Optimizing the 2017 Red Sox lineup

Jul 4, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts (50) celebrates his two-run home run against the Texas Rangers with shortstop Xander Bogaerts (2) during the eighth inning at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Jul 4, 2016; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox right fielder Mookie Betts (50) celebrates his two-run home run against the Texas Rangers with shortstop Xander Bogaerts (2) during the eighth inning at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports /

Despite the departure of David Ortiz, the Boston Red Sox will still have one of the American League’s most productive lineups in 2017.

Led by Mookie Betts, their top-4 should compete with anyone else in baseball. But manager John Farrell will still be pressed to optimize the order and find a way to separate their surplus of right-handed bats.

With 878 runs scored, the Red Sox were the most productive team in baseball a season ago. With career years from their young stars, the aforementioned Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts, and Jackie Bradley, plus comeback seasons from Dustin Pedroia and Hanley Ramirez, Boston will be able to handle the retirement of their best hitter. Given his retirement, however, there is uncertainty surrounding the actual formation of their lineup for the coming season. This obviously subject to change as the season progresses, and we won’t have a solid understanding of what it will look like until the players take the field on Opening Day, but it’s worth pondering anyway.

Plus, it’s just fun to look at how much talent they have throughout the order.

The big area of speculation is the top of the order, outside of the Andrew Benintendi working his way up to a spot in the top-3, we basically know who the players are going to be. Some combination of Ramirez, Pedroia, Bogaerts, Betts, and Benintendi (?) will fill out the core of their lineup, we just don’t yet know where each could fill in. If you go off John Farrell’s comments at the Red Sox Town Hall, he’s going to prioritize on-base percentage in the first two spots. But even that gives us a couple of possibilities. To start, we should look at what the Red Sox fielded last season:

  1. Pedroia, 2B
  2. Holt, 3B
  3. Betts, RF
  4. Ortiz, DH
  5. Ramirez, 1B
  6. Bogaerts, SS
  7. Benintendi, LF
  8. Leon, C
  9. Bradley, CF

This was the lineup Farrell went with in the final two games of the ALDS and gives us a decent blueprint of where the team will be going in 2017.

With Pablo Sandoval returning from season-ending shoulder surgery, Brock Holt will probably not be the team’s starting third baseman. Pablo isn’t a given to earn the job either, but the hot-corner will remain unresolved until Spring Training is over. Bradley was pushed into the nine-hole after an abysmal playoff performance, striking out 7 times in 11 plate appearances, and collecting his only hit in his final at-bat of the postseason. Given his 26 regular season home runs, he will be slotted higher in the order come April. And despite our hopes and prayers, David Ortiz will not be occupying the clean-up spot.

The only new addition to the lineup is Mitch Moreland who will take over the bulk of the playing time at first base, making Hanley our de-facto DH. Coming off the bench, we can project to have Holt, Josh Rutledge, Christian Vazquez/Blake Swihart, and Chris Young. While most teams have bench players simply because they need bodies to fill out their 25-man roster, each player in the Red Sox’ group can provide value in different aspects of the game. A big key to their success in 2017 will be getting the most out of their backup players.


Going back to what Farrell had to say about prioritizing OBP at the top of the order, that leaves us with Dustin Pedroia (.376) or Mookie Betts (.363). Mookie’s familiar in that spot, 109 of his 158 games were spent leading off, but the team turned to Pedroia down the stretch and he excelled in the role. The virtue of Pedroia leading off is that Farrell can utilize Mookie’s power later in the order. Reaching safely isn’t a problem for either player, but there is an obvious disparity in their run-producing ability.

With Mookie hitting later, they maintain his ability to get on base at a high clip by virtue of his average but optimize his power in situations with players on base. Also, Dustin Pedroia grounds into a lot of double plays. His career -2.5 wGDP rating is categorized as “awful” by FanGraphs. By hitting more frequently without men on base, he’ll be protected in that sense.

Moving down the order, things get tougher. Farrell is going to ask himself whether he can cope with four right-handed bats at the top of the order, or if it will really make a difference. Benintendi could tear it up during May/April and move his way into the two-spot, but he’s still played in just 34 MLB games and will probably be protected until he forces management’s hand. From my perspective, I’m starting him in the two-hole on Opening Day, at least against righties.

With a .295/.359/.476 slash line in his cup of coffee last season, he demonstrated that his even swing can play at the major league level. He’s got the ability to drive the ball to all fields, an “astute” ability to recognize pitches, and the baserunning prowess you’d hope for out of your second hitter. Unless he suffers a major setback in his first full season, Benintendi has what it takes to bat second in this lineup.

