The Red Sox have had a bad outfield for as long as I can remember, but I have kids so I can’t remember much. And as it turns out, a bit of research reveals I probably can’t remember my own birthday. The Red Sox outfield produced the 16th best fWAR last season and the best in all of baseball as far back as two years ago, in 2013. But, take Jackie Bradley’s defense (and that of his other defensive compadres) out of last season’s total and the team’s outfielders plunge to 28th. That’s because they couldn’t hit last season. This season things haven’t been horrific so much as hovering around mediocre. The outfield hasn’t been the problem, but you wouldn’t call it part of the solution either.
But then about a month ago, things changed. The Red Sox started playing Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley and Rusney Castillo together in the outfield on an almost daily basis. That was roughly the time Jackie Bradley and Rusney Castillo started hitting (Mookie always hits!), and we already knew they could play defense. FanGraphs has that group as the fifth best outfield defensively over the past month, but defensive numbers over a full season need to be taken with a grain of salt, so defensive numbers over a single month aren’t more than educated guesswork. It’s worth saying, however, that the eye test confirms what those numbers tell us, namely that this is an exceptional outfield defensively.
That’s the real draw. We saw what can happen when the team starts a below-average outfielder, and in fact, we didn’t even see that because we really saw what happens when a team starts a sub-playable outfielder. It torpedoes so much of what the team is trying to do defensively, even in a position as non-essential as left field. The Red Sox are moving on from that now (whether they move on from that specific player as well will be worth following this off-season), and toward a future where everyone in the outfield excels at their given tasks.
How good defensively could a Betts, Bradley, Castillo (BBC) outfield be? It’s difficult to put numbers on it because we’re dealing with such young and inexperienced players. Castillo has only been out of Cuba for one calendar year. Betts is still learning the outfield after playing second base all through the minors. But we do have one piece of information we can use to project. We’ve seen what Jackie Bradley can do in center field when given an extended chance. I’d love to show you numbers that say “Bradley was the best defensive center fielder in baseball in 2014 even though he missed part of the year in Triple-A because he couldn’t hit a beach ball tossed to him underhanded with a broom,” but I can’t. FanGraphs has Bradley as the seventh best defensive center fielder in 2014 which isn’t nothing, but the peculiarities of both defensive stats and Fenway Park itself make it difficult to trust the specifics of the numbers. We know Bradley is hella good, though. That we know. With Bradley we have other worries than the defense.
Castillo and Betts both have speed and, it’s reasonable to think, room to improve based on their exposure to major league baseball and the outfield, respectively. One of them will be stuck in left where the Green Monster will limit their defensive impact, but it’s important to not get too stuck on that. The Red Sox play 81 games in opposing parks, some of which feature sizable left field spaces that need to be patrolled by someone who, while admittedly trying his best, doesn’t appear at first glance to be a slumbering rhinoceros. This will also be true should the team ever make the playoffs again. Left field in Fenway isn’t huge, but it is peculiar and it is also not the left field that a player assigned to it will always patrol.
Were the Red Sox to employ it for a full season, the BBC outfield would be one of the most athletic outfields in Boston in my admittedly poor recent memory. While we can’t say they would be the best in baseball with anything approaching certainty, it seems safe to say, defensively, they would be above average, an asset to the pitching staff instead of a hinderance. Beyond that you’re talking about specific context, how good are the other teams, etc. The BBC outfield would be very good defensively. But what about hitting?
In the last 30 days, the Red Sox outfield, which has mostly but not entirely consisted of Castillo, Bradley and Betts, has been the fifth most productive outfield (again, by fWAR) in baseball. The last month has brought a collective batting line of .289/.337/.485 from the Red Sox outfield. There was a time when that batting line would have brought snickers, but today that’s an above average slash line, one that indicates the BBC outfield can help the Red Sox win baseball games with their sticks and, as we’ve seen, with their gloves as well.
I looked up the dimensions of Fenway Park’s outfields spots in order to be able to say exactly how good each player would be in each field, but sadly that’s impossible. We don’t have enough information to make such proclamations yet. We know this outfield, should the new front office stick with it, could be incredible, both defensively and offensively. If Bradley continues something approaching his tear, Betts continues where he his (never mind if he improves), and Castillo continues his adjustment to the majors, this could be a sight to see and a reason to pick the Red Sox to make one of the bigger jumps in the win column next year. It’s one of the reasons for hope and at this point in the season, that’s all we can ask for.