Welcome to the first installment of Olde Sox. This column is designed to walk you, dear reader, through the career of a Red Sox great of the past. However, we’ll do our best to examine his skills and output through thoroughly modern means, and see if we can identify a more modern example of the type. Today’s installment focuses on a man perhaps more famous for his off-field reputation than for his on-field prowess — remember when it was okay for Sox players to drink beer and eat chicken? — Hall of Famer Wade Boggs.
Drafted out of a Tampa high school in 1976, Boggs had one truly magnificent skill during his major-league career: he was a premium contact hitter, even by 80s standards. He leveraged this skill, combined it with a real focus on taking the extra base, and supplemented his offensive profile by playing solid defense at the hot corner. His performance during the 80s was astounding, becoming an offensive force despite virtually no power production. The end result is a guy who, even today, profiles out as one of the 50 or so best players of all time, and a no-doubt Hall of Famer.
Let’s start by discussing his ability to make contact. This manifested itself in two powerful ways: a batting average for which he became known, and an ability to avoid strikeouts. While batting average isn’t the greatest sabermetric stat in the world, back in the 80s and 90s, it was a useful shorthand for how good a hitter was. And by that metric, you could point to Boggs as one of the best hitters in the game. His career average of .328 was good enough for 33rd all-time, and most of the names above him on the career leaderboard made it into the Hall of Fame well before Boggs came into the league … or was even born. Say what you want about average as a shorthand for success, but this is an achievement.
The annals of history are littered with high-average, low-production “hitters.” What made Boggs so great was his ability to integrate that skill with another one that’s much more Moneyball: walking.
Wade’s bat-to-ball skills also allowed him to avoid strikeouts like a champ. Over his long and illustrious career, Boggs only punched out 6.9% of the time. Precious few players in baseball history posted a strikeout rate lower than that, especially in recent decades.
But as we’ve found over the years, contact ability alone doesn’t make one an offensive juggernaut. The ability to avoid strikeouts and hit for contact doesn’t mean very much at all on it’s own anymore, and the annals of history are littered with high-average, low-production “hitters.” What made Boggs so great was his ability to integrate that skill with another one that’s much more Moneyball: walking.
Boggs’ career walk rate was 13.1%, which means that on a rate basis, he walked almost twice as often as he struck out. Today, that’s just about unheard of. Not walking one-seventh of the time, of course, but the ability to walk without striking out. When you put the two of those things together, you get to the statistic that really explains the Wade Boggs value: on-base percentage.
At .415, Wade’s career OBP is 24th all time. That’s great, but even that undersells just how good Boggs was when he was at the peak of his powers. Between 1983 and 1989, Boggs led baseball in OBP six times in seven seasons, and placed second in OBP during 1984. His OBP over that total time period? .446!
That’s far, far better than the next closest guy on the leaderboard for that period, an OBP monster named Rickey Henderson, who posted “just” a .401 on-base during that time. That 1983 to 1989 sweet spot was a time when Boggs simply ruled the overall offensive numbers for the era. No offensive player in baseball was better, on a league- and park-adjusted basis. And that’s despite his greatest Achilles’ heel.
If Boggs could’ve hit for any power at all, aside from his freak 24-dinger 1987, he could have been a top-20 all-time hitter. But, well, he couldn’t. No one’s perfect. Boggs was never a threat to go yard, topping 10 homers in a season only twice, and finishing his career with 118 homers. Does this mean that in today’s game, with shifting defenses, more athletic defenders, and (slightly) better positioning, Boggs may not have been quite so prolific? Maybe. But for his time, he was an almost-prototypical hitter, save that inability to take the ball out of the park.
How rare was Boggs’ collection of offensive skills? To answer that question, I turned to the Play Index at Baseball-Reference. There, I filtered out all the careers of guys who played during the Expansion Era (1961-2015) who had 1.4 times the amount of walks as they did strikeouts, an OPS+ of 100 or better, and 3,000 or more plate appearances. The list is hella short.
