The 2018 Red Sox were an anomaly, I’m convinced of that. Virtually unstoppable all season, and an absolute tour de force unmatched by any of the very-talented teams they faced and destroyed in the postseason.
So why fix what was so far from broken that it wasn’t even in the same galaxy? As I wrote last year before Drew Pomeranz made his first start of the season, the day before the Red Sox were no-hit for the first time in 24 years and 364 days, why mess with perfection?
On paper, bringing back almost exactly the same team (minus a few dead weights and overpriced arms), is a recipe for success. Not a guarantee, but knowing you’ve already done what you need to do makes it probably the closest you can get.
And yet, by tinkering with his lineup, Alex Cora messed with perfection. And now it is something of a mess.
This winter, he announced that Andrew Benintendi and Mookie Betts would swap spots in the lineup, with Benintendi being the leadoff hitter in 2019.
It’s not the first time he’s hitting in the one-spot. Benny was 6-for-18 with two doubles, a home run and three walks in 21 games out of the leadoff spot last year.
And in principle, the change makes sense. Mookie is one of the best hitters in baseball, so if there’s someone ahead of him to get on base, he can drive in an additional run at the beginning of the game.
Of course, that only works if the batter ahead of him in the lineup isn’t literally the worst leadoff hitter the Red Sox have had this century.
Andrew Benintendi is hitting .081 in first innings as leadoff. As of Wednesday, he was 3-for-34 with 4 walks and 12 strikeouts leading off in the first innings of 39 games. All of those three hits were singles, too. Since 2000, no Sox leadoff man posted a lower first-inning batting average than Jacoby Ellsbury’s .194 in 2012. Most years, the leadoff man was hitting in the high .200s.
Andrew Benintendi can’t break .100.
The solution is so simple that it makes this entire situation all the more frustrating. Just move Benintendi down in the lineup, and use either Mookie, or someone else. For one thing, lineups should be continuously evolving to match the slumps and highs of the batters. Mitch Moreland, Rafael Devers, Michael Chavis, and Xander Bogaerts have each been hotter than the sun lately. If Cora doesn’t want Mookie batting first, there are seemingly endless other variables he can try.
Yesterday, with Chavis in the leadoff spot, the Sox beat the Blue Jays 8-2, outhit them 15-5, and every batter in the Boston lineup had at least one hit. Before the game, Cora said that Benintendi was lower in the lineup because he hasn’t felt comfortable against left-handed pitchers this year. That’s awfully generous, considering Benny hasn’t really looked comfortable leading off, period.
At this point, it just feels like Cora is being stubborn about keeping Benintendi in leadoff, like he is unwilling to simply acknowledge that the experiment didn’t work. Instead of quietly pivoting to a new lineup, he’s digging his heels in, and the longer it goes on, the more ridiculous it looks. Furthermore, in the meantime, we practically have a guaranteed first out in every game, which, in addition to just being bad baseball, sets an awful tone for the lineup and the game. It’s not crazy to say that there’s a different feeling in games when Benintendi is leadoff; his frustration and lack of confidence has and will continue to affect the rest of the lineup.
Last season, when Mookie led off, you were almost always guaranteed a leadoff base hit, usually a double. There were quite a few leadoff home runs sprinkled in there, too; 16 of his 118 career home runs are leadoff, 5 of his 32 last season. Only one of Benintendi’s 43 career homers came as leadoff, though he has spent much less time there than Mookie.
But the fact remains that in the leadoff spot last year, Mookie set the stage for dominant games and those games culminated in an incredibly dominant season. If we want even a chance to get to October again, this is the kind of problem that needs to be solved yesterday.
There are plenty of issues with the team this year, but not all of them are as easy to fix as changing the lineup. Cora can’t make Eovaldi heal faster, and there’s only so much he can do with the bullpen he’s got (and they haven’t even been that bad!). But he makes the lineup every day, and he makes a choice to keep using a hitter he knows isn’t performing.
We’re nearly a third of the way into the regular season now. The time for “it’s early” and “it’s May” talk is fast coming to an end. The Red Sox are in third place in the division, and still losing games to lesser teams. It’s time to buckle down and make some changes, starting with the top of the order.
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