Can The Red Sox Defense Rebound In 2011?

The 2011 Red Sox should score a lot of runs. Not exactly a controversial statement, I know, but really, it's hard to overstate how impressive this lineup can be from top to bottom-well, almost bottom. Just looking at the card should be enough to give starting pitchers nightmares.

And it's no question why, either. The Sox' acquisitions of Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford could transform just about any lineup from garbage into gold. Gonzalez was a top-5 offensive first baseman despite playing in the most pitcher friendly park out there, and while Crawford doesn't exactly fit the traditional mold for a Manny-style left fielder, few do. Believe it or not, Crawford was the fourth best outfielder by wOBA last year. A nice pair of pickups.

But what about the other side of the ball?

Last year's team was supposed to be focused on run prevention, run prevention, run prevention. But thanks to the plethora of injuries the team faced, they were in the bottom ten by UZR at -15.1, and were ranked ahead of only the Pirates and Royals by DRS at -56. There's a big difference between 15 and 56 runs, to be sure, but what's clear is that the gloves just weren't getting the job done.

On the surface, it seems easy to jump to the conclusion that the Sox will be significantly better this year defensively. They'll get the production back from top-notch fielders in Kevin Youkilis and Dustin Pedroia while adding in Carl Crawford. But wait! Kevin Youkilis is a first baseman no more, being shifted to third! Adrian Beltre is gone! And what of the outfield, with Jacoby Ellsbury being forced back into left field? Perhaps this is worth a deeper look, if only to find evidence to support our good feelings.

 

Catcher: Victor Martinez vs. Jarrod Saltalamacchia

Let's start in the hardest possible location: behind the plate. Catcher defense has always been a tricky proposition, and so far there's not been a lot of success quantifying it, but suffice to say that neither side here has really received rave reviews over the course of their careers. Last year, Martinez had some trouble receiving the ball for plays at the plate, and had some very foolish mistakes early on throwing down (poorly) to second while a runner at third waited to break for home.

Jarrod Saltalamacchia, on the other hand, got a case of the yips.

Still, it's interesting to note that when sources do attempt to quantify catcher defense, Jarrod Saltalamacchia has actually come out in front of Victor Martinez in recent years, grading out as generally...well, average. He even managed a +4 defensive runs saved in 2009.

Of course, how accurate these rankings are is hard to say, and they're based on small sample sizes, generally, but at the very least I think this is evidence enough that Saltalamacchia isn't going to be too big of a difference behind the plate.

 

Corner Infield: Kevin Youkilis and Adrian Beltre vs. Adrian Gonzalez and Kevin Youkilis

Only one of the four names involved has changed, and yet, everything is different. Here is where the Red Sox take their big hit defensively. Kevin Youkilis is a very good defensive first baseman, likely saving somewhere between six and eight runs a year should you take his defensive numbers only any significant sample size. And if Youkilis is very good, than it's hard to really describe what Adrian Beltre is. But on an average year for Beltre, you're probably looking at at least 15 runs off the board at third.

Kevin Youkilis is not Adrian Beltre at third, unfortunately, and really, he's not very good. This isn't to say he's bad, probably just more close to average than anything else. We don't have the kind of sample sizes there that we do for Beltre that would help give a more exact idea of where he stands, but most first basemen will take a hit when shifting positions, and as good as Kevin Youkilis' short stint there in 2008 looked, his 2009 was rather less impressive.

Unfortunately, Adrian Gonzalez will not be replacing Youkilis' defense at first. Gold Glove winner though he may be, the more advanced metrics just don't He had one elite year in 2009, with a DRS of 12, but generally is bouncing around the zero mark-one year above, the next below. The fact of the matter is that the Red Sox have really taken a big hit here, going from two elite defenders, to two average ones.

 

Middle Infield: Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro, and Jed Lowrie vs. Dustin Pedroia, Marco Scutaro, and Jed Lowrie

So, uh, yeah.

The Red Sox were, statistically, decidedly average at second base last year, and decidedly bad at the shortstop position.

