Of all the roster spots that looked like problem areas for the Red Sox heading into the season, outfield was near the bottom of the list.
Ben Cherington spent nearly $90 million to bring Hanley Ramirez’s bat to town, and after an astounding rise in 2014 and terrific spring, Mookie Betts had the look of a potential All-Star in center field. That didn’t even factor in Rusney Castillo and Shane Victorino, both of whom looked likely to be given opportunities in right. Add in Brock Holt, Daniel Nava, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Allen Craig, and many were wondering whether the Red Sox had too many outfielders for their own good.
That’s roughly the opposite of how everything turned out, of course. Despite plenty of depth on paper, Boston’s outfield production was woeful through the season’s first 10 weeks as the club sunk to the AL East basement. Hanley ranked as the game’s worst fielder, Mookie went through his first real slump, Victorino got hurt yet again and Castillo proved unready for every-day playing time. For a while, the squad’s outfield looked like an issue with few obvious solutions.
Then Alejandro De Aza happened.
On June 4, Cherington struck a trade with the Orioles for De Aza in a move that sparked more jabs at Boston’s expense than anything else. That Cherington surrendered a legitimate minor leaguer in Joe Gunkel and cash for De Aza, who Baltimore had designated for assignment, caused many observers to raise an eyebrow.
All De Aza has done since is hit. Through 91 plate appearances for the Red Sox, the eight-year veteran is batting .306/.352/.588 with three home runs and 13 extra-base hits. Over that period, De Aza has 12 multi-hit games, and his bat has certainly helped a scuffling Boston offense improve its performance since the beginning of June.
That De Aza, of all players, provided the Red Sox with a valuable spark just when the club’s fortunes looked hopeless is bizarre in the way only baseball can be. The 31-year-old entered 2015 with few career accolades, although he did post a .311 true average in 20 games for the Orioles down the stretch a year ago.
Still, the preseason projections weren’t exactly optimistic about his chances this season, with PECOTA forecasting De Aza to hit .263/.320/.384 in 2015. When he batted just .214/.277/.359 over 30 games for Baltimore to begin the campaign, De Aza looked unlikely to make a significant contribution for any team this season.
All of which makes his play for the Red Sox even more of a pleasant surprise. De Aza ranks fifth among Boston hitters with 1.1 WARP despite playing just 27 games for the team this season. Although that is partially a reflection of how poorly the rest of the roster has been, De Aza’s positive contributions can’t be denied.
Yet how much longer can we expect De Aza to sustain this level of performance? He certainly wouldn’t be the first player to exceed expectations over a 30-game sample, and PECOTA isn’t optimistic about how he’ll perform the rest of the season, projecting De Aza to hit .265/.324/.362. A simple look at his current .365 BABIP indicates De Aza has probably been the beneficiary of some good fortune on balls in play, though his career mark of .329 is better than you’d think.
But “better than you’d think” is a decent way to describe De Aza in general. With a career 101 OPS+, he’s long been an average hitter. And the Dominican Republic native has also been a solid fielder in the outfield for multiple seasons.
De Aza ranks fifth among Boston hitters with 1.1 WARP despite playing just 27 games for the team this season.
Indeed, De Aza’s arrival has coincided with vastly improved fielding in Boston’s outfield, with Hanley beginning to see more time at DH. That’s certainly been a big benefit to the club’s pitching staff and a key factor in the team’s recent run of success.
De Aza also hits right-handed pitching well, owning a .272/.335/.416 line versus righties throughout his career. His performance for the Orioles last season (and against for Boston in 2015) demonstrates he’s capable of getting hot for multiple weeks at a time.
No, we shouldn’t expect De Aza to continue playing at an All-Star level for the rest of the summer. However, that doesn’t mean he will stop providing value for the Red Sox. De Aza’s been a solid all-around player for a few years now, and he’s someone who can contribute to a ball club in multiple ways.
At a time when the Red Sox were suffering from multiple sub-replacement-level performers, De Aza has given the team the type of boost it sorely needed. For his part, Cherington deserves credit for acquiring a player who was probably a little undervalued after his poor start to the season. De Aza won’t continue to carry the Red Sox, but he gives them added roster flexibility and a solid option against right-handers.
In a season when nothing has gone as expected, maybe we shouldn’t be quite so surprised by how De Aza has played.
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