Will Middlebrooks is a good start to fixing the team's defensive woes, but he's just one player out of nine. (Photo by Jim Rogash/Getty Images)
With the bullpen meltdowns, early exits for starting pitchers, and the current theme of blaming all of the team's offensive woes on Adrian Gonzalez, little attention has been paid to another area in which the Red Sox have struggled. Defensively, this is the weakest the Sox have been since 2009, when they finished 29th in the majors in Defensive Efficiency.
Boston is currently converting 69.3 percent of balls in play into outs. (For context: in 2011 the league-leading Rays converted 73.5 percent, while the eighth-ranked Sox were at 71.5 percent.) The difference between 2009 and 2012, when they converted even fewer (69.1 percent), is the pitching. In 2009, Boston's staff ranked seventh in the majors in punch outs, allowed the 10th-fewest walks in the league, and gave up the 12th-fewest homers. They also had the seventh-fewest number of hitters reach on an error -- the 2009 Red Sox weren't sloppy, they just didn't have any range whatsoever.
That last bit is the only thing the 2012 Red Sox defense has in common with the 2009 one, in terms of how hitters are getting on. Just seven batters have reached via error, which sounds like a lot this early on, but the Giants -- who have seen 22 runners reach on error already -- would surely trade places. Boston has allowed the third-most homers, the sixth-most walks, and are in the middle of the pack for strikeouts. The defense isn't the reason the team isn't doing well, but it's certainly not helping to support a pitching staff that could use a hand.
There are some understandable excuses to be had. Jacoby Ellsbury has missed all but seven games in center field, forcing both Cody Ross and Jason Repko to spend time in center instead, at least until Marlon Byrd came over in a trade. Kevin Youkilis has been dealing with a back injury this year, but he's also 33 years old and bears the scars of injuries that have shortened each of his last six years in the majors. He's not the defender he once was, and it's apparent even without a set of scout's eyes.
Mike Aviles is solid at short, but his aggressive style of play occasionally causes an errant throw or the interrupting of someone else's defensive plays. Neither Jarrod Saltalamacchia nor Kelly Shoppach are the equal of Jason Varitek behind the plate -- this isn't a knock on their games in general, as they hit enough to make up for it. But it's a fact that they aren't in the same league defensively. Ross is a solid defender, but he has trouble going back on the ball. In Fenway Park, where the outfield is all angles and fun shapes, that can be problematic. Darnell McDonald is passable in left, but he's no Carl Crawford out there (and neither is Ross when it's time to suit up in left).
It's difficult to judge how well pitchers defend, but in the early goings, there have been quite a few balls deflected by the feet and hands of pitchers that likely could have been outs, and those moments have resulted in extra runners and runs. Felix Doubront slowed Middlebrooks down on a grounder to third on Monday. Scott Atchison's foot turned an inning-ending double play into a rally against the Twins. Clay Buchholz, while it's more reactionary and instinctive than can be helped, has put himself in the way more than once already, too. It's just piling on to a defense that already has trouble on its own.
That leaves Boston with just two consistently strong defenders on the roster this year, although Byrd is doing his best to make it three until Ellsbury returns. Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez are holding down the fort in the infield, but that's just two positions out of eight. Will Middlebrooks is an improvement over Youkilis, but he's been up for less than a week, and might not be a permanent solution just yet.
The returns of Ellsbury and Crawford will also ease the burden, and the presence of Byrd on the roster means the Red Sox are guaranteed a capable outfield glove off of the bench later in the year. Nick Punto hasn't endeared himself to Red Sox fans with his glove yet, but with more time, his abilities afield will overshadow the dropped pop-ups. Behind the plate? Well, let's hope that Salty and Shoppach keep hitting.
Until that time, the defense will likely continue to struggle, although the product on the field today is better than the iteration of a few weeks ago. With the way the rotation is going, the defense needs to be better, though; that, or the rotation needs to start pitching like it's able. A little of both would go a long way.