Xander Bogaerts and Dustin Pedroia

Will the Red Sox Be Better Defensively in 2016?

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.

Photo by David Butler II/USA Today Sports Images

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2 comments on “Will the Red Sox Be Better Defensively in 2016?”


The Sox defense seems, IMO, more likely to be fairly strong if Pablo and Hanley (who are reportedly working hard to recover their health and agility) come in anywhere near average.

1. Hanigan has always been a solid defender, better than most, and as a backup and mentor, he isn’t likely to wear down due to his age 34 decrepitude. That’s a joke.
Vasquez, who will likely work off the rust in AAA as he rehabs from TJ, is considered elite, and should help the team by midseason, giving Swihart’s D a chance to continue to evolve. His premature adjustment to the
Majors was pretty good by August. So catching should be at least average, probably better.

2. Multiple GG Pedroia is by no means done. He will give above average defense at 2B for most of the year, at least. If hurt, Holt’s glove is well above average, maybe elite at both 2nd and SS. So Pedey and backups are limely above average at 2B.
3 Ditto for SS. Xander went from below to above average in 2015. He and Pedey are working out together, in AZ, again. They might become a well above average duo up the middle, which will benefit the pitchers and enhance run-prevention and DP strategies.
4. Awesome defensive OF. Three speedy Center Fielders
with excellent gloves. Elite arms in LF and CF and a decent arm in RF for well above average assists, shutting down running games and preventing runs. This well above average OF will also be fun to watch, and worth the price of admission. And last year was essentially the rookie years for both Betts and Castillo. With reps and stability, they and JBJ wlll improve individually and as a unit. And Chris Young as 4th OF and insurance adds to tbe awesomeness and predictability of this OF.
5. With Swihart, Hanigan, Vasquez, Castillo, JBJ, Mookie, Pedey, Xander, Holt, Marrero, the running game of opposing teams will fade to inconsequentiality, victim of intimidation by true talent at 6 positions.
That’s about as defensive as a team can get.
6. Yes there are weak links, and you identified them as HanRam and Panda. If 2014 Panda sbows up he will provide better defense at 3B than the team has enjoyed in several years. If not, and he doesn’t magically disappear tbrough DDo slight of hand, then Any combination of Holt, Shaw, Marrero will provide average or better defense, tbough I share your confidence that he will, at age 28, return to the player we thoight we signed. On the other side of the diamond, Hanley is more difficult to anticipate. He was never an above a erage infielder and is unlikely to be better at 1B, but if he gets the routine plays, and Shaw/Holt replaces him late in games or against tough RHP, then he won’t often give away wins.
In summary, I guess I am more optimistic about this defense, for good reasons, and hooe I am right; as I am really looking forward to this OF gelling, to see to what level Pedey and XB have reached in AZ 2015/16, to how well CV and Swihart return fro their setbacks, and to see just how good Shaw and Marrero can be in the Bigs. I have no concerns about Hanigan, Holt, Young who are among the very best defenders available for their roles.


Ooops. A few words got lost in referring to backing up Pedey and Xander. That would be Marrero’s amazing glove, with Holt covering the rest of the team.

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