season, I just couldn’t help but feel like we were going to see all of these different lineup combinations as a tribute to Cora’s time in Houston. Astros Manager A.J. Hinch used 144 different variations of his championship-winning lineup last year, according to the Boston Globe’s Peter Abraham. We have seen a variety of different lineups in Boston this season — mostly due to injury and underperformance — but Betts has hit leadoff in all 46 of his starts.
Mitch Moreland said it best following Boston’s recent trip to Houston. Per the Eagle Tribune’s Chris Mason, Moreland said, “there’s no replacing Mookie and what he brings to the table, but Benny’s done a great job of getting on base and kind of getting stuff started for us.”
There’s plenty to like about either guy hitting at the top of the order. To be honest, it even feels a little strange to be complaining about an offense that’s leading the league in batting average, slugging percentage, runs scored and is at least the top five in just about every other category. Yet, I have managed to find a way. If it’s wrong to want one of the most exciting players in the game in the middle of this order (and to complain about it every chance I get), I don’t want to be right.