The Boston Red Sox became the first team to 90 wins on Friday with their win against the New York Yankees, but for the seventh straight game Jacoby Ellsbury was not in the lineup. He is still recovering from a compression fracture in his right foot and his return date is still undetermined. The Red Sox are 5-2 in their last seven games without the center fielder, so do they need him for a deep playoff run in 2013? Maybe, let’s look.
In 131 games this season Ellsbury is hitting .299 with 52 RBIs and 52 stolen bases, his highest steals total since 2009, while being caught just four times. Ellsbury has led off and played center field in all 131 of his starts this season, so that is what the Sox would be missing if he was out for a major part of the 2013 postseason. Do the Red Sox have a good enough roster to replace a speedy lead-off-hitting center fielder?
Well, sort of.
In the 18 games that Ellsbury has missed this season, Daniel Nava was the lead-off hitter 8 times, Dustin Pedroia was at the top 4 times and Shane Victorino had 6 games leading off. In those games, the lead-off hitters went 23-83 for a .277 average with six extra-base hits and nine RBIs. When you throw in the three stolen bases, the production starts to look very similar to that of Ellsbury, considering the sample size, but what really happens is a domino effect on their lineup.
In last night’s game this was the Boston starting lineup.
Pedroia (2B)- Victorino (RF)- Ortiz (DH)- Carp(1B)- Nava(LF)- Saltalamacchia(C)- Drew(SS)- Middlebrooks(3B)- Bradley(CF)
And this was their lineup for a game with Ellsbury in the lineup.
Ellsbury (CF)- Victorino(RF)- Pedroia (2B)- Ortiz (DH)- Nava(LF)- Napoli(1B)- Saltalamacchia(C)- Drew (SS)- Middlebrooks(3B)
By dropping Ellsbury into the lineup you take out the number nine hitter and everyone slides down a spot, strengthening and adding depth to an already strong lineup. So, in a direct player for player replacement, the Red Sox can replace Ellsbury in the lead-off spot, but it makes their lineup weaker.
Replacing Ellsbury in center field is another story. According to Fangraphs, Ellsbury has the best range of any CF, 15.9 runs above average, according to their metric RngR. In that same statistic, Jackie Bradley and Shane Victorino, the two players who have replaced Ellsbury the most during the season, rate negative 3.0 and 0.5 respectively. While Victorino’s 0.5 zone rating is not terrible, it takes him away from right field, a spot where he thrives. He has a 20.5 RngR in right field, far and away the best in baseball. Therefore, taking Ellsbury out of center field sharply weakens their defensive range on the right side of the outfield, a key factor when playing in Fenway Park.
Finally, Ellsbury unlocks an X-factor that any Dave Roberts loving Bostonian knows plays a huge role in the playoffs, a potent bench.
When Ellsbury, Nava and Victorino are able to start for this team, Jonny Gomes and Mike Carp are left to come off the bench. This right-left power punch off the pine has reeled in wins just this week. Mike Carp slugged a pinch-hit grand slam against the Rays in extras on Wednesday, one of his two pinch-hit bombs on the season. From the right side, Gomes is slugging a modest 1.056 including 4 home runs in just 18 pinch hit at bats.
Obviously, if Boston wants a shot at their first championship since 2007 they will need to pitch, but as far as offense and defense are concerned, the Boston Red Sox need Jacoby Ellsbury in the lineup if they want to be playing their best.