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How will the Red Sox handle third base?

The Red Sox have three mediocre options for third base. How will it shake out in October?

MLB: Arizona Diamondbacks at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox are going to the playoffs, and that is an undeniably cool thing. Even better, they aren’t going to have to play in the Wild Card game, which is much more fun when you aren’t emotionally invested. As they head towards the start of the ALDS next Thursday, most of the major decisions are already made. The rotation is clear, with just the order to decide. The lineup is mostly set too, as it’s been one of the best in baseball. However, third base poses something of a problem for John Farrell and the Red Sox, and it’s one decision that needs to be made before they take the field for their first postseason game of 2016.

While Travis Shaw got off to a red-hot start and made John Farrell look like a genius for handing him the job over Pablo Sandoval in the spring, it’s been a totally different story in the second half. Shaw has been nonexistent since the break, and it shows in the team’s production at the hot corner. As a group, Boston third basemen have a 60 wRC+ since teams reconvened after the All-Star Game. That means they have been 40 percent worse than a league-average hitter, which happens to be the worst mark in all of baseball, five points below the Tigers. Although it’s not as extreme as it was just ten or fifteen years ago, third base is still expected to a big-time offensive position. In short, this is very bad, and also not good for the Red Sox.

It’s easy to say that Shaw has played himself out of the position and that Farrell can’t possibly put him in a playoff lineup. That may very well be true, too! However, it’s not like they have a litany of better options. Brock Holt and Aaron Hill can play the position, but they have their own issues. Let’s take a look at all three options and see what, if anything, they bring to the table.

Travis Shaw

We’ll start with Shaw since he’s spent the most time at the position, even if he’s been losing that grip lately. As I said, it’s been a tale of two halves for the 26-year-old. More specifically, it was a tale of two months, as he absolutely demolished the ball in April and May. To wit, Shaw boasted an .866 OPS when the calendar flipped to June. Since that time, though, he’s posted an OPS of .640, which is just slightly better than what Jose Iglesias has posted over the entire season. In addition to the struggles since June, Shaw has been atrocious against left-handed pitching, posting a .616 OPS against southpaws. This was something of an issue for him even when he was at his best, albeit not to the same extent.

On the other hand, Shaw’s defense has been a pleasant surprise. I can only speak for myself, but my personal expectations for his glove-work at the hot corner coming into the year were low, to say the least. Fangraphs, Baseball-Reference and Baseball Prospectus have all rated his defensive contributions positively, though. I’m as skeptical as anyone on defensive metrics, but even the eye test says he’s at least an average third baseman. Unfortunately, this isn’t really enough to outweigh his anemic performance at the plate. He did show a short uptick when Yoan Moncada threatened to take over, but that didn’t last and hasn’t carried over since Holt has emerged.

Detroit Tigers v Boston Red Sox Photo by Rich Gagnon/Getty Images

Brock Holt

Speaking of Holt, the utility player once again finds himself thrust into a position value. We all acknowledge that his most valuable role is one in which he can fill in for anyone, but the hard truth is that this is a tough goal to pull off for a full season. Eventually, holes open up and someone with his versatility often emerges as the best option. Now, Holt hasn’t exactly been an offensive juggernaut this year, but he’s come alive lately. Arbitrary Endpoint Alert: Since the middle of August, Holt has posted an .827 OPS in 77 plate appearances. Is that the most predictive of statistics? Of course not. When he is in the type of low-level competition such as this, though, any small victory counts. For a broader look, he’s shown himself to be a roughly league-average hitter through his career, and that is a safer profile than one they can get from Shaw.

Of course, Holt has his negatives, too. For one, his defense at third base isn’t great. Now, he’s certainly passable and this isn’t enough to keep him off the hot corner if he’s the best option, but it’s also not his best position. That is worth considering in a postseason series where every run could count. In addition, Holt has also been atrocious against lefties this year with an almost unfathomable .367 OPS in a limited sample. For what it’s worth, he hasn’t shown any extreme splits over the course of his career.

Aaron Hill

Hill was brought in to be something of a stabilizing force in the event Shaw has turned into what he is right now. He was supposed to be the Holt-type, providing a higher floor with a more limited ceiling. When Boston acquired him, he was putting together a solid campaign in Milwaukee with a .780 OPS and a 108 OPS+. Things have obviously gone differently in Boston, as he’s OPS’d just .591 since the deal. Although these numbers obviously include his time with the Brewers, he has been an above-average performer against lefties this year, which is another reason he was brought in. His career trends suggest that should be a role he can play in, although it hasn’t totally translated in his time here.

The way I see it, there aren’t a ton of good options here. All things considered, a Holt/Hill platoon is probably the best way to start things out. When the opponent throws a lefty out, Hill simply provides the safer profile. With the loaded lineup the Red Sox have, I’d rather have that since the high upside shouldn’t be as necessary. It’s more important to keep the batting order churning. Having another lefty in Shaw on the bench could prove valuable, though. It gives the team an opportunity to use Hill as a pinch hitter earlier in games if the opponent brings in a left-handed reliever to face Holt in the fifth or sixth inning. In this case, they can then pinch hit for Hill later in the game if/when he’s faced with batting against a tough righty.

There’s no real ideal way for this to play out unless one of the three really breaks out in the middle of the postseason. Obviously, baseball is weird enough that this is a real possibility. However, even if this doesn’t work out, the sheer quantity of options gives Farrell plenty of opportunities to play matchups early in the game to try and make the best out of a bad situation.