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Replacing Jacoby Ellsbury Isn’t the Issue for the Boston Red Sox

July 21st, 2014 at 2:52 PM
By Sean Penney

When Jacoby Ellsbury skipped town to sign a 7-year, $153 million deal with the New York Yankees, many wondered how the Boston Red Sox would replace their former All-Star center fielder. Now with a sputtering offense that has scored the fewest runs in the AL, many of those same people are blaming Ellsbury's departure for the team's offensive woes and their losing record. They would be wrong.

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The reason for that is that the Red Sox have sufficiently found ways to replace Ellsbury. Boston entered the season with legitimate concerns about who their new lead-off hitter would be, but those questions have now been erased by the breakout season by Brock Holt. He didn't become a fixture in this lineup until mid-May and it took until May 23 for the Red Sox to move him to the top of the lineup. Anyone complaining that losing Ellsbury is the reason for this offense going in the tank is failing to realize that Holt is having a better season than Ellsbury.

Brock Holt: .326/.370/.456, 2.6 WAR, 129 OPS+, 128 wRC+
Jacoby Ellsbury: .289/.352/.414, 2.2 WAR, 113 OPS+, 111 wRC+

By just about any measure, Holt is having a better offensive season than Ellsbury and one even better than what Ellsbury produced last season in a Red Sox uniform. The lone exception is speed. Ellsbury remains a terror on the basepaths with 27 steals (2nd in the AL), while the Red Sox really don't have a base stealing threat anywhere near that caliber. Holt is tied for the team lead in steals… with 6. That missing skill set has been a factor, but contrary to popular belief, the primary value of a lead-off hitter isn't speed. It's getting on base, which Holt does better than Ellsbury. It may have taken nearly two months for the team to figure it out, but the lead-off spot issue has been resolved.

The versatile Holt has been invaluable with his ability to seamlessly transition to any position he's asked to play – he's seen time everywhere except pitcher and catcher this season. Yet he's rarely spent time at Ellsbury's vacated center field position. Which is fine, because Jackie Bradley is one of the game's best defensive center fielders. He's 4th in the AL in dWAR (1.5) and first in Range Factor (2.97). Ellsbury rates very well in Range Factor as well (2.90), but dWAR isn't very high on his overall defense this season (-0.2) – mostly due to his weak throwing arm. Bradley on the other hand, has a cannon for an arm.

So the Red Sox have a new lead-off hitter who is outperforming Ellsbury and have upgraded defensively in center field. There are a lot of factors that have led to Boston's plummet from the league's best offense to the worst. David Ortiz and Dustin Pedroia are having sub-par seasons (by their lofty standards). Shane Victorino hasn't been able to stay on the field. Will Middlebrooks got hurt, prompting the desperation move of bringing back Stephen Drew. Daniel Nava hasn't been able to re-capture the magic that helped him overachieve last season. Just about everything went right for this team last year, but this season they haven't caught those same breaks. 

Ellsbury is a terrific player and any lineup would be improved by adding him. The point is that the Red Sox have done well to replace him both at the lead-off spot in the lineup and in the outfield at a fraction of the cost. If the rest of the lineup were performing up to expectations, the Red Sox wouldn't be in their current predicament – with or without Ellsbury.

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