How Will Shane Victorino's Return Transform the Boston Red Sox's Lineup?

Ben CarsleyContributor IApril 25, 2014

Boston Red Sox right fielder Shane Victorino singles during the third inning of a baseball game against the New York Yankees, Thursday, April 24, 2014, in Boston. (AP Photo/Charles Krupa)
Charles Krupa

The Boston Red Sox are in need of a spark to ignite their once-powerful offense. They’re hoping Shane Victorino can be the catalyst they need, as the team looks to regain the offensive magic that made them baseball’s best a season ago.

Victorino appeared in the majors for the first time this season on Thursday night, batting second and playing right field as he did for much of 2013. Victorino’s debut came after he opened the year on the disabled list with a right hamstring strain he suffered during the final game of spring training, depriving Boston of one of its best all-around players to open the season.

The immediate results were less than inspiring, as Victorino went just 1-for-5 and scored one run in what was a lopsided 14-5 Red Sox loss on Thursday. It will take some time for Victorino to get up to speed, as he’s had very few at-bats between spring training and his short rehab stint to get into playing shape. It’s unlikely that Victorino will be able to play the role of savior right away.

That being said, given the lackluster performance of Victorino’s replacements, how his presence lengthens the lineup and his sorely missed defensive prowess, it’s little wonder that the Red Sox, now 10-13 on the season, felt they needed Victorino back in the lineup as soon as possible.

For starters, let’s compare Victorino’s output to that of the four players who have seen time in right field in his absence. While “Shanf” has been on the DL, the Red Sox have relied on Daniel Nava (121 innings), Jackie Bradley Jr. (29), Grady Sizemore (27) and Jonny Gomes (23.2) to patrol right field. The results have not been very good.

Here’s a look at Victorino’s 2013 production compared to what Boston has received from its right fielders so far in 2014:

2013 Victorino vs. 2014 Red Sox RFs
2013 Victorino.294.351.4513:1
2014 Red Sox RFs.205.253.3646:1
Baseball Reference

As you can see, there’s really no comparison. Victorino was one of the most productive right fielders in the majors last season from an offensive perspective, while his replacements have struggled mightily through 22 games in 2014. This is likely part of Boston’s incentive for getting Victorino back in the lineup immediately: No matter how bad he is, he’s unlikely to be worse than the current production they’re receiving.

Victorino’s presence also allows the Red Sox to reconfigure their lineup, adding depth to the lower-middle portion of the order while adding another player with a respectable OBP near the top. John Farrell also wants to bring more lineup stability to his club, as Peter Abraham of The Boston Globe has reported, as Boston’s batting order has changed many times throughout the season thanks to a combination of injury and ineffectiveness.

Here’s how the Red Sox are poised to stack up against right-handed pitchers with Victorino back in the daily lineup:

1. Dustin Pedroia, 2B
2. Shane Victorino, RF
3. David Ortiz, DH
4. Mike Napoli, 1B
5. Grady Sizemore, LF
6. Xander Bogaerts, SS
7. A.J. Pierzynski, C
8. Will Middlebrooks, 3B
9. Jackie Bradley Jr., CF

Against left-handers, I’d expect the top-four names to remain the same, with Gomes slotting in for Sizemore in left field and hitting fifth. Will Middlebrooks, who will rejoin the team before Friday’s game in Toronto, should move up to seventh in the order against southpaws, and David Ross will replace Pierzynski behind the plate and bat eighth.

What you’re left with is a lineup that can more realistically accomplish Farrell’s stated goal of finishing as a top-five offensive club, as well as a lineup that has a better blend of power and speed. This configuration also takes some pressure off Sizemore, who’s slowed down after a hot start, and Bogaerts, who appears to be in an adjustment period and looks a bit lost at the plate.

Finally, and perhaps most obviously, the Red Sox are welcoming Victorino back because of his outstanding defense, especially at home in Fenway Park’s cavernous right field.

Last season, Victorino earned a Gold Glove for a defensive effort that metrics, scouts and fans alike universally rated as outstanding. According to FanGraphs, Victorino finished 2013 with a whopping 24 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and an Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) of 25.0, making him among the most valuable defenders in all of baseball. While J.D. Drew was a strong defender in right field and Trot Nixon could hold his own as well, some fans and reporters argued that Victorino was the best right field defender in Fenway they’d seen since Dwight Evans.

It’s never been easier to appreciate the impact of that defense than after watching Nava, Sizemore and Gomes stumble around ineffectively in right field this season, with limited range and weak arms (save for Gomes) actively hurting the Red Sox on several occasions. On nights when the Red Sox started Gomes in left field, Sizemore in center and Nava in right, you can make the case that Boston was deploying one of the worst defensive outfields in the game.

Now, the Red Sox can immediately turn that glaring deficiency into a strength by starting Sizemore in left, Bradley Jr. in center and Victorino in right a majority of the time. This gives Boston two plus-plus defenders, plus another outfielder with defensive potential in Sizemore. Defense has been one of the most obvious areas of regression for the Red Sox this year, and Victorino’s return should make an immediate positive impact in that regard.

When you combine Victorino’s offensive output, baserunning ability and defensive prowess, he was good for 5.6 fWAR last season, according to FanGraphs. That made him the 14th-most valuable offensive player in the game, and one of the true surprises of the 2013 season.  Victorino’s replacements this year were on track to finish as sub-replacement level performers, and the improvement the Red Sox should see by playing “the Flyin' Hawaiian” every day is quite significant.

Victorino may need a couple dozen plate appearances to get up to speed, and even once he does, he may not repeat his career year of 2013. But there’s little doubt that this Red Sox team needs a spark plug on both sides of the ball, and Farrell’s desire to place Victorino back in Boston’s lineup this quickly is understandable.

Through his superiority over his competition, ability to lengthen Boston’s lineup, baserunning acumen and outstanding defense, Victorino makes the Red Sox a much better, much more complete team. If he can reacclimate to major league life quickly, his walk-up music may speak the truth: Every little thing may indeed be alright for the Red Sox this year.