There are a number of reasons that the departure of Jacoby Ellsbury to the New York Yankees negatively affects the Red Sox. First and foremost, it makes the Yankees a better team and a legitimate threat to the Red Sox’s current stronghold on the AL East lead. It also leaves the Red Sox without a true leadoff hitter and elite player at a premium position. Not least among these concerns, however, is that it leaves the Red Sox without an obvious source of speed in their lineup.
Stolen bases are at an all-time low around Major League Baseball. As Sabermetrics have gained popularity in MLB front offices, teams have become less willing to risk unnecessary outs on the base-paths and the stolen bases numbers throughout the league have suffered accordingly. On the one hand, this makes it clear that a team can succeed without being exceptional on the base-paths. However, it also indicates that speed is a more valuable asset than ever given the absence of it around the league.
The Red Sox were fourth in the league in stolen bases last season as well as leading the league in fewest times caught stealing. John Farrell‘s squad in 2013 was dependent on base-running efficiency and speed coming from various parts of the order. Will the 2014 team be able to continue that efficiency and intelligent base-running without a major speed threat like Ellsbury, though?
The Red Sox will get a decent number of steals from Shane Victorino (21 stolen bases in 2013) and Dustin Pedroia (17 stolen bases in 2013), but they will need a full-team effort to maintain the elite base-running numbers that they posted last season. Players like Jackie Bradley Jr. and even Xander Bogaerts will have to step up their stolen base game, an attribute which both players have reportedly worked on during this offseason.
Of course, it has been proven again and again that speed is not a necessary key to a successful team. However, it’s one of those things that can push a good team to a great one, as it did with the 2013 Red Sox. Would that team have won the World Series without a speedster like Ellsbury and efficient, effective base-running from the rest of the team? It’s hard to say, but it certainly would have been a more difficult task. To gain that edge on the base-paths again, it’ll take a full-team effort in 2014 but this Red Sox roster is absolutely capable of just that.