Just a few years ago, the hallmark of the Red Sox was the merciless destruction of pitching staffs. Historically powerful offenses from 2003-05 had a winning formula that was anything but subtle. The Sox, quite simply, would decimate their opponents with the force of a sledgehammer.
The formula has undergone some revision in recent years. With a line of potentially dominant arms that stretches from Boston to Pawtucket to Fort Myers, the Sox are now viewed as a team whose elite run prevention is the foundation of a run at – and perhaps through – the postseason.
Nevertheless, the fact that the team features a potentially elite rotation and bullpen does not mean that the offense is a non-contributor to a championship run. To the contrary, both with and without Manny Ramirez (and, for that matter, David Ortiz, Mike Lowell and J.D. Drew), the Sox had one of the most productive offenses in baseball in 2008.
Though they came short of their record-setting standards from earlier this decade, last year’s Sox led the majors in on-base percentage (.358) and finished third in runs scored (845, 5.2 per game). If the team can pair that kind of offensive output with a pitching staff and defense that allows roughly four runs per game, the Sox would be expected to win more than 100 games this year.
The Sox see no reason to fret about their offense, particularly if they enjoy better health this year than they did last. The team opens the year with Lowell, a player who occupied the fifth spot in the lineup on a World Series winner, hitting seventh. That fact attests to the potentially formidable depth of the offense.
“I’m a huge fan of the guys we have on our team right now,” said hitting coach Dave Magadan. “We did a lot of damage last year offensively with a lot of guys hurt.
“We’ve won a lot of games over the last two years with Mikey Lowell, Kevin Youkilis and the rest of the guys in our lineup,” he continued. “I’m a believer that we’ll be just fine offensively.”
The Sox have a goal of achieving above-average production from every position and every spot in the batting order. If they can come near that goal, the Sox will once again have one of the best offenses in baseball.
How realistic is that expectation? Taking a look at the Sox’ everyday lineup – which returns essentially unaltered this year – and comparing it to the 2008 American League averages, health would appear the team’s primary obstacle in producing big offensive numbers.
LEADOFF: JACOBY ELLSBURY, CF
Jacoby Ellsbury’s first full year in the majors was viewed as mildly disappointing. Of course, given that he was nearly unstoppable in his first exposure to the majors in 2007, production that fell just short of league average in 2008 was bound to fall below expectations.
Ellsbury acknowledged that pitchers got the best of him at times last year by busting him with fastballs up and in, and suggests that he devoted substantial energies to correcting the issue this spring. He talked with hitting coach Dave Magadan several times during the offseason about altering his approach, and did a significant amount of work off a tee to correct this issue.
“It definitely wasn’t an issue of whether my hands were quick enough. They’re plenty quick. The issue was just maybe I was looking on the outer half a little too much. It’s more of an adjustment, I would say. It wasn’t a matter of if (my hands) were quick enough or anything,” Ellsbury said in March. “I didn’t want to work too much on the inside pitch and then leave the outside. So I balanced it out. I like where my swing is at right now, take that pitch and drive it to center, right-center and right down the line. I feel really good at the plate.”
Ellsbury was a different hitter in the majors last year than he had been as he raced through the minors. While matriculating through the Sox system, he had nearly as many walks (111) as he did strikeouts (127). Last year, he whiffed almost twice as many times (80) as he walked, resulting in a very modest OBP of .336.
“I think those walk totals and strikeout totals will start to even out, and eventually his walk total will surpass his strikeout total,” said Magadan. “That’s usually the progression of most big-league hitters. They usually don’t arrive with that walk to strikeout ratio the same that he they are in the minors.”
If Ellsbury goes from slightly below average at his position to slightly above average, the dynamic of the offense will be different. Such an improvement would be common for a 25-year-old in his second full season.
“I think Jacoby is already an impact defender and impact base runner,” Sox G.M. Theo Epstein said at the start of spring training. “Based on his track record in the minor leagues, this is a guy we all feel is going to hit and get on base, who will be a real offensive weapon for us more than he already is.
“Maybe he’s ready to take that next step,” he continued. “If he’s not, it’s not going to sink our club. But we’re pretty bullish on Ellsbury long term.”
NO. 2: DUSTIN PEDROIA, 2B
Dustin Pedroia was likely more responsible for the Sox’ position as one of the best offensive clubs than any other player. He led American League second baseman in virtually every offensive category, and did the same among No. 2 hitters in the lineup. His production so vastly exceeded the standards of his position that he earned the American League MVP award.
The question, then, is not whether the second baseman can maintain above average productivity, but whether he can maintain – or perhaps even improve upon – his remarkable early career numbers.
“He’s a guy that’s not going to accept mediocrity—not that he’s experienced much of it,” said Magadan. “He’s not going to get complacent. He’ll find ways to make himself a better player.”
As gaudy as Pedroia’s season-ending stats were (.326 average, .376 OBP, .493 slugging), it is worth noting that he improved over the course of the year. In the second half, he hit .345 with a .402 OBP and .949 OPS. There seems a decent likelihood that he can improve his on-base numbers given the increasing tendency of opponents to pitch around him as the year wore on.
