It’s not even New Years yet, but the Red Sox have mostly concluded their off-season work already. Giving David Price $217 million solved the rotation issue as much as it could be solved, while adding Craig Kimbrel and Carson Smith upgraded the bullpen something fierce. We can’t rule out another big move, and there will likely be some tinkering around the edges, but at this point it would appear things are pretty set. We’ve been over the rotation again and again in this space but perhaps the most under-noted aspect of this roster as it currently sits is how it will perform defensively.
When examining what Boston might do defensively in 2016, the first clue is what they did in 2015, but recall that there will be some rather large differences. First off, there will be a difference in personnel. For example, Hanley Ramirez will be at first base instead of left field. I remain highly skeptical, but the Red Sox are boxed into a corner, given his contract and how badly he hit last season. In any sane analysis, this is a rather large downgrade compared to Mike Napoli, but then again putting Ramirez at first means he’s not playing left, which opens up time for Rusney Castillo. Castillo, by any sane analysis, is a rather large upgrade compared to Ramirez, so this position switch cuts both ways. Beyond the Ramirez position change, the Red Sox are going to be rather stable, at least as things sit now. Jackie Bradley will be the starting center fielder with Mookie Betts in right and Castillo in left, or some similar alignment there within. Ramirez will play the majority of the innings at first, though don’t be shocked if he’s taken out for a defensive replacement at the earliest possible opportunity. Dustin Pedroia, Xander Bogaerts and Pablo Sandoval will fill out the infield, right to left, and the catching will be left to Ryan Hanigan and Blake Swihart, at least until/if Christian Vazquez proves himself healthy.
As you can see, that’s not much turnover, and in fact, the turnover took place last season where we had two versions of Boston’s defense. There was the one that opened the season and featured Hanley Ramirez in left field, Mike Napoli at first, Shane Victorino in right, and your head repeatedly slamming into the nearest hard surface. Appropriately enough, that version didn’t last the whole season. The Ramirez part lasted waaaaaay too long, and it’s my opinion that the Red Sox should cover any and all damages sustained while watching Ramirez do to left field what Sherman did to Georgia. Then, after the trade deadline the Red Sox rid themselves of Ramirez, Napoli, and Victorino, and began running out the Betts, Bradley, and Castillo outfield while Travis Shaw manned first base. The difference, at least when it comes to the eye test, was staggering, and with far less blunt scalp trauma.
The Red Sox were pretty bad at turning balls in play into outs in 2015, ranking 26th in baseball.
Even so, the Red Sox were pretty bad at turning balls in play into outs in 2015, ranking 26th in baseball. If you park-adjust those numbers, they get worse, falling to 28th. Part of that is fielding, but not all of it is. Some part of that is pitching, so the fact that more innings will be going to Price, Kimbrel, and Smith should help the overall output, even if the underlying fielding doesn’t improve. Other defensive metrics are kinder to Boston. FanGraphs puts the Red Sox as the 12th best defensive team overall last season, though recall that’s cumulative and thus it includes both versions of the Red Sox defense. This means the later good version was actually good enough to pull the earlier version up to respectability. If you’re buying those numbers, that’s a pretty good omen for what 2016 has in store, as the defensive lineup Boston should be using most days will hold more in common with that better version.
There’s real reason to think that the Betts, Bradley, Castillo outfield can be one of the best in the majors. We’re acquainted with Bradley’s other-worldly defense in center, and Castillo has a good arm and speed and acclimated himself well in left last season. If there is a worry in the group, it’s Betts, who has spent very little time in right and, though he’s shown the ability to learn quickly in his career, Fenway’s right field is quite large, and due to the quirkiness of the ballpark in general, quite difficult. Betts has played 174 innings in right to date and has graded out very badly, but that’s an extremely small sample size from a visibly talented and athletic player. The issue isn’t that he’ll be awful if he plays there all season long, just that he won’t be above average. Still, this is a case where the sample is small enough that it’s safer to go by the eye test, which grades Betts out pretty highly. Overall, the outfield does not present much of a worry.
If you’re looking for worries, the infield is where you want to be. Ramirez’s utter inability to approximate a left fielder does not bode well for his ability to play first base at anything approaching an average level. We’ll see, but would it shock you if Ramirez wound up grading out as one of the worst defensive first baseman in the game? Not only would I not be shocked, I’m actively expecting it. Beyond Hanley, the Red Sox are solid up the middle with Pedroia and Bogaerts, but at this point in his career, it’s unclear how much Pedroia will be able to stay on the field. Last year he played 93 games, 42 fewer than the season before, which was 25 fewer than the season before that. Also, the history of 32-year-old second baseman is littered with injuries, so expecting a full season out of Pedroia seems foolish. This means moving Betts back to second base or Brock Holt, or some other countermeasure. Across the bag though, the Red Sox have youth and a surprising amount of defensive ability in Xander Bogaerts. What we saw from him last season seems likely to be the ceiling of his defensive ability, and it’s saying something not all that positive that he might be the most valuable defensive player in the Red Sox infield.
Speaking of not positive things, Pablo Sandoval. Sandoval’s defense was such a problem last season that he’s merited his own paragraph. Lord he was bad. The only thing that perhaps saved him a bit was that he was on the same side of the field with the worst defensive outfielder of our time. Made him look a bit better, but don’t mistake that for looking good. The saving grace here is that Sandoval was a good or average (the Red Sox would LOVE average at this point) defensive player as recently as two seasons ago, a fact the Red Sox are clinging to for dear life.
The one other factor at play here that I haven’t yet covered is age. The Red Sox regular lineup features six players in their 20s, at catcher, third base, shortstop, and every outfield spot. We know players peak defensively pretty early in their careers, so typically the younger the lineup is, the better it is defensively.
It’s impossible to say for sure, something you likely know if you’ve followed this sport closely for any length of time, but right now the Red Sox appear to be a pretty average defense, strong in the outfield and, if Vazquez is healthy, at catcher, and anywhere from average to poor in the infield. Sandoval’s resurgence, if it happens, and Ramirez’s ability to learn first base figure to be pivotal in how good Boston’s defense becomes.
For now though, while this hardly seems like an Achilles heal, it likely isn’t a strength either. A healthy Vazquez would move the needle some, as would an upgrade at first base and a healthy season from Pedroia, but the Red Sox just got Price and Kimbrel, so it’s unclear how much more the baseball Gods are inclined to help.
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