It’s been a good season for the Red Sox so far. They’re a half-game out of first place and generally better than projected by, well, anyone. Yet there is a running concern, at least among fans, about a very specific “problem:” the leadoff spot.
The leadoff spot has been a puzzler all season for some fans, who have watched its rotating cast of characters and remained disappointed. I joked on an Over the Monster Podcast that wasn’t eaten by the Internet Spirits that the group of second basemen had made a deal with the devil in order to hold down the leadoff spot. Between Kiké Hernández, Michael Chavis, Marwin Gonzalez and even Christian Arroyo, that theory held until Danny Santana got the nod in his first game for the Sox. So I’m back to the drawing board. The devil’s off the hook.
My new theory is that Alex Cora likes the rotating spot at the top of the order for several reasons that have more to do with the actual management of players than finding every possible mathematical edge to win games. I think at this point we can safely conclude that if Cora was overly concerned with the latter we wouldn’t be having this discussion, so the question is why he doesn’t feel this way, and I have ideas.
My first idea is that he likes having the leadoff spot open in order to give lesser hitters a vote of confidence, so to speak, from time to time. While it would make more mathematical sense to have Alex Verdugo lead off and just bump everyone up a spot, the resulting lineup would look like a group of haves and have-nots; the good guys are up top and the bad guys down below. That works well enough, but I suspect Cora prefers this arrangement for two reasons. The first is it avoids this caste system approach, and prevents the team from being divided, at least on the surface level, into haves and have-nots. This is straightforward enough, whether you like the approach or not.
The second I find way more interesting on a personnel management level. Cora seems eager to give players a shot at batting leadoff in games where you’d expect quite the opposite; in both Chavis’s and Santana’s first games of the year, they were in the top spot, and subsequently they largely haven’t been. Why is that? I suspect that in both cases, Cora was using it to inspire confidence. Chavis, of course, has had some legendary struggles in the majors, as has Santana, and by putting them front and center Cora was basically saying, it seems, that instead of hiding these guys in the bottom of the order he was encouraging them to go out and be their best selves. That they both hit homers in these games is a nice coincidence. But I don’t care if they went 0-fer; I see and understand the strategy.
The other theory that has gained some steam is that all of these dudes are just keeping the leadoff spot warm until Jarren Duran is called up, but his appointment to the Olympic qualifying team puts a damper on that one, as does the fact that he and Verdugo are at least superficially similar batters (i.e., if Cora wanted a Duran type leading off, he could already have it). This is not to say that Duran won’t eventually lead off, especially in his first game, for the reasons outlined above, but he is not the savior that Sox fans on Twitter think he is, simply because the Sox, 10 games over .500, appear not to need saving.
And the record tells the bigger story. Until the Sox start losing regularly, nothing is going to change. If this alchemy is working, so be it. Baseball teams are a superstitious lot and this is working. Stevie Wonder may not like it, but it’s fine for me.