About a month ago the Boston Red Sox decided to move Jacoby Ellsbury out of the lead-off spot. Many people were taken aback, fantasy managers in particular, feeling that Ellsbury was a natural at this spot. He was hitting around .300 and had over twenty stolen bases. However, when you examine the numbers a bit deeper, you see that it makes perfect sense. It is also a big reason why the Red Sox are 15-7 thus far in June.
While Ellsbury is second on the team in batting average and first in steals, sabremetrics has changed what constitutes an ideal lead-off hitter, and what goes into the creation of an ideal batting order. In Baseball Between The Numbers, James Click (now with the Rays), dedicates a chapter to line-up construction, specifically protection and optimal batting order. It is optimal batting order that I would like to focus on. Using their Baseball Lineup Order Optimization Program, they discovered that the batting order that will deliver the most runs is one constructed in descending OBP.
This brings us back to the Red Sox. Ellsbury’s .345 OBP ranks him only fifth on the team, so according to this theory, he is far from the best player to have batting lead-off. J.D. Drew, the man that replaced him, ranks third with an OBP of .380. Most people probably think that this is an odd decision as Drew’s .255 average and two stolen bases do not seem like prototypical lead-off material. However, his high number of walks make him well-suited to the position.
However, there is still the issue of speed and stolen bases. The fact is, teams are beginning to value speed less for stolen bases, and more for things like defence, infield singles, and turning singles into doubles, all of which increase expected runs more than a stolen base attempt. While the Red Sox are still giving Ellsbury a lot of freedom on the base paths, a few stolen bases are not going to get him back into that lead-off spot.
Statistically speaking, this slight line-up change will probably only gain the Red Sox one victory over the course of the year. But how many times has your favourite team missed a division title or wild-card spot by one game? This little advantage is just one of the things that make the Red Sox the smartest team in baseball.