Eyebrows were raised all over Red Sox Nation last week when manager Bobby Valentine trotted out a new lineup featuring controversial starting shortstop Mike Aviles leading off, with Jacoby Ellsbury batting third.
"At first glance, the idea seems unrealistic," wrote Brian MacPherson of the Providence Journal. "Ellsbury seems entrenched as the leadoff hitter—and if he’s going to move anywhere, it seemingly would be to the No. 3 hole to capitalize on his extra-base power."
However, as Valentine told Peter Abraham several weeks ago, he's rethinking the idea of sending Ellsbury up to the plate without any runners on base at least once every game, especially given Jacoby's newfound ability to drive in a lot of runs.
Also, Valentine loves the righty-leftty-righty-lefty combination that would provide at the top of the order.
The 30-year-old Aviles, acquired midseason from Kansas City, is a right-handed hitter with some speed who hit .317 in 38 games for Boston. He can play second, short and third–and even some outfield, as he did last year.
One thing is clear from Aviles' history: The more he plays, the better he hits. Check his stats: the year in which he mustered 286 at-bats (2010), he hit .304. In 2008, when he had 418 at-bats, he hit .325 and finished fourth in voting for the Rookie of the Year.
Derek Stykalo of BosoxInjection.com agrees that more at-bats for Aviles means more production. "And what better way to give him additional at bats then to hit lead off? Stykalo asks.
Aviles has been one of the more consistent bats for the Sox this March, hitting .313, with a slugging percentage of .500 and an OPS of .813.
But hitting leadoff isn’t just about getting base hits. It’s about getting on base, and despite his high batting average, Aviles only has a .318 career on-base percentage.
That's because he just doesn't walk—just 4.2 percent of the time in his career. Up to this point, he has only been able to get on base by getting a hit.
That's a real weakness for a leadoff hitter. The most he's ever walked in a season is 20 times, and it is somewhat worrisome that he has yet to manage a base on balls this spring. Not getting walks lowers not only his OBP, but more importantly, his runs total.
However, many believe that playing in Boston is going to help him improve this big hole in his offensive game.
With patient hitters like Kevin Youkilis, Dustin Pedroia, David Ortiz and Adrian Gonzalez leading the way, the Red Sox are one of the most patient hitting teams in the league. They are always among the league leaders in PPA—Pitches seen per Plate Appearance. That number is usually well over four for the most patient hitters. The league average PPA has been hovering around 3.8 for the last three seasons. For his career, however, Aviles has seen only 3.48 pitches per PA (3.39 in 2011).
On the other hand, Michael Barr of FanGraphs points out that Aviles seldom swings and misses—just 7.2 percent of the time, "which while not quite Pedroia good, is still well above average," Barr concludes.
"Then there’s the allure of ballpark fit," adds Barr. "Aviles is happiest when he’s pulling the ball, and it just so happens that Fenway is happy to deliver a lot of doubles to right-handed pull hitters due to something about a big wall in left."
Barr bolsters his argument with the fact that Aviles is a career .368/.366/.638 pull hitter, hitting nearly 90 percent of his home runs to left field.
Aviles' stat line for his four major league seasons shows a .288 average, .318 OBP, .419 slugging percentage and an OPS of .737. If you take out his lost 2009 season prior to his Tommy John surgery (.183/.208/.250), he has a career batting average of .2994.
As I concluded earlier in the month,
"To put this in perspective, only three AL shortstops hit better than .288 last year (Peralta, Jeter and Escobar). For 2012, ESPN projects that not a single AL shortstop will even reach that number. Aviles will be hitting in a considerably more hitter-friendly park with a much stronger lineup around him. If he just reaches his career-average numbers, he could lead all AL shortstops in batting average."
Given that Dustin Pedroia, Carl Crawford and Kevin Youkilis have no interest whatsoever in leading off, Aviles may be the best bet if Valentine decides to move Ellsbury down to a better RBI slot in the order.