Success of Red Sox Lineup a Matter of Playing the Percentages


Success of Red Sox Lineup a Matter of Playing the Percentages FORT MYERS, Fla. — When assessing a lineup, its possibilities and its best configuration, the easy thing to do is to glance at a few cumulative statistics and simply dream of crooked numbers.

If Jacoby Ellsbury is stealing 70 bases again and Carl Crawford has 15 triples and Adrian Gonzalez reaches 40 home runs and David Ortiz chips in 30 more, surely the runs will come in waves for the Red Sox.

Maybe. For the Red Sox, who are presented with several intriguing lineup permutations with their new imports, it's much more a matter of playing the percentages.

Ellsbury and Crawford will be turned loose and given every opportunity to utilize their speed. But while the thought of them combining for 120 steals or more is exciting, it means little if they are thrown out too often or wind up a distraction for those who are hitting at the time.

The success rate of stolen bases will dictate so much, as will what their presence on the base paths means to those looking to just get a hit.

"What we care about is just not making outs," manager Terry Francona said Sunday, after producing a lineup that could be utilized often during the regular season.

In addition to choosing when to go, one way that the speed of Ellsbury and Crawford can help in that process is to open holes, particularly on the right side of the infield when a first baseman is forced to hold them on. Hitters like Dustin Pedroia, Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and Gonzalez could be the direct beneficiaries.

A critical component to the process is communication. If Pedroia is up there either hacking or looking to be a bit more patient, Ellsbury will want to know so he can gauge when to go. If Gonzalez is someone that doesn't like a lot of dancing around at second base, Ellsbury, Pedroia and Crawford will have to be mindful.

"If you've got a guy on second and it's bugging the hitter, then they need to be still," Francona said. "That's their responsibility to know each other. I get aggravated when somebody comes back in July and says [something about being distracted at the plate]. They should've talked about that two months ago. We encourage guys to be like that, they're fast. We also encourage them to communicate with each other."

All of this plays into that basic, time-honored percentage of batting average, and there is plenty of precedent to suggest that the number of hits per at-bats will soar with legitimate threats on base.

Pedroia, for one, is a .328 lifetime hitter with a man on first base. That number drops to .230 when a runner is taking his lead off second, but soars to .474 with runners on the corners, a prime situation in which to get the runners going.

Gonzalez has a .427 average and a mammoth 1.239 OPS when hitting with runners at first and third. Youkilis is a .359 hitter in such situations, and bats .331 with a man on first. Ortiz bats .294 with a man on first, 13 points higher than his career norms. Crawford, who could hit second, third or fifth in this lineup, hits .322 when men are on the corners, 26 points above his career mark of .296.

Of course, none of this means much if another percentage — that of the on-base variety — is not as high as it should be. The burners, particularly Ellsbury, have to reach base with regularity for this lineup to be all that it can, and should, be.

Ellsbury, who has had a marvelous spring as he comes back from an injury-marred 2010 campaign, has had moments in his young career in which his on-base percentage was not up to snuff. He was dropped in the lineup in part because of this for short stretches in 2008 and 2009. Certainly, the need for a high on-base guy to get the train moving is even more important with so many guys waiting to drive in runs.

Each time he reaches base, Ellsbury will cause the other percentages to instantly increase, which in turn helps Francona make those calculated gambles.

"I just think its common sense, you take your strengths and you just make the most out of them," Francona said. "I think every team would like to run because it's fun. It's fun to be aggressive."

Stolen base and home run totals are nice when they are high, but only if the Red Sox play the percentages.

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