Grady Sizemore’s Opening Day statement no reason to demote Daniel Nava


Mandatory Credit: Steve Mitchell-USA TODAY Sports

Batting sixth on Opening Day in his Red Sox debut, center fielder Grady Sizemore went 2-4 with a home run, while leadoff hitter Daniel Nava was hitless in five at-bats.

Cue the avalanche of Twitter GMs calling for Nava’s head in favor of Sizemore, a guy who just played his first Major League game in two years, six months and nine days.

It’s only natural to be inspired by Sizemore’s comeback as the 31-year old takes the field with the youthful enthusiasm that made him a three-time All Star. But consider the argument: is it really about what Sox fans want in a leadoff hitter, or is it an exponential reaction to Sizemore flashing some of his old form?

I’ve always understood the job of the leadoff hitter is to set the table — to get on base and into scoring position. But in recent years, some teams have eschewed speed at the top of the order in favor of a batter who works the count.

Manager John Farrell penciled Daniel Nava into the top slot on Opening Day with a righthander, Chris Tillman, on the mound. Farrell should continue this trend in the immediate future. Nava ranked 13th in baseball in 2013 in pitches seen per plate appearance (4.11). That’s working the count. By comparison, Sizemore has also exhibited an ability to work the count (4.10 pitches per plate appearance in 2008, his last full season).

In terms of getting on base, Nava rocked a .385 OBP in 2013. Anyone who considers last year a fluke discounts Nava’s entire professional baseball portfolio — he has always been a patient hitter. Sizemore, again, compares favorably: during his four peak years (2005-08), he compiled a .372 OBP.

If it comes down to speed, or perceived speed, the statistical revolution has already told us that isn’t a reason to bat a guy leadoff. Nava isn’t Vince Coleman; he doesn’t need to be. And should we expect Sizemore to be a reasonable facsimile of the player who stole a career high 38 bases in ’08? That was six years and multiple knee surgeries ago. Anyone expecting Sizemore to tear up the basepaths is missing the point: while the player wants to do 100 in a 65, it’s the manager’s job to coax a full season out of a talented player who has faced a litany of injuries.

It may be difficult to accept the wisdom of John Farrell somehow preserving Sizemore by hitting him lower in the order. But it’s why baseball teams employ managers and not unfeeling laptop generals. The psychological weight of batting leadoff is something Farrell wants to avoid for a player who hasn’t been able to put together a full season since the George W. Bush administration. He might get there, and that would be great, but there’s no reason to launch Sizemore to the top of the lineup card so early on the comeback trail.

Shane Victorino’s trip to the DL further affects the sequencing of Farrell’s lineup. The skipper will juggle Sizemore, Nava, Jonny Gomes, Mike Carp and Jackie Bradley in an attempt to honor their specific strengths, play the matchups and put his best team on the field every day.

Opening Day proved the Red Sox would not go undefeated for the first time in franchise history. It also proved that Grady Sizemore had a fantastic Opening Day — nothing more. It’s a great story and I’d be lacking a soul if I wasn’t rooting for him to succeed. But it’s not a reason to lose our heads. I learned as much from Tony Clark back in 2002. The six foot eight inch slugger, plagued by back problems, came to the Sox and went 3-5 with a home run on Opening Day. He then proceeded to hit .207 with three home runs and 29 RBI that year.