NEW YORK — John Farrell's lineup construction in September might be a tougher task than usual.
A log jam appears to be coming. The simple, intuitive answer: play the hot hand.
Is that always the right answer?
For this team in particular, everything will center on a basic question: who is Hanley Ramirez right now? What are the reasonable expectations for him in the present when compared to his past? Just because a player hasn’t hit lately doesn’t mean he won’t start to hit.
Let’s take it from the top.
September means the cavalry is rolling in for the Red Sox, assuming some key names have healed. Dustin Pedroia could be activated from the disabled list Friday— the day rosters expand — along with righty Matt Barnes. Jackie Bradley Jr. is to return the next day, with other call-ups coming as well.
For Pedroia in particular, there’s a layered question of playing time. How much can he handle, and at what positions?
“He hasn't been in games for weeks,” manager John Farrell said. “So whether it's his knee, low back, hamstrings, just getting back active there's going to be some things we'll have to monitor. Pedey's wanting to be on the field as he has for the last month, but I think we also have to be realistic too in that there's going to be some progression here to the point where hopefully it's unrestricted, nine innings for consecutive days over a long run. But that'll be something that we'll continue to work through in the early days of his return.”
No matter what, Pedroia seems destined to see some amount of time as the designated hitter.
What becomes of Ramirez those days, if it’s a choice between Mitch Moreland and Ramirez at first base? What becomes of Eduardo Nunez on the days Pedroia is at second base and the rest of the regular infield plays?
Left field is not in the cards for Nunez at this point, per Farrell.
“The versatility that Eduardo brings us and that was one of the bigger drawing points when we acquired him,” Farrell said. “He can go to any one of the three infield positions and will probably rotate through there on days that Pedey is on the field, so that we can keep guys fresh a little bit more and as we move forward and get deeper in the season. Without giving you [an estimate of], ‘I see this many days per week for this guy’ — we’re not there yet, but the versatility is there.”
Swapping players in and out makes sense. The criteria Farrell uses will be worth watching.
The danger is in overweighting what a player has done most recently. Results are one thing, but understanding why they’re there is another. Is there hard contact? Ramirez’s 88 mph average exit velocity entering Thursday night was higher than Andrew Benintendi’s 87.3 mph, per BaseballSavant.com's numbers.
At the same time, if there are clear, identifiable issues that need to be corrected, it’s easier to ignore a player like Ramirez’s track record.
For example, a player could be too passive or too aggressive at the plate. That’s the kind of thing the Red Sox (and other teams) can analyze behind the scenes, be it in the front office or via the coaching staff or both, and pass on to the player.
It's generally accepted that players find a zone, that they get hot. But it's dangerous to let those streaks entirely dictate playing time — yet, how crazy would Farrell look to take a hot hitter out of the lineup?
How much he weighs recent days and weeks vs. more well-established trends — and why, if he chooses to explain some of it — is a notable subplot as the Red Sox go down the stretch run. The right button to push sometimes falls in a gray area.