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Whose Health Is More Crucial to Red Sox Success: David Ortiz or Jacoby Ellsbury?

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Whose Health Is More Crucial to Red Sox Success: David Ortiz or Jacoby Ellsbury?
Elsa/Getty Images

After losing 93 games and making a mockery of themselves in the process last season, the Boston Red Sox have their eyes on smooth sailing and a return to form in 2013.

They're banking on much going right. The Red Sox's offseason remodeling project will have to pan out, for one, and they'll certainly need to be blessed with good health. To that end, two guys stand out as key injury concerns: designated hitter David Ortiz and center fielder Jacoby Ellsbury.

Ellsbury was limited to 18 games in 2010 after a collision with then-Red Sox third baseman Adrian Beltre left his ribcage in ruins. Last year, Ellsbury was limited to 74 games after a collision with Tampa Bay Rays shortstop Reid Brignac left his right shoulder in ruins.

To be fair, Ellsbury is more accident prone than injury prone, but what's true either way is that he's not the quickest healer under the sun. Given his track record, we can rule out the possibility that he's a real-life incarnation of Wolverine.

Ortiz, meanwhile, was limited to five games after the break last season thanks to an Achilles injury. Now the word from The Boston Globe is that both of his Achilles' tendons are hurting him, and Jon Heyman of CBSSports.com has heard that Ortiz may not be able to play until May:

So it already sounds like the Red Sox should prepare for life without Ortiz for a while to start the season. They'll be in a tight spot until he comes back, and they'll be in an even tighter spot if Ellsbury suffers another collision-related injury early on in the season (knowing his luck...).

But here's a question: If the baseball gods offered to guarantee good health for only one of them in 2013, whom would the Red Sox choose: Ortiz or Ellsbury?

That's a tough one. We better get to the bottom of it.

 

Who Provides More Value on the Field?

There's an apples-to-oranges nature to this question, as a comparison between Ortiz and Ellsbury is a comparison between a great hitting talent and a great overall talent. The answer depends on whether Ellsbury's all-around talent is a good match for Ortiz's elite hitting talent.

Here's a hint: It is.

Not that Big Papi is a bad hitter, mind you. He was left for dead as a hitter a couple of years ago, but he reanimated in 2010 and proceeded to get better in 2011 and 2012. 

Ortiz followed his .899 OPS in 2010 with a .953 OPS in 2011, and he compiled a 1.026 OPS in 90 games last year, which would have been the best in baseball had he finished with enough at-bats to qualify. 

Assuming good health eventually finds him in 2013, there are few reasons to think that Ortiz won't be able to repeat his 2012 production, which doesn't look like a fluke. FanGraphs shows that Big Papi was walking more frequently and striking out less frequently in 2013 than in previous years, and he didn't benefit from too much luck when he put the ball in play.

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Ortiz was on pace to hit over 40 homers before he got hurt last July.

Ortiz's batting average on balls in play (BABIP) in 2012 was .316, which is right about where he was in 2010 and 2011. His HR/FB rate was an even 20 percent, a figure only marginally higher than his HR/FB rates in 2010 and 2011 and his career HR/FB rate of 18.7 percent.

Big Papi's 2012 production looks more like a sort of culmination than a random explosion. He's old, and his bat certainly isn't as explosive as it was between 2003 and 2007 but he's refocused his approach at the plate and figured out how to compensate for whatever bat speed he's lost due to age.

So while Ortiz's health is very much in doubt, there's little to be picky about when it comes to his offensive numbers.

The same cannot be said of Ellsbury.

Ellsbury had a dandy of a season when he was fully healthy in 2011, posting a .321/.376/.552 slash line with 32 homers and 39 stolen bases. Seemingly overnight, he went from being a pesky hitter with speed to being a power hitter with speed, a much rarer breed.

It's the "seemingly overnight" aspect of Ellsbury's explosion in 2011 that should have the Red Sox lowering their expectations for him in 2013. As great as Ellsbury was two years ago, expecting him to be that great again is expecting too much.

Ellsbury may have told Scott Lauber of the Boston Herald that the best is yet to come in 2013, but the numbers say we've already seen the best of his power. Ellsbury hit 12 more home runs in 2011 than he had in the previous four seasons combined, which was thanks to a fluky power surge in the second half of the season.

