Mookie Betts or Andrew Benintendi? Andrew Benintendi or Mookie Betts? It turns out the answer might actually be, "None of the above."
How about Rafael Devers?
The question is who bats second for the Red Sox. Betts opened the season there and hit very well (.318-8-24-.943), but with Benintendi scuffling atop the order, manager Alex Cora opted to flip them. Since then, they haven't excelled as a pair, with the Red Sox struggling to score in the first inning, in particular.
Enter Devers. There's been a sabermetrically inspired trend over the last five years to bat your best hitter second, which informed the reasoning for putting Betts there. The Brewers utilize reigning NL MVP Christian Yelich there, as do the Angels with God among men Mike Trout. The Yankees bat Aaron Judge second when he's healthy, and the Marlins did the same with Giancarlo Stanton when he blasted 59 home runs in 2017.
Fully half of baseball's top 10 home run hitters bat second, including the top two -- Yelich (29) and Pete Alonso (26) of the Mets.
From Joey Votto to Alex Bregman, Kris Bryant to Paul Goldschmidt, Alonso to Jorge Polanco, some of baseball's best pure hitters and biggest sluggers now inhabit the two-hole, which used to be the domain of bat-control contact hitters like Marty Barrett and Scott Fletcher, or slap-hitting speedsters such as Ozzie Smith, Alan Wiggins, and Willie McGee.
Those days are gone. Recognizing the value of the extra 15 to 20 plate appearances a season that accompany each successive rung up the batting order, teams are constructing lineups with the two-hitter now occupying the role we used to associate with the third spot in the order -- the proverbial Best Hitter in the Lineup.
For the 2019 Red Sox, a case can be made that that hitter is Devers. He continued wearing out White Sox pitching on Wednesday by going 3 for 5 with a double and three runs. He went 8 for 13 in the series, raising his average to .322, good for second in the American League. Batting second in place of Benintendi for the last two games, Devers went 7 for 9 with four doubles.
After an April that saw him hit the ball with authority but directly into the ground, Devers has redeployed his cannons to aim for the horizon. Since his first homer on May 3, he's hitting .337 with 12 homers, 39 RBIs, and a .977 OPS. He hits virtually everything hard, which makes him the ideal candidate for this current iteration of the two-hole. Forget about moving runners, seeing pitches, and making contact. Devers is an impact hitter, and he's just the bat to pair with Betts atop the order and put maximum pressure on opposing pitching staffs.
"I like the at-bats," noted manager Alex Cora after Wednesday's demoralizing 8-7 loss. "Thank you for making me smile. Yeah. Good at-bats. Under control, too, and it seems there for a while he was swinging at everything when his average went down and now he’s back to controlling the zone, good swings, going the other way, running the bases. We might go that route."
That's in marked contrast to Benintendi, who's posting OK numbers out of the two-hole (.303-1-12-.809), but hasn't really flourished offensively, perhaps because he's playing through injury. The Betts-Benintendi partnership has produced some sleepy first innings -- the Red Sox rank 25th with just 36 runs, vs. eighth last year (98) -- and with the red-hot Devers batting second, he'd be guaranteed at least one at-bat a game with fewer than two outs.
Quick starts mean something because the Red Sox have had to fight tooth and nail for everything they've gotten this year, and putting an opponent in an immediate hole would mitigate that struggle.
Of course, the real problem atop the lineup at the moment is Betts, who's hitting only .185 out of the leadoff spot. But perhaps a more dynamic partnership could ignite him, and there are few more authoritative hitters in baseball at the moment than Devers.
The Red Sox open a two-game series in London against the Yankees this weekend. Might we see Devers batting second, with Benintendi lower in the order?
"We'll see on Saturday," Cora said with a smile.
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