When Alex Verdugo emerged as the primary leadoff hitter for the Red Sox last August, he settled into the role nicely.
On the 2020 campaign as a whole, the 24-year-old outfielder slashed .304/.362/.442 with 13 doubles, two home runs, eight RBI, three stolen bases, and 12 walks in 152 plate appearances out of the No. 1 spot in Boston’s lineup.
Because he held his own in the leadoff spot in his first year with the Sox, it certainly appeared as though Verdugo had a decent chance to retain that role heading into the 2021 season. That is, until the Red Sox signed veteran utilityman Kiké Hernandez — Verdugo’s former teammate with the Dodgers — to a two-year, $14 million deal in February.
Since then, Red Sox manager Alex Cora had challenged Hernandez — who hit leadoff 88 times over six seasons in Los Angeles — to earn the role of Boston’s leadoff hitter this spring and the 29-year-old responded by clubbing three homers and posting a 1.042 OPS in Grapefruit League play.
With that in mind, it seems likely that Hernandez will bat leadoff for Boston in the club’s Opening Day contest against the Orioles on Thursday afternoon, while Verdugo will slide down to the two-hole.
While some may view this as a demotion of sorts for Verdugo, the left-handed hitter actually prefers batting out of the two-hole, as he explained during an appearance on WEEI’s Ordway, Merloni, and Fauria on Wednesday afternoon.
“I actually love the two-hole. I love it,” Verdugo said when asked which spot in the lineup he favors most. “I think the two-hole has always been a super comfortable spot for me to hit. Obviously, I didn’t mind if I led off this year or not but it’s just something that I think [Cora] wanted to give a go and try. I like it. I really do. I like the lineup. I like the depth that we have from 1-9. And I think wherever we hit, I hit, I think it’s all going to benefit us.”
Last season, Verdugo hit out of the No. 2 spot on just two separate occasions for former Sox skipper Ron Roenicke. He went 2-for-8 at the plate with a walk, an RBI, and a run in those two appearances.
For his career, the former second-round draft pick owns a lifetime .267/.301/.474 slash line to go along with seven home runs and 14 RBI in 144 plate appearances when serving as his team’s two-hole hitter.
Verdugo also discussed the role he expects to play in the Red Sox outfield this season. He explained that while he anticipates seeing the majority of his playing time come in center field, he is also aware that he could see time in right field as well depending on where the Red Sox are playing on a particular day or night.
In assuming more responsibility in center field, Verdugo will be taking over for former Red Sox outfielder and Gold Glove award winner Jackie Bradley Jr., who established himself as arguably the best defensive centerfielder in franchise history before signing with the Brewers earlier this month.
Bradley Jr. was someone who made a habit of making hard-to-make catches look routine in his eight seasons patrolling center field for the Sox from 2013-2020.
For Verdugo, who only logged eight innings in center field last season, those are certainly sizable shoes to fill, but the Arizona native is not worrying about that too much.
“To me, it’s another outfield position,” Verdugo said in regards to center field. “Everybody talks about how you have to be the fastest guy, all that. I don’t believe in that. I don’t think you have to. I think it’s about your initial jumps, your reactions, and your routes to the ball. I feel like I have good instincts out there. And for the most part, I can read a hitter’s swing pretty well and know what our pitcher is trying to do and have a good idea of where I need to be.
“I don’t have a problem with bouncing around. Right, left, center, or any of it,” he added. “When I get out there, the only priority is to catch the ball and run it down.”
In his last season with the Dodgers in 2019, the left-handed throwing Verdugo played 61 games and logged 475 2/3 innings in center field.
Over the course of those 61 contests in center, the 6-foot, 205 pounder was worth positive-4 defensive runs saved while posting an ultimate zone rating (UZR) of 1.1, which translates to an UZR of 3.6 over 150 defensive games, per FanGraphs.
Verdugo was also worth zero outs above average over that same span, per Baseball Savant, which essentially means he was average defensively at that position two years ago.
(Picture of Alex Verdugo: Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)