If that happens, then Pedroia could once again achieve a statistically freakish feat, collecting more walks and extra-base hits than strikeouts. (Last year, he walked 50 times but struck out 52.)
“Those are statistics indicative of a guy who drives the ball, knows the strike zone, knows the pitches he can drive,” said Magadan. “When you’re driving the ball into the gaps, getting extra-base hits, and not a guy who strikes out much, you’re a force in the offense.
“He’s a rare bird, man. There’s times when there’s a certain way to get him out a certain way at a certain time of year, but he’s so good at recognizing it, making the adjustment, and either laying off of it or realizing that it’s coming and putting a good swing on it, that’s why he hits what he hits.”
Of course, the rarity of Pedroia also raises a red flag. Because his production is so unusual for his position, no single player’s absence would be felt as starkly as his.
NO. 3: DAVID ORTIZ, DH
David Ortiz proudly likes to describe his approach to hitting as “swinging from my (expletive).” At times last year, after he came back from the partial tear in the tendon sheath of his left wrist, he did not seem willing to turn loose with the same recklessness that he had in the past.
That did not appear to be a problem this spring. Offseason rest permitted Ortiz an opportunity to recuperate and to get peace of mind. Magadan noted that the tentativeness that crept into his approach at the plate last year seemed to be gone.
“I hit before. That’s something you don’t forget,” Ortiz told reporters on Sunday. “It’s totally a different situation when you go to the plate thinking, ‘If I go to the plate and swing, is this going to hurt?’ It’s too much of a thinking thing as opposed to just going up there seeing the ball and hit it.”
Last year, Ortiz played roughly two-thirds of a year. The diminished playing time resulted in his lowest homer and RBI totals of his stories six-year Red Sox career, and he also had his lowest slugging percentage while matching his lowest on-base percentage.
Even so, while there is little question that the slugger was damaged last year, his production was, if not that of a superstar, then still worthy of All-Star level. The Sox enjoyed well above-average production from the D.H. spot, and Ortiz’ offense did nothing to suggest that he was not worthy of the third spot in the lineup.
There is basis to believe that his numbers may rebound in 2009, if not to his 2003-07 levels, then to something nearer to them than 2008, so long as he is healthy.
NO. 4: KEVIN YOUKILIS, 1B
In retrospect, some of the questions about whether Kevin Youkilis is suited for the cleanup spot seem misplaced. Once Team USA selected him to bat fourth during the World Baseball Classic, any doubts about the legitimacy of his stature as a run producer should have vanished.
It would be equally difficult to argue with the notion that the 30-year-old has improved in each of his major-league seasons. Of course, as of now, there’s not a track record that proves definitively that he can be one of the top sluggers in the majors on an annual basis.
That may change with another year or two performing at 2008 levels. Until then, it will remain unclear whether Youkilis can exceed the OPS of the average A.L. cleanup hitter by more than 100 points.
Because Youkilis does not sell out his swing in hopes of generating power, it is conceivable that even if he continues to square the ball, his homer total could drop. That is not to say that he would not remain a dangerous hitter.
“He could just as well hit 15-20 (homers) as he could 30 or 40,” said Jason Varitek. “He may just as well hit 15 homers this year and 40-something doubles. He’s not a prototypical power hitter, but he’s got a good short swing and an ability to cover a lot of pitches with some power. He’s going to hit somewhere around .300, get his walks, have really competitive at-bats.”
NO. 5: J.D. DREW, RF
When the Sox acquired J.D. Drew after the 2006 season, the team noted its need to address a lack of production in right field and in the fifth spot in the batting order. When healthy, Drew certainly delivered on both fronts in 2008, finishing with an OPS more than 100 points ahead of the average right fielder and 150 points ahead of the average five-hole hitter.
Drew out-performed his career OBP, slugging and OPS last year, and at the age of 33, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see some decline. The Sox still have reason to believe that their production in right will remain solid, since unlike a year ago, they have a platoon partner for Drew who can improve the lineup against left-handed pitchers.
A left-handed hitter started every game of the season for the Red Sox in right field last year. Drew actually handled the responsibility surprisingly well, hitting .284 with a .426 OBP and .500 slugging mark against southpaws. That, however, was in stark contrast to a career in which he has been far more of a force against right-handers (.924 OPS) than lefties (.797).
Rocco Baldelli gives the Sox something they didn’t have a year ago: a legitimate right-handed threat who is a force against lefties. He hit .292 with an .882 OPS against southpaws with the Rays last year.
In 2008, right field was the position of the greatest average offensive productivity in the A.L. as measured by OBP (.351) and OPS (.809). The Sox cleared those averages handily last year.
Provided that Drew, who has an .886 OPS or better in five of the past six years, remains on the field and does not endure a precipitous decline, the Sox are not off base in anticipating above-average production again at a power-hitting position.
NO. 6: JASON BAY, LF
Jason Bay’s numbers after coming to Boston last year (.293, .370 OBP, .527 slugging, .897 OPS) were very much in line with his steady five-year career as a formidable middle-of-the-order hitter (.282, .375, .516, .891). He has offered reliable production in every season except 2007, when his performance was hindered by a knee injury.
