Why Crawford should hit leadoff

Hitting Carl Crawford No. 3 in the lineup doesn't take advantage of his biggest asset -- his speed. Joy R. Absalon/US Presswire

Terry Francona's biggest challenge this spring will be constructing his lineup.

It's a nice problem to have for the Boston Red Sox's manager. With new weapons like Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, Francona almost can't go wrong. But a good lineup is a delicate mix of statistics, roles, egos and comfort levels. Once it's set, the latter factors make it harder to change.

At this point, it looks like Jacoby Ellsbury will hit leadoff, with Crawford hitting either second or third.

"I'm sure [Crawford is] going to hit second or third, maybe both," Francona said Thursday. "He doesn't seem to really care. We'll see how our batting order meshes."

Francona has consistently advocated for Ellsbury and his skills leading off. "When he's leading off and hitting well, that's probably our best lineup," Francona said as recently as February. But given the new personnel, does that still hold true?

"Whoever leads off, you need a couple of things," Francona told the Providence Journal in late February. "Speed's good, if you want to score runs. You've got your best hitters coming up behind him. On-base is important. In my opinion, on-base percentage is more important than stolen bases."

Last season, without Ellsbury for 144 games, the Red Sox didn't have that on-base threat at the top of the order. Boston finished with a .318 on-base percentage at the leadoff spot, third lowest in the American League.

In 2009, Ellsbury established himself as one of the best leadoff hitters in the game, but it wasn't without a few bumps along the way. He was pulled from the leadoff role at the end of May after drawing only five walks in his previous 30 games. Shortly after the All-Star break, it was back to leading off. In 69 games to close out the season, he hit .310 with a .368 on-base percentage and 30 steals.

Consider that the highest OBP in 2010 while batting leadoff (minimum 100 games) was Rickie Weeks' .363.

If Ellsbury can pick up where 2009 left off, he certainly fits that role nicely. Of course, that's a big question mark given his lost 2010 season.

Indeed, Ellsbury's leadoff skills aren't really at issue. The true question is if the Red Sox should have Crawford hitting in the heart of the order.

Crawford proved he could be a run producer last season after moving to the three-hole in August. In 49 games, he hit .323 with 7 homers, 32 RBIs and an .890 OPS. On just about any team, those are ideal numbers for a No. 3 hitter. But this isn't an ordinary lineup. Kevin Youkilis, David Ortiz and Gonzalez all posted a higher OPS in 2010.

Crawford is being paid like Boston's best hitter, but in reality he's probably about fourth or fifth based on OPS. That's not something you generally say about your No. 3 hitter.

That's not to say he's the fifth-best offensive player on the team. OPS doesn't provide a true offensive value, particularly for players like Crawford and Ellsbury, because it ignores what happens on the base paths.

It's been more than 100 years since Boston had comparable base-stealing threats playing together. Tris Speaker and Harry Hooper both stole more than 30 bases in 1910, the last time the Red Sox had two such players.

The challenge is figuring out how to take advantage of that speed. Hitting Crawford third is not the answer.

He attempted only 10 steals in 49 games hitting third last year. Over 162 games, that would put him on pace for just 34 attempts. In 2009, Crawford had 76 attempts while hitting second all season. Quite simply, Crawford's speed is wasted hitting third. That is, unless you're content seeing Gonzalez walking to first rather than trotting around the bases.

On a team with only one other player with an OPS over .750, the Tampa Bay Rays needed to make that sacrifice. Crawford's bat became far more valuable than his legs. But in Boston, it just pushes bigger bats down in the order.

On a team full of stars, lineup construction may seem trivial. It's not. Consider that each spot lower a player hits, he gets about 19 fewer plate appearances over the course of 162 games.

What might those 19 trips to the plate represent? Theoretically, each spot in the order comes to about one Gonzalez home run or eight times on base for Youkilis.

Francona indicated that Crawford could instead hit second, a spot where he's made nearly half of his career plate appearances. But Dustin Pedroia is almost perfectly suited for that spot, where hitting fastballs and excelling from behind in the count are key. In pitcher's counts, Pedroia's a career .286 hitter compared to Crawford's .236.

So why not lead off? It's a spot where Crawford has previously felt uncomfortable.

"I just thought I sucked at it, to be honest with you," Crawford told Gary Shelton of the St. Petersburg (Fla.) Times in October. "Lou [Piniella] put me second. Maybe I could have gotten better at it, but I just wasn't comfortable. It didn't have anything to do with stats. I just don't think I'm a good leadoff hitter."

Indeed, his career numbers leading off aren't great. In 1,695 plate appearances, he hit .288 with a .323 OBP. However, you have to put those numbers in context. Crawford hasn't had a prolonged stint atop the order since 2005. In fact, 92.5 percent of those plate appearances occurred before he turned 24.

Crawford just wasn't great at getting on base back then, regardless of his spot in the order. Over his first four seasons, his on-base percentage was actually higher when leading off.

Maybe Crawford truly has no interest in the leadoff spot. That comfort level is important to a hitter's confidence. But it shouldn't be his past performance that deters him. Crawford is no Youkilis now, but his walk rate has improved significantly in the past two seasons.

Pushing Ellsbury to the bottom third of the order would have multiple positive impacts. For one, it eases him back into the lineup following a wasted season. But it also lets him use his speed even more. Speaking in general terms, Francona alluded to this last month.

"Sometimes your guys that run are better off at the bottom of the order," he told the Journal. "They can run a little bit more free without making outs with your better hitters up."

The Red Sox can maximize their speed by having Crawford atop the lineup and Ellsbury hitting lower. Such an arrangement has the added impact of giving more plate appearances to the big bats.

With seven years to play in Boston, Crawford's power will likely continue to develop. Until then, his skills are best used at the top of the lineup.

Jeremy Lundblad is a senior researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.