If not for Daniel Nava, Boston's replacement outfielder woes would be even more apparent. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
The idea of the Red Sox being a talented offensive team isn't a new one. It's something that's been true throughout the last decade under the reign of first Theo Epstein and now Ben Cherington. The idea of them continuing to mash even when there are injuries poking holes in their core isn't revolutionary, either, as those who watched the club in 2010 can attest. But that doesn't make the start to 2012 any less impressive.
Carl Crawford hasn't suited up for the Red Sox yet, and we're 41 games into the season. Jacoby Ellsbury appeared in just seven of those contests. Boston has, in their place, used seven different outfielders for differing stretches, anywhere from a few innings as a defensive replacement to 84 plate appearances over 24 games, a relatively-large number given the season's youth.
All of these outfield injuries have caused a shuffling of the roster, with plenty of Pawtucket's players coming up temporarily, only to be sent back down or to their own DL stint. Following that, another is brought to the Sox, and so on. The vicious cycle has, in combination with the regular days off and substitute players, resulted in 265 plate appearances of mostly terrible baseball.
Marlon Byrd, Darnell McDonald, Nick Punto, Daniel Nava, Jason Repko, Lars Anderson, Nate Spears, and Mauro Gomez have combined for a line of .214/.299/.310, good for an OPS+ of 85*. Out of that group, almost all of the heavy lifting has come from Nava, who is hitting .313/.477/.531 in his 44 trips to the plate. Remove him from the equation, and you've got quite the anti-super-sub contained in a .198/.264/.274 line. And, except for Gomez and Punto, all of them have spent at least a little time in the outfield.
*This was calculated by hand, without Baseball Reference's park-adjustments. When you consider that Fenway boosts hitting stats, an adjusted OPS+ in this situation would most assuredly be even worse than the already poor 85 above.
Normally, those kind of numbers from a sub would be more annoying than actually damaging (see: Nick Punto's current season). But unlike your typical bench subs, this group has combined for serious playing time. The 221 plate appearances after Nava's subtraction would lead all Boston hitters through 41 games, and by a lot (the current leader is Dustin Pedroia, with 190). Boston is essentially carrying a terrible hitter around in their lineup, in the form of rotating bench players forced to play more than they should. It's a good thing Nava came up swinging, or else we would have seen even more of this over the last couple of weeks.
Nava isn't the only Plan B to get some good cuts in, though, as Will Middlebrooks has outperformed the 2012 version of Kevin Youkilis to this point as well. Both players have 72 plate appearances on the season, and starkly differing lines: Youk at .219/.292/.344, Middlebrooks at .275/.306/.580. Whether Youkilis comes back healthy and hitting or not, Middlebrooks' stint has helped ease the burden of the misfit outfielders while Ellsbury and Crawford work back to take their jobs, a feat Youkilis had trouble with as he dealt with his own injury issues.
Of course, the production of both Ryan Sweeney (.311/.343/.443) and Cody Ross (.271/.349/.534) has gone a long way towards keeping Boston fans sane while the starting outfielders are on the mend. Thanks to their early-season hitting, and the standard production of what remains of the core of Boston's lineup, the Red Sox have the second-best run differential in the AL East, rank second in the majors in scoring, and, more importantly thanks to their hitter-friendly home park, are third in the majors in the park- and league-adjusted True Average and OPS+.
Sweeney is likely to become the fourth outfielder when both Crawford and Ellsbury return, but that makes for formidable depth, and plenty of options both defensively and offensively late in games. It also means that the Byrds of the world will see far less of a baseball diamond than they have as of late, and for a Red Sox offense that's rolling in spite of he and his bench ilk, that's a good thing.