According to FanGraphs, Ellsbury's ISO (Isolated Power, which is basically slugging percentage without singles factored in) went from .175 in the first half of 2011 to .298 in the second half, a huge jump. It helped that his HR/FB rate nearly doubled from 11.3 to 22.1.

There's the problem. HR/FB rates like that are typically reserved for elite sluggers, and Ellsbury's career 8.8 HR/FB says he's definitely not an elite slugger.

If Ellsbury stays healthy in 2013, he's likely to be much more of a traditional leadoff guy: a solid on-base hitter with gap power. The Bill James projection for him calls for a .346 OBP, 15 homers and 37 stolen bases, which sounds like a fair and happy medium between Ellsbury's production in 2008 and 2009 and his explosive production in 2011.

So as far as hitting production goes, there's really no debate that Ortiz beats Ellsbury. Ellsbury was the greater offensive force in 2011, but Ortiz is far more likely to be an impact hitter in 2013 based on his track record (again, assuming he is healthy).

Jim Rogash/Getty Images
Ellsbury can go get it with the best of 'em.

Where Ellsbury has a distinct advantage over Ortiz, however, is in his capacity to provide value with his legs on both defense and on the basepaths. He's one of the game's top fielders and baserunners.

Ellsbury led all center fielders with a 15.6 UZR (ultimate zone rating; see FanGraphs) in 2011, and he also totaled seven defensive runs saved. Despite seeing limited action in 2012, he still managed a 2.9 UZR and three defensive runs saved, a strong showing for such a small sample size.

On the bases, Ellsbury was good for 5.3 base-running runs above average by FanGraphs' reckoning, and 3.7 base running runs by Baseball Prospectus' reckoning. Once again, strong numbers for a small sample size. 

Ellsbury's speed will dry up eventually—but not yet since he's only 29. Ortiz can't hope to measure up against Ellsbury in defense and base running, and Ellsbury's value in these areas is more than enough to bridge the gap between him and Ortiz in hitting value.

The point in the on-field value debate goes to Ellsbury.

But that doesn't mean the debate is over.

 

Who's Harder to Replace?

The Red Sox are hoping that Ortiz and Ellsbury stay healthy in 2013 not just because they're two of the best players on the club, but also because neither of them would be easy to replace. Players with their talent don't grow on trees.

Between the two of them, though, Ellsbury would be the easier one to replace in the event of an injury. The Red Sox have their weaknesses, but they aren't perilously thin on outfield options these days.

The Red Sox have a natural center fielder in Shane Victorino slated to play right field in 2013. If Ellsbury goes down, Victorino can move to center field, where his speed and strong arm would allow him to provide the Red Sox with solid defensive value.

With Victorino in center, the Red Sox could move Jonny Gomes to right field and slide Daniel Nava into left field, where he's most comfortable. Or they could keep Gomes and/or Nava in left and just play top prospect Jackie Bradley Jr. in right field.

Derick Hingle-USA TODAY Sports
Bradley looks like the real deal.

That would have been a long shot a couple of weeks ago but not now. Bradley emerged as one of Boston's top prospects thanks to a strong showing in his second pro season last year, compiling a .911 OPS in 128 total games in Single-A and Double-A. He's also raked to the tune of a 1.115 OPS this spring, though Baseball-Reference.com cautions that it hasn't been against top-level competition.

Where it would be harder to replace Ellsbury is at the top of the lineup.

Victorino would presumably be Boston's leadoff man if Ellsbury were out, but he's not perfectly suited for the role. For his career, Victorino has a better OPS as a No. 2 hitter than as a leadoff man. He also bombed as the Los Angeles Dodgers' primary leadoff man last year, posting a .685 OPS in 23 games before Don Mattingly got fed up and started moving him around the lineup. 

Still, at least the Red Sox would have options available if Ellsbury were to go down. They'd have fewer options available to them if Ortiz were to go down (or, given his current status, stay down).

Ortiz stands out as a huge part of Boston's offensive outlook in 2013 because he's the only legit lefty power threat the Red Sox have. Most of their power is going to come from the right side of the plate, meaning right-handed pitchers would have a much easier time negotiating Boston's lineup in 2013 if Ortiz were absent.

