The Red Sox, by all accounts, are focusing all of their offseason efforts on finding a new power bat to slide right into the middle of the lineup. Obviously, nothing has happened yet, but this has always been the inevitable course of events for the Red Sox and it’s absolutely what they should be focusing on. There are some other holes to be filled and I’d expect some depth pieces to be added late in the winter, but they need to make their big splash at some point. Even after adding a big bat and factoring in expected regression to the mean from some underperforming players last year, Boston’s strength should remain their pitching staff. Chris Sale, David Price and Drew Pomeranz have a chance to form an intimidating top three in the rotation along with upside in the back of the rotation and in the late innings. The Red Sox offense needs to improve, but run prevention is still this team’s path to the postseason.
Of course, as good as their pitching staff may be it is not the only factor in run prevention. In addition to the pitchers you also need some guys who can play a little defense behind them. The Red Sox will have no issue in this respect in the outfield as their starting three outfielders (assuming the Killer B’s stick around for 2018, which I expect they will) make up arguably the best defensive outfield in all of baseball. Pitchers will have elite help in the grass. On the other hand, the story may be a little different on the dirt.
As we look at the Red Sox roster as it stands right now, there is some potential for Boston’s infield to be pretty rough with the glove. In fact, they could be safely below average at all four spots. Rafael Devers showed some impressive tools at third base, but there were also too many rookie mistakes. I think there is some improvement on the horizon for the young third baseman, but he has quite a ways to go if he wants to even get to an average level. Xander Bogaerts will be next to him, and while I think some are probably a bit too low on his defense there are undeniably real issues here. His range isn’t what we’d hoped it would develop into, and he still makes dumb mistakes here and there. Over at first base, it is looking like a real possibility that Hanley Ramirez will be manning the position. I’ve said before that I believe he was better than he was given credit for in 2016, and I stand by that. However, that was also two years ago and even then he was simply average. It wouldn’t be shocking to see him be safely below-average in 2018. Second base is the real wildcard. Deven Marrero and Tzu-Wei Lin would provide strong defense, but Marco Hernandez or Eduardo Nuñez (who the Red Sox are interested in re-signing) would provide more offense while taking away from the defense. Either way, there’s a decent chance the Red Sox will be below-average at three of the four infield spots.
So, yeah, that’s not great! The question then becomes whether or not the Red Sox should look at this information and have it change the course of their offseason. Specifically, that would probably mean forgoing someone like J.D. Martinez and focusing on a first baseman like Eric Hosmer and Carlos Santana. I will say that the value of a stable and above-average first baseman can be underrated for an infield as a whole and that both guys would be defensive upgrades over Ramirez. That being said, the Red Sox aren’t in a position to value infield defense over doing what is best for the lineup.
I think I would probably say this for most every team in the league, but this Red Sox team in particular is one that can worry a little less than normal about infield defense. The reason is that their pitching staff is not one that is going to challenge the infield all that often. Last year, the Red Sox won the division on the back of run prevention and did so with a bad infield defense. According to Baseball Prospectus’ defense efficiency numbers, the Red Sox were the fourth-worst team against ground balls. They were able to stay so effective because the pitching staff doesn’t allow ground balls. Stick with BP’s numbers, Boston had the third-lowest ground ball rate in baseball in 2017 and the highest fly ball rate. With the same pitching staff largely coming back for 2018, the same trends should continue.
None of this is to say the Red Sox shouldn’t work to improve things in this area. They should be looking to improve wherever possible at all times. It’s just saying it shouldn’t be tackled with outside help. Instead, the focus should be on helping the left side of the infield. Both Bogaerts and Devers have the tools to be better than they showed defensively last year, and perhaps a new coaching staff can help smooth things out. It’s hard to imagine someone doing a better job at this than Brian Butterfield, but sometimes simply having new voices can lead to better results. Hopefully, that is the case for Bogaerts and Devers. If the Red Sox are going to get where they want to go in 2018, run prevention is the path to get there. Fortunately, they have a fly ball-heavy pitching staff because the infield defense doesn’t match the outfield’s.