Jacoby Ellsbury's return to Fenway Park isn't just about the rivalry between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox, it's a reminder of how much Boston misses the leadoff skills of its former star center fielder.
Months have passed since Ellsbury bolted Boston, signed a $153 million deal with the rival Yankees and took on the task of revamping a dormant offense at Yankee Stadium. In New York, early returns have been overwhelmingly positive as Ellsbury looks to be worth every penny of the seven-year pact. In his first 19 games played as a Yankee, the 30-year-old Ellsbury has posted a .338/.395/.441 slash line with a wRC+ (weighted runs created plus) mark of 133.
Fenway Park lies roughly 203 miles north of Yankee Stadium, but the distance between the two parks, teams and offenses—specifically in the first inning—feels even bigger early in the 2014 season.
Last season, the Red Sox outscored opponents on the path to a 97-win regular season and magical run through October, culminating in a World Series championship. With 853 runs scored and a team-wide on-base percentage of .349, Boston's offense was relentless, unforgiving and a nightmare for opposing pitchers.
For 134 of those games, Ellsbury was there to patrol center field and bat at the top of the order. For the season, Boston leadoff hitters sported a .348 on-base percentage, buoyed by Ellsbury's personal mark of .355. With run-producing machines like David Ortiz and Mike Napoli in the middle of the lineup, simply reaching base ignited huge innings in Boston.
Thus far in 2014, that aspect of the Red Sox attack has disappeared. Heading into play on Tuesday—and coinciding with Ellsbury's arrival back at Fenway Park—Boston leadoff men have combined to produce a .281 on-base percentage, dragging the team OBP down to .325. Unsurprisingly, the Red Sox have only scored 76 runs for the season, putting them on pace for 615 over a 162-game schedule.
When the Red Sox allowed Ellsbury to leave without matching New York's gigantic offer or truly attempting to keep a former homegrown star, one thing became clear: No one man would be tasked with replacing MVP-caliber production in center.
Through the first 20 games of 2014, that has been true. Unfortunately for Red Sox manager John Farrell, the five men who have been penciled into the No. 1 spot in the lineup—Grady Sizemore, Daniel Nava, Jonny Gomes, Dustin Pedroia and Brock Holt—haven't been able to match the output of New York's offseason expenditure.
It's Holt's inclusion on that list that conveys the larger story in Boston. This isn't a matter of searching for lineup combinations. Instead, it's become a daily quest to find someone simply capable of doing the job.
Throughout his Minor League career, he's been a top-of-the-order type of hitter. There's no hesitancy in putting him in that spot, and in the short time he's been here, he's seeing some pitches, he's put up some long at-bats. He's done a very good job. While we're still searching for that one true guy in that spot, this is the next candidate.
One year ago, the Red Sox had Ellsbury pacing an attack that led Major League Baseball in runs scored and on-base percentage. On the eve of his return, Farrell had no hesitancy using Holt—owner of a .327 OBP in the minors in 2013—at the top of the order.
Baseball fans have a litany of statistics and references available to compare and contrast teams, players and trends. When dissecting offensive ability, wRC+ could be the most telling and important statistic. FanGraphs' library defines runs created as an attempt to quantify a player’s total offensive value and measure it by runs.
Much like ERA+ or OPS+, wRC+ is adjusted for league average, with 100 profiling as an average score. Thus far, the quintet of Red Sox leadoff hitters has posted a 54 wRC+ mark in 2014. That figure puts them 46 percent below league average. Considering that Ellsbury's mark sits at 133, the Red Sox are nearly 80 percent worse off without Ellsbury atop their order.
Did the Red Sox make the right decision when allowing Ellsbury to leave?
To be fair, small sample size results are creating a very, very large schism heading into Ellsbury's return to Fenway Park. By the end of the season, the gap in production between New York's highly-paid star and Boston's leadoff-by-committee approach could be negligible, fortifying Boston's decision to save $153 million.
If Ellsbury breaks down, declines or misses significant time due to injury—always a possibility with the oft-injured speedster—the narrative can quickly shift back to a smart, forward-thinking front office in Boston wisely avoiding the pitfalls of long-term contracts. Plus, Shane Victorino's impending return from the disabled list could add an accomplished top-of-the-order hitter (.342 career OBP) into the mix for Farrell.
For now, though, the Yankees will enter Fenway Park with one of baseball's best leadoff hitters at the top of the order. In most years, that would be enough to upset Red Sox fans. This time, however, expect the reaction to be consistent with the stakes at hand, especially if the first inning ends with an Ellsbury run scored and scoreless bottom of the frame for the Red Sox.