The Boston Red Sox have Major League Baseball's best offense, but they're about to lose one of their biggest bats.
Once the World Series shifts to St. Louis for Games 3 through 5, both teams will have to play by National League rules, of course. That means no designated hitter, which means no Mike Napoli for the Red Sox.
To this point, Joe McDonald of ESPN.com reports that Boston's manager, John Farrell, intends to use usual designated hitter David Ortiz—who led the club in batting average (.309), home runs (30) and RBI (103) this year—as the first baseman.
Napoli, then, would go from first to out of the starting lineup entirely.
"It kind of stinks, but it's what it is," Napoli said to McDonald. "I understand the situation. [Ortiz] is going to play first base. But I'm pretty sure I'll be in there late in the game for defense and maybe get an AB. It is what it is and we'll deal with it."
Farrell echoed that sentiment in saying, "Losing the DH is different for us. Personally, when we go into National League ballparks we're at a greater disadvantage than the reverse of that when the National League teams come in here."
The reason it's such a disadvantage for the Sox is because they're one of the few teams that still employ a regular everyday DH in the mold of the sluggers from previous decades.
Besides that, Napoli has been a very good postseason player in his career, hitting .258/.359/.462 with seven homers and 25 RBI in 44 games. That includes a dominant showing in the 2011 World Series when he batted .350 with a pair of homers and a whopping 10 RBI in the Texas Rangers' seven-game loss to these very Cardinals.
The 31-year-old has come up with a few very big hits this October, too. There was his massive solo home run against Justin Verlander that provided the only run of Game 3 of the ALCS.
And his three-run double in the very first inning of Wednesday's Game 1 put Boston up, 3-0, on its way to an 8-1 victory.
While Napoli hasn't been better than Ortiz this month, their production is pretty similar so far, and the duo has combined for 13 runs scored, 18 RBI, seven homers and five doubles in the middle of the Red Sox lineup.
So having to choose one or the other in St. Louis is going to hurt. Just how badly, though, is really a matter of how much and whether/which other Boston hitters will step up. Someone has to fill the void, especially since the downgrade will be a massive one, with the team essentially going from Napoli to the club's starting pitcher.
And let's not sugarcoat that factor: Red Sox pitchers, like most teams', can't hit. Righty Jake Peavy, who is set to start Game 3, was a National Leaguer for eight years with the San Diego Padres, so he has a little bit more experience with the lumber than American League lifers Clay Buchholz and Jon Lester, who are lined up to go in Games 4 and 5, respectively.
Obviously, the small-sample-size caveat applies, especially with Buchholz and even Lester, but here are their career stats at the plate:
|Hitting Statistics for Red Sox's Games 3, 4, 5 Starting Pitchers|
We can't really take anything at all from Buchholz's numbers, since he's only had four plate appearances since breaking into the bigs in 2007. And while Lester, similarly, only has 38 plate appearances, it's rather impressive—and not in a good way—that he's eight years into his career and still searching for his first big-league base knock.
As for Peavy, he's racked up about a season's worth of action at the plate in his 12-year career, so there's at least a little more to go on, and although it's not good, his .173/.212/.226 career line actually isn't half bad for a pitcher. And considering hurlers strike out in about 35 percent of their trips to the dish (per FanGraphs), Peavy has whiffed 24 percent of the time, meaning he at least puts the bat on the ball more frequently than most.
Let's not pretend, though, that not getting to use Napoli for two or three at-bats in as many as three games won't be a significant factor for Boston. All told, the Red Sox could be swapping in their least productive bat in place of one of their best hitters with a proven postseason track record for approximately eight plate appearances.
That may seem inconsequential, except this is the World Series, and every pitch has that much more significance.
Going with the lefty-hitting Ortiz at first base and putting Napoli's righty bat on the bench for at least one or two of the games is the smart move offensively, given that all of St. Louis' starters are right-handers. Ortiz owned righties this year to the tune of .339/.440/.652 with more walks than whiffs and 53 of his 70 extra-base hits; whereas Napoli, unsurprisingly, fared better against lefties with an .899 OPS and a 27 percent strikeout rate, compared to .816 and 35 percent versus righties.
Plus, as good as Napoli has been in the postseason, Ortiz has been better.
It's not out of the question, though, that manager John Farrell could turn to Napoli for a start or two, depending on how Ortiz looks not only in the field but at the plate, as well as how the next two games play out.
And certainly, just because Napoli isn't necessarily starting doesn't mean he won't be utilized in a big pinch-hitting spot if Boston needs runs, or as the defensive replacement if it goes ahead (which could also net him an at-bat or two). While Farrell would undoubtedly prefer to have Napoli all game long, the fact that he can use him as he sees fit as a weapon off the bench shouldn't be overlooked, either.
Speaking of defensive replacement, that's the other aspect to this dynamic that needs to be addressed.
While Ortiz likes to joke that he hasn't made an error since 2009, the fact is, he's not a good defender and has only played 19 games at first base over the past four seasons. On the other hand, Napoli, a former catcher, proved to be a surprisingly good first baseman this year, ranking in the top five in both Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating, per FanGraphs.
As we saw in Game 1 with the Cardinals making multiple misplays—one of which opened the door for Napoli's bases-clearing double—if Ortiz makes any mistake in the field or fails to make a play that Napoli would have, it could be costly.
To bring all of this full circle, the Red Sox used the Ortiz-at-first, Napoli-on-the-bench configuration six times during the season, and they went 4-2 in those games while scoring 7.6 runs per game. To some small extent, that proves that this can work and that Boston can excel with such a lineup.
But it definitely doesn't mean that having to go without one of their best hitters in the starting lineup gives the Red Sox a legitimate advantage during the next three games in St. Louis.