With the Pirates, Bay was a two-time All-Star who hit in the third and fourth spots in the batting order. The fact that he will hit sixth for the Sox underscores the depth of the lineup.
If he nears his career line, the Sox would benefit from production that was well above average from the sixth spot. With his production in 2008, after all, the Sox were able to average 5.8 runs per game after trading Manny Ramirez, almost a full run more than the 4.9 runs they averaged with the future Hall of Famer.
“I think we were hopeful but we weren’t surprised when we scored more runs after Manny got traded,” said Magadan. “I knew the type of player that Jason Bay was. I had him for a little bit in San Diego. I knew what he was going to bring to our offense.”
NO. 7: MIKE LOWELL, 3B
Mike Lowell’s 2008 campaign was difficult to characterize. He required separate trips to the disabled list for a thumb injury and an oblique strain, and in the second half, his hip injury made it a wince-worthy proposition to watch him play.
The injuries were so frequent, in fact, that it is difficult to figure out when his up-and-down season endured valleys due to injury or the natural rhythms of a season. But it is clear that he had two radically different halves. Lowell hit .297 with a .360 OBP and .867 OPS prior to the 2008 All-Star break. In the second half, he hit .225/.286/.642 OPS.
A year ago, he was a roughly average to slightly above average producer for his position, though as a No. 7 hitter, he would have provided the Sox with a relatively potent threat.
This decade, Lowell has produced an above average OPS in eight of nine seasons, including three years in which he was well above average (2003, 2004, 2007). If he is even average while batting seventh – behind the likes of Ortiz, Youkilis, Drew and Bay – he could drive in a significant number of runs from his spot in the order.
That development, however, will depend on his good health, something he was unable to sustain last year. If he is injured, the Sox are likely to suffer in a fashion that they did not a year ago.
Whereas the Sox in 2008 could slide Kevin Youkilis to third and insert Sean Casey – a player with a proven big-league track record – at first, the team does not have that luxury to start the 2009 campaign.
There is nothing in Chris Carter’s (or, down the road, Lars Anderson’s) track record to suggest that he cannot be a legitimate major-league hitter, but young players typically take lumps before they produce. And Mark Kotsay, who should resume his role as the backup first baseman by May, has been below the major-league average OPS in each of the last four years.
NO. 8: JED LOWRIE, SS
A year ago, it seemed that the rotation of Julio Lugo, Jed Lowrie and Alex Cora represented an offensive weakness for the Sox. Lugo performed well below his career line for the second straight year, Lowrie suffered while dealing with the effects of injuries down the stretch and Cora was considered a defensive asset with limited abilities at the plate.
It thus might come as something of a surprise to realize that the Sox ranked second in the A.L. in OBP from the position (.358), and that the team’s OPS was fifth among the 14 teams at that spot. Nonetheless, the team has basis to hope for further improvement this year.
The difference in the left-handed swing of the switch-hitting Lowrie this spring was obvious. The improved strength that resulted from a left wrist that had an offseason to heal from a non-displaced fracture permitted him to hit with an authority that was absent in September and the playoffs.
Lowrie and hitting coach Dave Magadan also altered his hand positioning slightly. From the left side last year, Lowrie’s hands were split apart on the bat. This spring, Lowrie joined his upper and lower hands, something that should further help his efforts to generate power.
Lugo, too, showed signs of improvement at the plate before requiring surgery on a torn meniscus in his right knee. He showed a more upright stance that left him in a better position to drive the ball than had been the case in his first two years in Boston.
Based on last year’s numbers, average to slightly above-average shortstop production for the Sox is a reasonable baseline expectation. Though the position is not one of the team’s foremost strengths, it is one of the team’s deepest thanks to Lugo and Lowrie.
NO. 9: JASON VARITEK, C
If there was a rally-killing spot in the Red Sox lineup last year, it was from the catcher’s spot. The team’s backstops hit a combined .218 (14th out of 14 A.L. teams) with a .308 OBP (10th) and .650 OPS (13th).
Jason Varitek was primarily responsible for that dismal performance, tumbling to career lows in average (.220), slugging (.359) and OPS (.672) while notching his second worst OBP (.313). Batting right-handed, he hit an even more unsightly .201 with a .616 OPS.
He was so bad, in fact, that it would be nearly impossible for the Sox to get less production from their catchers this year than they did in 2008. On the bright side for the Sox, however, the standards for production among catchers are so low that it is not inconceivable that the team could go from one of the worst at the position to the middle of the pack.
Indeed, if Varitek merely splits the difference between his 2007 and 2008 numbers, he would go from being a dead spot in the lineup to a slightly above average producer. Can it happen?
This spring, there were signs of promise. Varitek hit five homers, all left-handed – almost as many as the eight he hit from the left side of the plate in 2008. The team believes that his simplified swing mechanics and greater willingness to go gap-to-gap as a left-handed hitter may pay dividends.
If Varitek and George Kottaras can offer a relatively modest improvement from Boston's 2008 catchers, the Sox will stand a solid chance at average to above-average production at every position. On paper, that is a blueprint for a formidable team capable of taming even the most difficult division in baseball.