Only ten players did what Boggs did, and plenty of them had a slightly different profile. Rusty Staub and Brian Giles hit for considerably more power. Tony Gwynn *never* struck out, but didn’t walk nearly as often as the patient Boggs. To me, Willie Randolph looks the most similar to Boggs in terms of overall profile, but this underscores just what a rare combination of walks, strikeouts, and overall hitting ability Boggs brought to the table.
Almost as an afterthought, we should talk about his defense. Boggs wasn’t a world-class defender at third base, but he was better than passable. BP’s FRAA metric rates him as a net positive over his career (15 runs above zero), mostly accounting for great defense in his first five or six seasons before slumming it in the negative numbers. Later in his career, Boggs snagged two Gold Glove awards for his work with the more telegenic Yankees, but his skills were at their peak in Beantown.
Then there’s the overall metric that didn’t exist back in the 1980s: WARP. Using WARP to calculate Wade’s overall value allows us to collate all aspects of his game, and the end result is tasty. He was worth 80.4 WARP over his career, and regularly tallied eight wins per season in the 1980s. Even on the downswing of his career, he was good enough to post enough WARP to qualify as an average regular or better, and that total amount of WARP is good to put him at 18th all-time among position players. That slots him right between Reggie Jackson and Ken Griffey Jr., two other no-doubt Hall of Famers.
Now, with all that being said about his skills here’s the tough question. Who’s the closest thing to Wade Boggs in the game today? It’d have to be a player with (1) devastating ability to avoid strikeouts, (2) a world-class walk rate, (3) great overall offensive performance, and (4) good defense at a semi-premium position.
The short answer? No one has all the characteristics of a prime Boggs today, but in 2014 there was one guy who got kind of close. Former Red Sox catcher Victor Martinez posted a miniature 6.6% strikeout rate (the lowest in baseball) and 10.9% walk rate. That makes for a dynamite hitter, even before accounting for Martinez’s unexpected power spike. Martinez touched off three of the four items that made Boggs so interesting, with the sole exception being the poor defense that forced him into a DH role.
I’d love to be able to offer something up about a Red Sox player who could be considered the second coming of the Chicken Man, but it’s simply too hard to find anyone who strikes out as little as Wade did, while still being a world-class offensive threat. Perhaps the closest comp is Dustin Pedroia, who tends to at least keep his walks and his punchouts on the same level, percentage-wise.
Pedey actually ticks quite a few of the Boggs boxes, but on a smaller scale. While he doesn’t hit for the same average that Wade did, his batting average does stick above league average. Pedroia’s overall offensive performance never hit the heights of Wade’s .320 to .340 TAv seasons — in fact, Pedey’s 2015 performance (.301 TAv) is the only season that’s sniffed Wade’s career mark of .302 TAv.
But Pedroia has hit for almost exactly the same overall power as Boggs, at least when it comes to a career slugging percentage. Boggs posted a .443 slugging over his tenure, while Pedroia checks in at .444, despite hitting dingers at a far higher rate than Wade ever did. And Pedroia plays stellar defense at a critical position, not all that different from Boggs, the two-year Gold Glove winner who manned third in the 80s.
No, Wade Boggs was the baseball equivalent of the famous quote from noted sportswriter (and noted doer of other stuff) Hunter S. Thompson.
“There he goes. One of God’s own prototypes. Some kind of high powered mutant never even considered for mass production. Too weird to live, and too rare to die.”
That sounds about right. No other Red Sox player was quite like him, before, since, or otherwise. As the game changes, it’s more and more unlikely that anyone ever will be. We are propelled headlong into a baseball world of increasing strikeouts and selling out for power at the expense of batted-ball skills. The chances of finding another third baseman, let alone any player at all, like Wade Boggs are minimal at best.
Top photo by Gregory Fisher/USA Today Sports Images