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How important is outfield defense to the Red Sox?

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It’s a key question for the offseason

MLB: Detroit Tigers at Boston Red Sox Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports

The Red Sox have one of the most exciting young outfields in baseball, and they could theoretically have that group together for at least the next three years. The Red Sox are also connected to the two biggest names available this offseason in J.D. Martinez and Giancarlo Stanton, both of whom are outfielders. It goes without saying that the hitting prowess those two represent are the reason they are major targets for Boston, not their defense. The Red Sox offense is coming off a massively disappointing year, and clearly some reinforcements are needed. Plus, depending on what else happens for the Red Sox this winter, either player could easily be slotted in at designated hitter and the Killer B’s outfield could stick around. No harm, no foul.

Of course, if they do end up with either Stanton or Martinez, there is a decent chance that one of the current outfielders will have to be moved. Based on early chatter from reporters, the Red Sox seem dead set on grabbing a new first baseman. They’ve already been connected to Eric Hosmer, Logan Morrison and Carlos Santana. It wouldn’t shock me at all to hear them connected to Lucas Duda and/or Yonder Alonso at some point, either. Hanley Ramirez could be ready to play first base on a regular basis again in 2018 — and Dave Dombrowski said he’d be able to — but it’s hard to count on that at this point. So, if they bring in another first baseman, that would push Ramirez to either the DH spot or the bench. I know many would like the latter to be the case, but I can’t see it. I’d assume Ramirez would be the DH, with Stanton or Martinez joining the outfield.

Arizona Diamondbacks v New York Mets Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images

In this scenario, Jackie Bradley Jr. would almost certainly be the outfielder to go, and Boston’s defense in the outfield would undeniably get significantly worse. That’s not to say the improvement they’d see from the offense wouldn’t be worth it, but it’s worth noting that the Red Sox are a team that is used to having an elite outfield defense, and it’s particularly important with this roster.

For all of the issues with Boston’s offense in 2017 — and there were some major issues — this team was still able to make it to the postseason on the back of its run prevention. Most of the credit here has gone to the pitchers, and deservedly so. However, the defense certainly played a role, too, and specifically the outfield defense. While the infield defense was....fine, it was nothing compared to what happened beyond the dirt. The Red Sox know how special their outfield defense is, too, and they’ve built a pitching staff that will utilize it.

You see, the Red Sox are built around a staff full of flyball pitchers. Last season, according to Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics, Boston’s pitchers had the third-lowest groundball rate in all of baseball along with the fifth-highest flyball rate. Looking at the staff, that is not likely to change in 2018. Chris Sale misses a ton of bats, but when he does allow contact it’s often in the air. The same can be said for Craig Kimbrel in the bullpen. Rick Porcello still has a groundballer reputation, but he’s a flyball pitcher these days. Among the 105 pitchers with at least 130 innings, only ten allowed flyballs more often than Eduardo Rodriguez. David Price is, at best, a neutral pitcher. Drew Pomeranz has started allowing a lot more flyballs since coming to Boston. It’s part of their strategy, and that’s a smart strategy when the outfield consists of three guys who can get to just about anything humanly possible.

The question is: How important is it that things stay this way? Martinez, for as great of a hitter as he is, is a straight-up bad defensive outfielder. That can be hidden in Fenway’s left field, but there are still 81 other games to be played. Stanton isn’t nearly as bad, and presumably he’d move over to left with Benintendi shifting to center, but it would still be a downgrade in at least center field, and likely in left field as well.

The good news is that the Red Sox pitching staff should be able to survive. Sale is going to be great regardless of who is playing behind him. Price has been mostly effective over the last couple of years, and should continue to be as long as he’s healthy. The same can be said of Pomeranz and Kimbrel. Guys like Rodriguez and Porcello could suffer a bit, and the run prevention as a whole would certainly suffer, but the pitching still carries that portion of the game. When you factor in how much better the offense would be with one of those two outfielders plus another addition at first base, the pieces are there for this to be an overall net gain, even if it would hurt to break up the Killer B’s.