In the 2013 regular season the Red Sox committed 80 errors in 162 games. That total ranked them as the eight best team in the Majors and the fifth best in the American League (although strangely enough only fourth best in their own division behind Baltimore, Tampa Bay, and New York who were first, second, and third overall). The team was characterized by aggressive and effective defense.
Jacoby Ellsbury and Shane Victorino (1.9 dWAR and 2.2 dWAR respectively) covered an incredible amount of outfield real estate and the team even received solid defensive contributions from the human heart-attack Jonny Gomes and the ever-improving Daniel Nava platoon in left field. The two combined for 16 outfield assists, many of which were well played balls off the Green Monster to cut a runner down at second base, and countless more that held a runner at first with a long Fenway single.
The middle infield was a mix of the solid but not necessarily spectacular (Stephen Drew), the plain old spectacular (Jose Iglesias), and the consistently solid and spectacular (Dustin Pedroia, of course).
The corners of the infield were manned by a surprisingly effective Mike Napoli at first and a mixed bag of poor fielding at the hot corner led by Middlebrooks’ 10 errors in only 92 games. Red Sox third basemen compiled 20 errors on the season in only 411 chances. By comparison, Boston shortstops accumulated 12 errors in 668 chances (and that includes three in 21 chances by the jettisoned Pedro Ciriaco).
Six of the eight errors that Red Sox catchers had in 2013 came from Jarrod Saltalamacchia (whose last name actually means “throwing while blindfolded” in Italian). Salty also had seven passed balls (only two for David Ross, and six for Ryan “They Won’t Even Let Me Pretend to be a Catcher Anymore” Lavarnway). With Salty’s departure to the Marlins in the offseason, there was reason to think that this would be an area of improvement for this year’s team.
The pitching staff accounted for 15 of the 80 errors, with the now-retired Ryan Dempster leading the team with three.
They were the team that didn’t give you very many four out innings. They didn’t surrender unearned runs very often, in fact only 43 on the season, about one every four games. No matter how you paint the picture, one of the many strengths of the 2013 squad was a solid, consistent, and occasionally spectacular defense.
Through the first 24 games of 2014 the story has been quite different. The team has already allowed an American League leading 17 unearned runs, moving from an average of one every four games played to an average of almost three runs in four games. Their 19 errors place them 22nd in all of baseball and ahead of only Texas, Oakland and Cleveland in the American League.
It is obviously early and a lot of their games have been played in adverse conditions, but to this point in the season the defense has gone from a strong point to a glaring weakness. Thursday night’s game provided all the fun of a root canal without anesthesia as the Sox committed five errors, threw three wild pitches, and allowed a passed ball.
So what changed?
First, some pretty notable and obvious things. The outfield tandem that was covering more ground than Lewis and Clark? One of them is now exploring new territory in the Yankees’ outfield and the other has played only two games in the majors this season. Could the Red Sox afford to lose Jacoby’s range? It was going to hurt no matter what, but if he was replaced by Jackie Bradley and still flanked by Victorino it might not have been such a colossal drop off. Losing both though, has proved to be nothing short of a debacle early on in the season.
The former Gold Glove center fielder Grady Sizemore has looked rustier in the outfield than a 1987 Dodge Omni. He routinely gets late breaks on fly balls and frequently takes such indirect routes that I’ve actually mistaken him for Gomes in the outfield on more than one occasion. That is not a compliment, Grady.
Nava, who seemingly grew leaps and bounds as a fielder last year was pressed into action in right field and never seemed to find a good comfort level before ultimately being sent down to Pawtucket this week when Victorino was activated. In left, the trio of Gomes, Mike Carp, and Sizemore has combined for only one error, but only one assist as well, and as a group they have been less than mediocre, at best.
Behind the plate A.J. Pierzynski and Ross have three errors and three passed balls, which don’t look like horrible totals but at that pace they will blow by the totals posted by last season’s catchers.
The infield is really only drastically different at one position. Pedroia and Napoli continue to hold down the right side of the infield, and the smorgasbord of defensive mediocrity at third base of Brock Holt, Ryan Roberts, Jonathan Herrera, and Middlebrooks hasn’t actually been much worse than the below average performance the Red Sox got at the hot corner last year.
The big change in the infield has of course been my favorite 21-year old, and yours, Xander Bogaerts. Xander was tagged with a really tough error in Thursday’s game (especially after the lolly pop that the range-less Derek Jeter blew the night before that was scored a hit) and while that particular play shouldn’t be an indictment of his defensive play to this point, it’s easy to say that his defense has at the very least been a work in progress. This week WEEI’s Alex Speier took a great look at where Bogaerts currently stands defensively. It’s certainly worth noting that he is (still) only 21-years old, has only 30 games at shortstop in the major leagues under his belt, and has only played 375 games professionally at the position. To say he’s learning on the job and still figuring things out is a massive understatement.
So here’s the good news. With only 24 games in the rear view mirror there is still more than 85% of the season to play, and there are a handful of reasons to think that we should see significant defensive strides as the season progresses forward.
- JBJ will continue to learn and improve, and he already appears to have what it takes to be a great defensive center fielder. Then, there is his arm. After more than a decade of Ellsbury and Johnny Damon in center, it feels so foreign to actually have a center fielder who doesn’t throw like your Aunt playing softball at last summer’s family reunion.
- Victorino is back and healthy (for now) so hopefully we’ll see a return to form for last year’s Gold Glove right fielder. On Friday night in Toronto, the JBJ/Victorino tandem looked very reminiscent of the Jacoby/Victorino pairing that we quickly grew to love last season.
- Sizemore will likely begin to shake off some of the rust he’s exhibited from his two year hiatus, and should grow more comfortable with left field and the Green Monster. He may eventually even take a direct route towards a ball that is hit hard in his direction. Stay tuned.
- Middlebrooks has looked solid at third in his five games this season. Hopefully his return to big league club will solidify a position that has given the team fits ever since Will broke his wrist in August of 2012.
- Xander is a hardworking, intelligent player who will continue to grow and mature as a major league shortstop and the team will have the patience to let him learn the position with an eye on the long term payoff of having a shortstop who can hit like this.
As the weather warms up, the team’s regular lineup returns and gels, and the young players continue to grow and mature it is a relatively safe bet that we’ve already seen the worst this team has to offer defensively in 2014.
With how they played against New York on Thursday night there’s no where else to go, but up.