Ventura needs room to experiment, if he even wants to

Over at Baseball Prospectus, Jay Jaffe is targeting inefficiencies across the defensive spectrum. In other words, he's looking for places where managers have made offense a low priority, even though the lesser defensive requirements should make it an offense-first position.

This time, it's left field. Jaffe takes on the task with the assumption that when the White Sox traded Carlos Lee for Scott Podsednik, they ushered in an era of a speedier, slappier left fielder. However, he finds out that the production of left fielders has been on the decline since before 2005.

It's an interesting trend to think about, although for the White Sox, the answer is pretty simple: Left field is where the leadoff man lives. Ozzie Guillen had a very narrow definition of what a leadoff man should look like, and left field happened to be the one area where Kenny Williams could acquire a leadoffy guy after other leadoffy projects, like Chris Getz, failed. Look at the number of games where the left fielder batted first (leadoff hitter OBP in parentheses):

  • 2005: 140 (.338)
  • 2006: 159 (.332)
  • 2010: 147 (.333)
  • 2011: 160 (.323)

And in 2011, in the two games where a left fielder didn't lead off, it's only because Juan Pierre was the DH.

However, having a set leadoff man didn't really help leadoff production. In the the two seasons where Guillen had to change course at the top of the order, he actually got a higher OBP out of the No. 1 spot -- .339 in 2008 and .340 in 2009. Getting enough production after the first option flopped could be a cause for optimism, but the lack of a true, everyday leadoff man prompted cause for concern instead.

(2007 doesn't count, because any season in which Andy Gonzalez leads off 10 times doesn't count. New rule.)

Basically, the White Sox have been happy to settle for less out of left field because the left fielder has been able to also play the not-real position of Leadoff Hitter. There's probably some value in that -- if a manager can pencil in the same Leadoff Hitter every day, it's one less question he and the team have to answer, because the media freaks out whenever a "non-prototypical" guy bats first. Then again, it's hard to figure out what the prototype even looks like when Pierre and Podsednik fit the bill, but Alejandro De Aza doesn't.

De Aza is the presumptive favorite to bat first, which means that the vast majority of leadoff at-bats could come out of left field once again (although let's hope it's center field). Maybe that will work, and it'd be super if it did. But if De Aza gets hurt, or another opportunity presents itself, here's hoping Robin Ventura will give himself the freedom to pursue all options.

One of the reasons I hoped the White Sox would hire Dave Martinez as a manager is because it seems like Joe Maddon's attitude would rub off on him. In late May, the Rays were in a funk, going 2-5 and averaging just three runs over a seven-game stretch. Evan Longoria was a big part of the problem, as he was hitting just .209/.317/.372 at the time, and in the middle of the order.

So Maddon put Longoria in the leadoff spot.

Over those three games in the leadoff spot, Longoria reached base in nine of his 15 plate appearances, and the Rays scored 15 runs. The move got Longoria back on track, and he returned to the middle of the order afterward. No egos or reputations were harmed in the filming of this episode.

That's the kind of freedom I want to see in the post-Guillen era, because when it came to lineups and roles, Guillen was naturally rigid and restrictive, and he took it to absurd extremes in his final year. With the White Sox taking a very thin roster into battle, their new manager can't afford to scoff at legitimate potential upgrades the same way Guillen did. Fortune favors the bold, and Guillen couldn't have been more tepid at the end.

Had the Sox hired a Martinez type, the fact that he came from a successful organization would offer him a certain amount of leeway to explore the studio space. There's no philosophy of any kind of attached to Ventura, and it's going to be fascinating to watch him try to flesh one out, because it's inevitably going to involve some wrong turns, or wrong-looking turns.

Will he have the confidence to make unorthodox decisions and stand by them? Will he be able to persuade players that he's making moves because he's creative, and not because he's in over his head? Will he even have any desire to be creative? Ventura's low-key nature should help him get acclimated, but his ability to defend unpopular choices will ultimately decide how far his professionalism can carry him.

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