Now, there is reason to believe the shortstop numbers will change. Marco Scutaro's -7 DRS and -3.3 UZR/150 stand in stark contrast to his +20 DRS and +16.9 UZR/150 the two previous years. Jed Lowrie's amazingly bad numbers also seem like a one-off thing thanks to the tiny sample size and how he graded out at, say, second base.

Both also spent much of last year out-of-sorts-Lowrie went an extra six months without playing the field, likely resulting in some rust, while Scutaro had to be moved to second base towards the end of the year due to the muscle injury he had been playing through for months. It wouldn't be surprising to see either return towards the middle.

But the most certain improvement will come from having Dustin Pedroia back for a presumably full season. He was on pace to be his usual excellent self defensively, but of course could provide only half the usual innings. And when you consider the performances of his replacements last year, that could easily be worth another win along the way.

 

Outfield: J.D. Drew et. al. vs. J.D. Drew, Jacoby Ellsbury, and Carl Crawford

And here is where the Red Sox make up for their big loss at the corner infield positions.

Last year, the Sox were third-to-last in the outfield with a -7.3 UZR/150, and had the absolute bottom in DRS at -41. That's really, really, really bad, and worth upwards of a four game difference. If you think about it, that kind of makes sense, too. Remember Eric Patterson overrunning Jon Lester's fly ball, de-railing what looked like the most dominant start he'd ever had? How about Bill Hall's mangling of the monster?

J.D. Drew will still be J.D. Drew. While he had a negative DRS last year, his UZR remained positive, and both agree that he has generally been a very good right fielder. The big difference comes from elsewhere.

How many players found themselves playing in the outfield for the Red Sox last year? Venture a guess? 11. Most of them replacements, and only those who didn't play much grading out at all positively. Combined, Jeremy Hermida, Bill Hall, Daniel Nava, Eric Patterson, Darnell McDonald, and the crippled Mike Cameron accounted for a -39 DRS and a -25.2 UZR. Of the players seeing more than 200 innings, only Ryan Kalish graded out positively.

What are we replacing that with next year? Well, Jacoby Ellsbury is the controversial one, but chances are he'll play a fairly average center field. The reads are an issue, neutralizing his speed, but not likely actually countering it. He'll be average, maybe a bit below if his injury from 2010 holds him back, maybe a bit better just by virtue of improving as time goes on.

The big boost comes from one of the best left fielders in the game these past few years: Carl Crawford. As with any other player, Crawfords UZR and DRS can bounce around some. The difference is that his bounce around +20, spending some time above, and some time below. Even if we take into account Fenway's small left field limiting him some, he's still going to be a big positive.

 

Adding it all up

Half of the positions grade out pretty neutrally compared to 2010 for the Red Sox. The middle infield might be somewhat improved, the catching situation should be about the same, and right field is still going to be J.D. Drew.

The success or failure of the 2011 defense, then, will center around whether the improvements in the outfield can significantly outweigh the losses at the corners in the infield. It looks like it will.

The corner infielders last year saved around 15-20 runs, depending on your metric. That "production" will likely be lost in 2011, but the infield won't be a defensive deficiency-more likely it will end up grading out as average.

Meanwhile, the outfield last year gave up around 25-40 runs last year (gotta love the large spreads you get). This year? They could be saving well over 20.

Add both the differences together, and the Sox seem like they'll be turning their defensive woes around. It's easy to overlook that the bench, too, will be much improved defensively. Gone are the days of the "versatile" Bill Hall (-6 DRS, -7.3 UZR/150). Instead, the Sox will have a solid backup outfielder in the hopefully healthy Mike Cameron, and either Scutaro or Lowrie should grade out very positively when they move to back up the rest of the infield.

By no means will the 2011 Red Sox be the defensive juggernaut one could've predicted from a healthy 2010 team, where every player (excepting Victor Martinez) had the chance to be amongst the best at their position defensively. But, for the most part, they should be at least average, with some big bumps coming with Dustin Pedroia at second and Carl Crawford in left field.

Which is more than any team with this lineup really needs.

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