Terry Francona’s Conundrum: Sit Mark Kotsay, Jacoby Ellsbury or Coco Crisp?

Dimitri ZagoroffContributor ISeptember 12, 2008

J.D. Drew may not be helping the Red Sox on the field, but at least he’s giving manager Terry Francona one less decision to make.

With Jacoby Ellsbury, Coco Crisp, and newly acquired Mark Kotsay all looking for playing time, the Red Sox outfield has remained crowded despite Drew’s absence. Crisp is surging, Ellsbury is struggling, and Kotsay is doing pretty much what Mark Kotsay does. With the window for letting Ellsbury develop closing fast, Francona needs to figure out how to organize his outfield for October.

Even without Kotsay, who was essentially acquired as insurance on Drew, Francona would eventually have had to make a decision about who to start in center. Based on a torrid run at the end of last year, the Red Sox made Ellsbury the bigger half of a center field platoon to start the season, with Crisp getting starts against lefties.

After a strong start, hitting .290/.389/.810 on June 1st, Ellsbury’s performance at the plate has collapsed. While his average has dipped to .262, the lack of hits doesn’t tell the whole story here.

In the first two months of the season, Ellsbury collected 27 walks in 171 AB’s, contributing to that .389 on-base percentage. Since then he’s walked just 13 times in 318 at bats, and the drop in OBP (he’s now at .325) is nearly double what he’s lost purely in average.

Ellsbury seemed to get on track in August, batting .287 (in line with his April-May numbers) and even hitting a couple of dingers early in the month. But again, batting average isn’t the story here. While he collected a post-June high of five walks, his OBP was still well below its early season level, suggesting that he simply got lucky on a few balls in play rather than fundamentally changing his approach.

Of course these things are much easier to analyze on paper than in the batters box.

Until Ellsbury can string some hits together, pitchers won’t feel any need to go outside of the zone, and his walk rate will remain stagnant. His inability to build upon that August success suggests that it's unlikely he’ll turn the corner this year.

Another thing worth noting (with a whole shaker of salt) is Ellsbury’s success outside of the lead-off spot. He’s only had 52 at bats elsewhere in the order, but in that insanely small sample size he has hit insanely well, at .346 with seven walks.

Obviously, putting Ellsbury at the bottom of the order will not automatically make him a great hitter. But, however Francona squares the playing-time puzzle, there’s absolutely no justification for letting him bat lead-off under any circumstances.

While Ellsbury’s batting line has taken a nosedive, Coco Crisp has surged in August and September. It should certainly be noted that his recent power numbers are inflated by two extra base hits in Texas, but Crisp has put up nine multi-hit games in the past three weeks while increasing his walks to boot. Combine that with comparable defense and the fact that Crisp is hitting righties even better than lefties over this stretch, and it’s time to end the platoon.

Then there’s Mark Kotsay. Since hitting four doubles in his first four games with the Red Sox, Kotsay has come down to earth a little bit. However he’s still outhit Ellsbury, both on the year and in September, and should be the starting playoff right fielder if Drew is unable to go.

With Crisp finally performing like the player Boston thought it was trading for, and Kotsay in need of as much on-the-job training as possible to acclimatize himself to Fenway’s right field, finding room for Ellsbury will be a challenge.

The easiest thing would be to play Ellsbury in right on the road, but the Sox remaining away games are all against Tampa and Toronto, and besides Jacoby has been a better hitter at home.

It’s too early to give up on Ellsbury altogether: Some of his struggles have clearly been a case of bad luck, and it’s possible he really is more comfortable not leading off. But it is time to prepare him for the role of fourth outfielder going into the playoffs, whether or not Drew returns.

Having speed off the bench and an outstanding defensive replacement will provide the Red Sox with far more return than simply hoping that Ellsbury can replicate his amazing 2007 postseason, especially with Kotsay providing a solid (if unspectacular) alternative.

With the Wild Card still in play, Francona should put the best team on the field this weekend against Toronto. If the Red Sox can get some separation from the Blue Jays, it’ll be time to start taking the foot off the pedal. Over the final weeks, Francona should mix Ellsbury into the (bottom of the) lineup at both center and right, but stick with Crisp and Kotsay when it counts.