Beyond that, the DH spot in Boston's lineup would become a revolving door affair. John Farrell could give Gomes and Mike Napoli some DH time in Ortiz's absence, but beyond them, the Red Sox only have Ryan Lavarnway and Mauro Gomez. They're both righty hitters whose major league numbers aren't nearly as encouraging as their minor league numbers.

With no other lefty power threat in place and no obvious replacement for Ortiz in the DH spot, the middle of Boston's lineup would be dealt a significant blow if Ortiz were out for a long while. That's the kicker, as the Red Sox and pretty much every other team will vouch that it's more difficult to overcome weakness in the middle of the lineup than it is to overcome weakness at the top.

Thus, the edge here goes to Ortiz.

But the debate still isn't over.

 

Whose Health Woes Would Be a Bigger Blow to the Team's Chemistry?

What happens on the field matters a heck of a lot more than what happens in the clubhouse. But after what they went through in 2011 and 2012, the Red Sox will vouch that a strong clubhouse culture is a good thing to have throughout a 162-game season.

And with all due respect to Ellsbury, Ortiz's status as a leader precedes him. He and Dustin Pedroia are the show-runners of Boston's clubhouse by reputation, but Ortiz has one thing that Pedroia doesn't.

Seniority.

Ortiz has been wearing a Red Sox uniform longer than anybody else on the roster, and he takes his seniority status to heart. He took exception to questions about his leadership last season, and he also defended Boston's clubhouse last year when everyone and their uncle was reporting that it was a cesspool.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports
Idea: Ortiz could double as a bouncer for Boston's clubhouse.

"I run this (expletive) clubhouse right here. This clubhouse has no problem," he said, via ESPNBoston.com. "The last problem this clubhouse had was last year when everything came down to what it was in (September), but since then everybody's cool and everybody's trying their best to win games."

Talk is cheap, as they say, and Boston's clubhouse did seem to be in a constant state of duress in 2012. But maybe it's no coincidence that things got progressively worse after Ortiz hurt his Achilles on July 16, as the Red Sox proceeded to lose seven of their next 10 games and waved a white flag with their big trade with the Dodgers roughly a month later.

In all, the Red Sox went 46-44 with Ortiz last year and 23-49 without him. The Red Sox were primarily missing Big Papi's bat while he was gone, but it's fair to wonder how much they missed his leadership.He was still around, but any leader is more effective when he can lead both in the clubhouse and on the field. Ortiz couldn't do the latter down the stretch last year, and it may have impacted his ability to do the former.

Ellsbury is as capable of leading on the field as Ortiz is, but there's little that suggests that he's even remotely close to being Ortiz's equal in the clubhouse. Ellsbury has never been the vocal type, and he was painted as a loner in Bob Hohler's infamous article in The Boston Globe about the collapse of the 2011 team.

There are far worse sins a player can commit in a clubhouse than being a loner. Being a loner is better than being, say, an arrogant superstar who has himself pegged as the center of the universe. But it's also hard for loners to be leaders, and that's as true for Ellsbury as it is for anyone else.

The point here goes to Ortiz. 

 

Survey Says...

Above are three discussions and two points for Ortiz. My knowledge of arithmetic says that makes him the guy the Red Sox can't afford to be without for a prolonged period of time in 2013.

And I'm not going to overrule the math, such as it is.

Which player's health is more crucial to Boston's outlook in 2013?

Submit Vote vote to see results

A side-by-side comparison does reveal Ellsbury to be the more valuable player based on his ability to do work at the plate, in the field and on the basepaths. But Ortiz is a good player in his own right, and the Red Sox would feel his absence in more ways than one if he were to take up a semi-permanent or permanent residence on the disabled list.

As such, the Red Sox had better wish Ortiz a speedy recovery. They're not a bad team without him factored into the equation, but they certainly won't be as good as they think they can be. Their return-to-relevancy conquest in 2013 hinges largely on his health.

So far, the club's luck on that front hasn't been very good. A bad omen, to be sure, but it's far too early to say Boston's luck is doomed.

No, Boston's luck won't be officially doomed until Ellsbury trips over Ortiz's ankles in the dugout, aggravating Big Papi's injuries and breaking every bone in his body in the process. It would be too perfect, and you just never know...

 

Note: Stats courtesy of Baseball-Reference.com unless otherwise noted.

 

If you want to talk baseball, hit me up on Twitter. 

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