FORT MYERS, Fla. -- As he walked out to the players' parking lot, Jacoby Ellsbury sounded like a player who had just completed the first official spring training game of the season, not somebody whose role in the Red Sox' lineup was potentially being altered.
"It's only a little bit different that first at-bat," Ellsbury said after hitting second against the Twins Sunday, behind leadoff man Dustin Pedroia. "But I really haven't talked to Bobby [Valentine] about it. It really is just our first game."
When reached via e-mail, Red Sox statistician Bill James, who typically has analysis and answers for every situation, offered neither when asked about his philosophy regarding the formulation of a lineup.
"Anything Bobby wants to do is good with me," James wrote.
Neither response should have come as a surprise. This is how it works. Whatever the manager wants. Whatever is good for the team.
But that doesn't mean the day was without a fair share of eyebrow-raising.
After being asked about his motivation regarding hitting Pedroia against the Twins, Valentine initially responded, "It's just that it's a new year." But then the subject of Pedroia potentially hitting leadoff during the regular season came up, and that's where things got interesting.
"Depending on who else is around there, yeah," Valentine said when asked about the possibility of Pedroia hitting No. 1. "Just about those two, that two situation is an interesting thing, I think, just the right-left, as opposed to Pedroia and Ellsbury, or Ellsbury and Pedroia.
"I would think if you polled 100 guys who talk about that they wanted a guy to lead off an inning and have the second hitter batting, most of them would want a left-hander batting if the first guy got on. If he hits a double, it's a lot easier to advance him to third. If he hits a single, it's a lot easier to advance him to third if he hits with a hole over there, with a strength swing, rather than his less-than-strength swing."
It makes sense, right?
And then there was Valentine's elaboration on how a lineup should be built each game based on who your team is playing, not what will make certain players comfortable. It is a philosophy to which the manager hasn't always subscribed, as evidenced by the fact his best offensive team as skipper of the Mets (1999, 853 runs) used the fewest lineups of any of his New York teams, changing the order just 76 times while going with the same lineup 27 times. (And his No. 2 hitter, Edgardo Alfonzo, was not a left-handed hitter.)
"I started getting more information where I would realize some lineups probably worked better against some pitchers, some lineups worked better against different bullpens, some lineups cannot be together all year," he said. "The last thing you ever want a pitcher to think when he goes out to the mound is that he's pitching with something less than the best lineup behind him. That's all part of team-building.
"Knowing that the lineup is going to change 100 times in a season, if the only time a team thinks it's going to win is when their lineup is out on the field, then there's going to be a lot of games they take the field and think they don't have to win. It creates a bad mentality, to think you have one lineup and that lineup is the one that wins. It's a Little League mentality that should not exist at the highest level of baseball. To say nothing of the fact that guys often need to play to be contributors and feel part of a team. … It's a wonderful talk show conversation about the lineup, and then you go through the St. Louis Cardinals, the world championship run to the World Series, and you see in the playoffs and World Series, they might have used the same lineup twice. What are we talking about?"
Logical once again, right? It is absolutely true the team that won the World Series in 2011 rarely used the same batting order, changing it 126 times while keeping the exact same lineup just four times. And sure, the team that scored the second most runs in '11, the Yankees, had left-handed hitting Curtis Granderson hitting second most of the season (though of course the Sox, who had 123 different lineups, had the right-handed hitting Pedroia as their primary No. 2 hitter).
Remember bullpen-by-committee? In 2003 that made sense when the Red Sox attempted to implement it. As one baseball executive said at the time, "In 10 years, everybody will be doing it." That's how much sense it made. Well, two months into that season, the Sox were no longer doing it, and here we are nine years later, and nobody else is employing that strategy, either. Perhaps the closest anybody ever came was the '08 Rays.
So, if it made sense, what was the problem? Well, it might be the same issue you would be running into in Valentine's lineup scenario -- the human element.
Some players simply don't like being moved around. Most don't mind, but some do. And, in the past, some of those types of players have been, and continue to be, employed by the Red Sox.
Pedroia will say he doesn't mind hitting anywhere in the lineup, and when he now says it he most likely means it. He is comfortable in himself as a player and a hitter. But the second baseman's previous forays into different parts of the lineup weren't seamless. When he initially moved lower in the order, there was an inclination to hit with more power. And his time as a leadoff hitter -- a spot where he hasn't hit since June 28, 2009 -- was marred by an uncertainty as to how he should approach the position.
During that 24-game run in '09, which was made necessary when then-manager Terry Francona moved a struggling Ellsbury, Pedroia hit just .214 with a .264 on-base percentage.
Kevin Youkilis made it clear he doesn't like leading off. Carl Crawford disdained hitting lower in the order, a segment of the order from which David Ortiz also wants to steer clear. And even Ellsbury has stated in the past that he solely views himself as a leadoff hitter.
And another piece of history that might be taken into consideration are the lineup changes made by the last new Red Sox manager, Francona, when it appeared logic dictated some alterations. In what was called Francona's "first significant tactical move since being named manager of the Red Sox" by MLB.com, the new skipper outlined a plan in his first spring training with the Sox to flip-flop Manny Ramirez and Nomar Garciaparra in the batting order, with the shortstop intended to bat cleanup and Ramirez moving up to the No. 3 hole.
"Just looking at the way our lineup is going to be set up, I think it will give us our best lineup," Francona said at the time. "Manny was going to hit with a base open a lot. Nomar is a good baserunner. Nomar hits doubles. The more Manny can hit with men on base, the better off we're going to be. That's probably the best way I can put it."
That was exactly eight years ago. Yet Garciaparra missed the first two months of that season due to injury. On Opening Day, Ortiz batted cleanup, one spot behind Ramirez. One game into the season, Ramirez and Ortiz traded places, and Ortiz remained in the third spot with Ramirez cleaning up into August.
There was also the change Francona tried to implement in 2005, with Ortiz and Ramirez trading spots in the middle of the order. "David likes to hit third, but he understands," Francona said at the time.
Well, evidently that "understanding" was not enough to stop the DH from going to Ramirez later and convincing him the cleanup spot wasn't all that bad. The two switched back on May 14, 2005.
Valentine isn't blind to the pitfalls of his strategy. Judging by his comments Sunday, he simply thinks it's a battle worth fighting.
"I don't know that there’s an easy answer or solution," he said. "Of course, it’s one of the manager’s jobs to make those who are uncomfortable comfortable. And the other job is to make those that are too comfortable uncomfortable, I guess. We’ll see about the lineup. I don’t have a good feel for it. It’s such a talented team that it seems they can score runs a lot of ways. The only thing I think about a lineup is I want to have a chance to score every inning and make it close to an equal chance."
What we do know, judging by similar baseball debates, is nothing typically ends up as it initially seems. Facts, figures and examples can't accurately predict the future. Welcome to the world of a new manager, a new season and the unknown that comes with spring training.