When we talk about improvements the Red Sox need to make, we say they need an ace, a stronger starting pitching staff, a better bullpen, or a first baseman who can hit. But what’s often missed in this discussion of potential improvement is that the Red Sox defense is a huge problem as well. This season, right now, the Red Sox defense is bad. Not the worst, but bad. Any discussion of improvement that doesn’t include bringing the team’s defense from bad to mediocre is incomplete.
So how bad has Boston’s defense been this season? The answer depends on which numbers you look at. Boston is 24th in UZR and 22nd in DRS. But my favorite team defensive metric is Defensive Efficiency and the Red Sox are 27th there. That means they are 27th in converting batted balls into outs, or essentially the invert of BABIP. They’re in the company of the Phillies, Rockies, and White Sox, which as far as baseball defenses goes is like having dinner with Donald Trump, a Kardashian, and one of those UFO people. You’ll try to stab yourself with a napkin ring before the salad course.
Now I should note right now that it is possible to be a winning team with a lousy defense. The Pirates, the Nationals and the Dodgers are 26, 25, and 22 in team defensive efficiency, respectively, so a bad defense isn’t necessarily a death sentence for a season. That said, it does make winning significantly more difficult. And the Red Sox don’t have Zack Greinke, Clayton Kershaw, Gerrit Cole or Max Scherzer to grease those skids either. Along those lines Red Sox pitchers don’t get a lot of strikeouts, or even a medium amount, and that puts more pressure on the defense. This season Red Sox pitchers have struck out 19.4 percent of the batters they’ve faced. For context, the Indians are first at 24.3 percent and the Twins are last at 16.1 percent. The Red Sox, you’ll notice, are closer to the Twins than the Indians. Somewhere along the way Boston has traded Josh Beckett, Curt Schilling and Jon Lester for Wade Miley, Rick Porcello and Joe Kelly. That is not a good trend.
And that all brings up an interesting point. Part of good defense is pitching. Part of good pitching is defense. Separating them can be difficult, but the easy solution is to have good pitchers and a good defense, toss the slide rule in the garbage and head out for a cup of coffee. The Red Sox are too far on the other side of that spectrum at present. But the good news is that overhauling the pitching staff will, if done correctly, move the needle in the right direction, even if the defensive personnel remains the same.
That goodish news is that there is reason to believe the Red Sox players most responsible for this bad performance can improve, or at least lessen their negative impact.
That won’t get the team to where they need to be defensively speaking, but there is good news though, or at least not overtly bad news, which when considering the way this season has gone qualifies as good. That goodish news is that there is reason to believe the Red Sox players most responsible for this bad performance can improve, or at least lessen their negative impact. We can start with the biggest contributor, if you want to call him that: Hanley Ramirez. Ramirez is currently at -32.1 UZR/150, which makes him, by that metric, the worst defensive player in baseball. Much ink has been spilled trying to figure out what to do with Ramirez next season. Some say moving him to first base is the answer. Some say move him to DH (ignoring that the Red Sox’s best hitter currently resides there). Some say leave him in left field because he’s improving. I’m not sure what the Red Sox will do, but whatever it is, the good news is they’re going to have a contingency plan for it. They have to after this season. Regardless of whether Hanley spends his offseason taking balls off the monster or taking grounders and learning to scoop low throws at first, the Red Sox will have someone competent to step in and take over if things go badly. Further, there is a chance that Hanley isn’t on the team next season. Finding someone to take Ramirez off Boston’s hands would be a difficult job, but we’re talking about the man who traded Carl Crawford. There is a non-zero chance that the Red Sox have to eat a ton of his money to send him to the White Sox or wherever, but either way, I expect the Red Sox front office to be on top of this problem in a way they weren’t this season.
Second on the bad UZR/150 list is Pablo Sandoval. Even more than Ramirez, I think there’s a reasonable shot Sandoval finds himself elsewhere in 2016. He hasn’t hit and he can’t field (apparently) and unlike Ramirez, whose bat should play most places, Sandoval needs to stay at third (or move to shortstop) to have value. In his favor is that right now we’re only looking at one season of data. Many guys have tough defensive seasons, and going to a new team on a huge contract is, as we’ve learned, a tough thing for a player to do in and of itself. On the other hand, if Boston holds on to him and he’s this terrible again, he’ll have no trade value at all. He won’t even bring a bad contract back in return. The bigger problem is what to do at third base in that event, but Cherington will have the whole off season to sort that out.
Mostly, though, this article is concerned with the chance that Sandoval simply isn’t this bad. He’s never been this bad before, so possibly it’s just a down season. Maybe he’s nursing an injury. Either way he’s probably still bad, but not this bad, because this bad is pretty hard.
The outfield situation still needs to sort itself out, but the good news there is that Mookie Betts, Rusney Castillo and Brock Holt all grade out as above average defensive outfielders. What’s more, we know what Jackie Bradley can do, so if he can reassert himself that picture only becomes better. As for the infield, at least up the middle the Red Sox are solid. Pedroia is a very good defensive second baseman and Brock Holt is a more than capable replacement defensively. At shortstop Xander Bogarts has come further than I ever imagined possible. He’s made himself a plus defensive shortstop this season. Whether he can keep that up or not remains to be seen, but for now he’s part of the solution.
We don’t know who will play first for Boston next season so that’s difficult to address, but improvement will likely be found at catcher where Christian Vazquez will be set to return. That will give the Red Sox three good catchers with Ryan Hanigan and Blake Swihart already in the mix. The offseason will help sort that out, but if things stay as they are now with regards to the depth chart at catcher it’s likely one of the two youngsters will start the season in Pawtucket.
Overhauling the pitching staff is a tough project for a single off season, but it’ll help a lot if the players behind the mound (and in front of it) do a bit better at their jobs next season. Nothing like a little teamwork to help make everyone look better. Mostly, though, finding improvement in Sandoval and Ramirez will be the key to Red Sox’s defensive improvement in 2016. If not, making the pitching better will be even harder.
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