It’s not a secret that the Red Sox have been taking on water ever since they touted a 20-19 record on May 14th. Even though a lot of blame has been placed on injuries, the sheer ineptitude of some players has been just as much of a culprit. Sure, you can point at Mike Napoli‘s finger or John Farrell’s managing as the perpetrator of the team’s general horridness, but the worst offender has been the entire outfield. Here’s a breakdown of the crisis out on the field, and what you need to prepare yourself for. A fallout bunker may not be as extreme as you think.
What’s going on in the Red Sox outfield?
To put it simply, the 2014 Red Sox outfield has been the most god-awful thing we’ve seen since the beginning of Keeping Up With The Kardashians. The team is the worst outfield in the league this season in terms of Fangraphs’ WAR with an appalling -0.6 mark. That’s worse than a Cubs outfield that runs out the terrifying trio of Junior Lake, Nate Schierholtz and the shambling corpse of Ryan Kalish and gets a marginally better -0.2 fWAR. No outfield in the league is as bad as hitting as the one currently employed by the Red Sox. The unit itself has a .280 wOBA, which means that B.J. Upton (.283) is hitting better than the sum of the Red Sox outfield.
Worst 3 outfields in the MLB by fWAR
|Chicago White Sox||.644||.286||75||-0.5|
|Boston Red Sox||.619||.280||70||-0.6|
According to wRC, the Red Sox do not have a single player hitting at league average. Not. One. Jonny Gomes is the closest with a 98 wRC, but the rest of the outfielders are far, far behind. The next best hitter is Mike Carp at a laughable 71, and it just gets worse from there. The only player that looks primed for progression is Daniel Nava, whose .236 BABIP belies a 20% line drive rate that strongly suggests a rebound. For the rest of them, however, betting on a rebound seems to be a fool’s gambit.
Luckily for the Sox, the defense has been decidedly less egregious. Jackie Bradley Jr‘s defense has been exceptional, racking up a 2.8 UZR in two and a half months. As notable as that is, it looks elite compared to the rest of the Red Sox, which have weighed down the group’s defensive scores and the lack of leather shown from Grady Sizemore & Gomes. And when Bradley starts to do things like this, well, it’s essentially night and day between him and the rest of the outfielders on the team.
How did this happen?
This dumpster fire is a result of optimistic expectations and good old-fashioned regression. By fWAR, the 2013 squad ran out the best outfield unit the Red Sox have had since 1988, racking up a fantastic 15.7 fWAR thanks to Jacoby Ellsbury‘s fantastic 5.8-win season and Shane Victorino‘s stellar 5.6 mark. The platoon of Nava/Carp & Gomes worked well, adding 4 wins to the total.In the interim, Ellsbury was lost to the Bronx on a nine-figure contract, and Victorino was sidelined with a strained hamstring throughout the spring and eventually into April. Sizemore was added for depth and showed some promise in spring, and did well by not exploding into DL-bound dust after touching an outfield wall.
With Ellsbury gone, Bradley had to step in. While a solid center fielder defensively, he wasn’t a hitting prodigy. That’s not an insult – his tools are more inclined for fielding & getting on base, not smashing home runs out of the park. He finished 2013 with a great all-around season at Pawtucket, but has more than struggled to adapt to major-league pitching this season. The CF drop-off from 5.8 wins down was expected to be cushioned a little it by JBJ earning 2 wins, but his offensive struggles have offset his considerable defensive prowess in Fenway’s treacherous center field.
In the corners, things have been much worse. Victorino’s right hamstring has taken him on two dates to the disabled list, and if that wasn’t enough, the 33-year-old outfielder may have entered the decline phase of his career. His 2013 season saw his walk & strikeout rates recede, and they’ve gotten even worse this year, albeit in a small 100 PA sample. The left field platoon has sputtered. Gomes has performed as adequately as one with a massive L/R split can, while Nava was sent down to Triple-A after an abysmal first month. Carp even hit the DL with a fractured foot. Gomes then was facing both left- and right-handed pitchers – never an ideal situation. The only reason Gomes is the only hitting what his projections predicted is because he hasn’t been hurt and hasn’t regressed. But any of the above options have been better than Sizemore, whose offensive skills did not survive his numerous surgeries.
What can be done?
In the short-term, Farrell needs to stop leaving Gomes in to face right-handed pitchers, especially the right-handed specialists in the later innings. Nava should get the lion’s share of those plate appearances in the late innings, with Sizemore stealing a PA here and there. Once Carp returns, however, Sizemore is expendable, and him being designated for assignment before Carp’s return wouldn’t surprise anyone – least of all, myself – once Victorino is back in the fold. JBJ should be allowed to work out his offensive kinks as long as he contributes with fantastic defense.The long-term is a much different story. Gomes is a free agent after 2014, and with options such as Josh Willingham & Nelson Cruz on the market, the Red Sox should look into a one- or two-year deal with either of them and let Gomes go. Both players are devoid of any major platoon split and the short field in left covers up their defensive weaknesses. A deal allows the Red Sox to be flexible with either Nava or Carp in case of a trade or injury to Bradley or Victorino. The worn-out trade suggestion for Giancarlo Stanton is more of a pipe dream than an actual option, so unless that should arise, it’s a non-topic. Let’s keep it that way. Please.
The farm system doesn’t offer too much. Mookie Betts moved his amazing bat & fantastic name from second base to the outfield, putting him on the fast track to Boston. He’s getting his reps in at Triple-A Pawtucket, along with the 25-year-old Bryce Brentz, a solid but uninspiring player that contributes little on defense and has to rely on his great power stroke to make up for his lack of contact and on-base skills. Brentz will get himself a cup of coffee, but Betts looks to be a lock to secure an outfield spot in Fenway in the near future, if not this year. If Betts is deemed ready by the end of the season, the free agent deals discussed above become a non-factor.
So what happens now?
It’s time to preach patience. Ben Cherington knows that rash decisions could jeopardize the future of the team, so waiting out the problem is the most sound option. That approach helps the youngsters get valuable time to adjust – Bradley with MLB pitching and Betts with the outfield. The outfield is not going to improve a great deal overnight, and no immediate option is available without great cost.
The potential of the outfield could make it a solid unit in as short a time as a year, given progression from Bradley & Betts and a solid season from Victorino. But right now, that’s all you can hope for. Right now, the outfield is atrocious. That doesn’t mean it will be forever – it just means that decisions must be made. Let’s hope they’re the right ones.
Photos by Kelly O’Connor of sittingstill.smugmug.com.