At the start of spring training, it was presumed — or maybe more accurately, I presumed — that Alex Verdugo would be the leadoff hitter for the Red Sox in 2021. As spring has unfolded, however, Enrique Hernández has gotten all 22 of his at-bats across 11 games in the leadoff spot, and this has come after comments from Alex Cora in which he has challenged his super utility man to take that role and run with it. Last season, if you recall, also began with a competition for who would leadoff between Andrew Benintendi and Verdugo. Ultimately, Benintendi’s injuries and struggles at the plate gave way to Verdugo getting the majority of his at-bats at leadoff in 2020. So, should he retain the position heading into 2021? Let's dive in.
In 2020, Verdugo got 152 of his 221 at-bats from the leadoff position slashing .304/.362/.442 while scoring 27 of his 36 runs from the top of the lineup. While with the Dodgers Verdugo never really hit leadoff as Chris Taylor handled those duties, so the 2020 sample for Verdugo is pretty much what we have for him in the leadoff spot. It’s not a huge sample, but it’s certainly not nothing, either.
If you listen to the Over The Monster Podcast Network last season then you heard Jake Devereaux and myself talk about the leadoff spot often and how relieved we were once Verdugo locked the position down. Verdugo has never struggled to get on base, which is exactly what you want hitting before the meat of the order in Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts and, JD Martinez.
Switching gears to Enrique Hernández, he only had five plate appearances at leadoff in 2020 because of some guy named Mookie Betts holding down those duties for the Dodgers, but he has spent 89 games hitting from the leadoff spot in his career. His career slash of .250/.306/.470 isn’t as productive as Verdugo and over the past two season’s Hernández’s strikeout rate is higher while the walk rate is lower than Verdugo.
From the leadoff spot, we know the batting average isn’t the end all be all, however. It’s on-base percentage that we really want to look at, and Hernández just isn't as good at getting on base as Verdugo has been, and for whatever it may be worth that split is more apparent looking specifically at their performances in the leadoff spot. On the other hand, it should be mentioned that this spring Hernández has been raking from the leadoff spot, slashing .279/.467/.545 with 7 walks to only 4 strikeouts. This has the usual caveats of spring competition and small sample sizes. But it still has to be considered in the context of being challenged by Alex Cora to basically do exactly what he’s doing.
The numbers at face value certainly seem to suggest Verdugo would be the better option at leadoff/ However, Hernández is having a very strong spring, and that paired with both Cora’s comments and also Hernández’s determination to win the spot, it would seem he is the leader in the clubhouse at the moment to win the job. Whichever way it shakes out, the offense shouldn’t have any issue scoring runs, but the numbers suggest they’ll score a few more with Verdugo at the top. And, after all, this is a team that probably doesn’t have a whole lot of margin for error.