Jacoby Ellsbury Is Red Sox’ Best Leadoff Option, But Lineup Change Could Spark Struggling Outfielder

Jacoby EllsburyThe 2013 Red Sox pride themselves on working deep into counts and generating baserunners, which makes it rather ironic that their leadoff hitter, Jacoby Ellsbury, isn’t exactly pacing the offense in either department.

Ellsbury, who received his first game off on Sunday, has been struggling at the dish of late, and manager John Farrell could soon find himself with a decision to make. Farrell said Saturday that he’s not ready to move Ellsbury out of the leadoff spot, but he also admitted that there are no absolutes.

If Farrell holds true to his word, it’d be the right approach. The Red Sox should see how Ellsbury handles the leadoff role upon returning from his off-day, and maybe even allow him to try and push through his struggles during the Red Sox’ six-game homestand that begins on Thursday. If Ellsbury is not on track by then, however, Farrell should consider making a change in order to ignite a spark in the free-agent-to-be.

Ideally, Ellsbury will figure things out. His speed is an asset regardless of where you put him in the lineup, but we’ve seen at times this season just how dangerous the top of the order can be when both Ellsbury and Shane Victorino are clicking. Ellsbury makes life extremely difficult for opposing pitchers once he gets on base, and Victorino’s ability to handle the bat against both lefties and righties maximizes Ellsbury’s baserunning potential.

Ellsbury’s havoc-wreaking ability, however, is contingent upon him getting on base, which is something that the speedy outfielder just isn’t doing at the moment. He put together a nice April, hitting .283 with 11 stolen bases, but he’s hitting just .189 in May, which has limited him to just two thefts. Ellsbury’s season average is down to .246, and his on-base percentage sits at .309, making him statistically one of the worst leadoff hitters in baseball through the first month and a half.

“There’s times where he’ll show good patience, he’ll work deep in the count, and the next at-bat may be a little bit overaggressive trying to make something happen. And it comes down to timing,” Farrell said. “We see him where he’s squaring up some balls, he gets on base and he’ll create some havoc. But the consistency to which he’s made himself known for is a little elusive right now. He’s a key part for us. We need him to, and we may need to work with him, to get him going every day. But his consistency has a huge effect and a huge impact on who we are offensively.”

If Farrell eventually moves Ellsbury down in the order, it wouldn’t be the first time the 2011 All-Star has been shifted out of his traditional leadoff spot. Former Red Sox manager Terry Francona moved Ellsbury down in 2009 — when Farrell was Boston’s pitching coach — after Ellsbury demonstrated some mediocre discipline. The result was Ellsbury drastically improving his plate presence and eventually recapturing his natural role.

The logic at the time of Francona’s move was that Dustin Pedroia and J.D. Drew gave the Red Sox a better 1-2 combination in terms of getting on base. Farrell might decide to take a similar approach this season and see if someone like Victorino or Daniel Nava is up to the challenge.

For now, the Red Sox will be patient, but Boston gets its first taste of interleague play in a National League ballpark on May 29. There’s no need to put a hard-and-fast date on a potential lineup change, but since interleague play lends itself to some lineup adjustments anyway, perhaps it’d be a good time to try and shake things up.

“We have to get him going, bottom line,” Farrell said. “There’s a human behind every name, and there’s a psyche you have to work with. That’s where stability and continuity has a purpose and a place.”

A lineup change may or may not help Ellsbury. But if he keeps struggling, it’s at least worth trying temporarily. The Red Sox’ offense is far more potent when Ellsbury is on top of his game, and therefore Farrell should exhaust all options when it comes to getting him on track.

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