Going even further down the lineup, things start to fall into place. As the team’s best hitter, conventional wisdom suggests that Mookie Betts will see the majority of his at-bats hitting third. Against right-handed pitching, this makes perfect sense. He’ll have Dustin Pedroia and Andrew Benintendi batting ahead of him to set the table, and Hanley Ramirez to protect him hitting fourth. What Farrell’s concern should be in the 3-4 hole is whether Hanley will be able to offer Mookie the protection he needs.

I would be shocked if Farrell had anyone but JBJ hitting fifth against righties (134 wRC+). He also adds a left-handed bat to break up the tandem of right-handed hitters following Benintendi. There’s even a case to be made that he could switch Hanley given their splits and the fact that 23 of Bradley’s 26 home runs came against righties last year.

Bogaerts spent the latter half of 2016 in a slide, which really took away from how good of a season he was having. When facing lefties, he’s an elite hitter (134 wRC+) but just above average versus righties (108 wRC+). That’s not to say he won’t be productive hitting 6th, but the players ahead of him are better optimized hitting high in the order against righties.

Deciding who hits seventh, eighth, and ninth is probably inconsequential in the grand scheme of things, but a worthy question nonetheless. The remaining players expected to start are Pablo Sandoval, Mitch Moreland, and Sandy Leon. This is going to be where Moreland makes his impact with the Red Sox. His overall numbers from 2015 leave a lot to be desired, but he’s proven to be effective against right-handed pitching.

Pablo Sandoval will hit eighth, in a spot where there won’t be any pressure to perform. If he’s ever going to become a productive major league player again, it’s going to start with his ability to hit righties like he used to. Finally, Sandy Leon rounds out the order. If you’re wondering why I put him so low – look at his right-handed splits and his overall numbers during his last 37 games – he still needs to prove that 2016 wasn’t a fluke.

Red Sox Lineup Vs. RHP:

  1. Pedroia, 2B
  2. Benintendi, LF
  3. Betts, RF
  4. Ramirez, DH
  5. Bradley Jr., CF
  6. Bogaerts, SS
  7. Moreland, 1B
  8. Sandoval, 3B
  9. Leon, C


The big changes coming against left-handed pitching are Chris Young at DH and Hanley playing first. As for Benintendi, the only concern in his game are his splits against left-handers (.179/.250/.179), but those can be mitigated by dropping him down and moving Bogaerts up.

The leadoff spot remains unchanged with Pedroia. At second, Mookie Betts makes his way up to second to give space to Xander Bogaerts batting third. As mentioned previously, Bogaerts rakes against left-handed pitching and really gives the Sox potency behind Mookie. If Pedroia’s able to get on base consistently, the opposition will be hard pressed deciding between Xander or Mookie to pitch to. Just look to Josh Donaldson for an example of a team’s best player exceling in the two-hole.

At fourth, Hanley’s spot in the lineup is unchanged but he does take the field at first. The reasoning for this is two-fold. One, Mitch Moreland has been awful against lefties over his career (78 wRC+). Two, it allows the Red Sox to put Chris Young at DH and keep Andrew Benintendi in the field. Young, who should be regarded as a platoon player (164 wRC+ against lefties), follows Hanley in the order hitting fifth.

At six and seven it’s tough to decide between Benintendi and Bradley. Neither player hits left-handed pitching well at all, but Bradley has the longer track record of failure. If not for his world-class defense in Right Field, I’d argue that Bradley would be worthy of a platoon given his splits. If the decision were between him and someone with more than 34 games of MLB experience, I wouldn’t be picking Bradley, but Benintendi just doesn’t have the experience yet.

In the number eight and nine spots, Sandy Leon and Pablo Sandoval flip. Leon’s 187 OPS+ against lefties from a year ago warrants this move, but similar concerns apply to the validity of his numbers from last year. As for Sandoval, do yourself a favor and don’t look at his numbers against lefties. He still believes that he can switch hit, even if the evidence blatantly suggests otherwise. Third base could be a serious black hole for this team in 2017.

Red Sox Lineup Vs. LHP:

  1. Pedroia, 2B
  2. Betts, CF
  3. Bogaerts, SS
  4. Ramirez, 1B
  5. Young, DH
  6. Bradley Jr., RF
  7. Benintendi, LF
  8. Leon, C
  9. Sandoval, C

Next: Players gather early for spring training

Even without David Ortiz, the Red Sox will still have a ridiculously talented lineup in 2017. Now it’s just up to John Farrell to follow my advice to make sure they score as many as possible.