We all know that the pitching for this Red Sox team is the giant, unmissable weak spot on the roster. Their offense is going to have frustrating days like it did on Saturday where Alex Cobb turned the clock back to 2014, but for the most part it’s a unit on which we can count to put up runs and give the team a chance to win. Simply put, the Red Sox are going to have to outscore teams if they are going to win this year. At least, that’s what the roster indicates when you look at it on paper.
Of course, while pitching is the overwhelming component of run prevention, it’s not everything. It’s certainly hard to keep your opponents from scoring when your pitching isn’t very good, but when you’re looking for an extra run here and there every night, you can look to your defense to get the job done. Certainly pitchers are more reliant on that defense getting the job done, too, as they don’t miss a whole lot of bats. That is the Red Sox pitching staff — and in fact that lack of missed bats is one of the reasons they aren’t very good — and they certainly need all the help they can get.
Before we get into the defense, we should look at just what we’re dealing with on this Red Sox pitching staff, because it is reminiscent of those Twins staffs from last decade and before that. For those without Broken Baseball Brain, those Minnesota teams were notorious for pitching to contact. This Red Sox staff doesn’t so much pitch to contact as much as they just aren’t good enough to strike batters out.
Nathan Eovaldi has absurd velocity, but somehow he’s never really developed a true out pitch. He’s not a disaster in the strikeout realm, but he’s shooting for something around an average rate for a starter. And he’s the best bat-misser (I don’t think that’s a term, but I’m going to roll with it) in the Red Sox rotation. Martín Pérez did set a career high in strikeout rate last year, with the Twins ironically enough. The issue is that career high was 18.3 percent while the league-average rate in 2019 was five percentage points higher than that. Ryan Weber’s career rate in a limited sample is a bit under 15 percent, and his Triple-A rate isn’t all that much higher. Brian Johnson’s career rate is 18.5 percent and it was 16 percent last year. Zack Godley has gotten strikeouts in the past, but last year his rate fell to 17.2 percent, and that was with a fairly significant amount of time in the bullpen.
And on and on it goes. Unless we get to the prospect pool on the depth chart — and they certainly would have their own issues even if the stuff is a bit more explosive — the Red Sox have exactly one pitcher who can reasonably be expected to even reach a 20 percent strikeout rate, never mind a league-average rate. To be clear, that alone is not a death knell for a pitcher. Striking batters out is the best way to get the job done, but you can create weak contact and make it easier for your defense. That said, even if you do create weak contact, though, you are taking things out of your hands. Any time you don’t strike a batter out (or walk them), you are leaving things up to your defense. Given how few strikeouts this Red Sox rotation is going to rack up this year, they are going to need their defense to step up consistently.
The good news is the outfield defense should be up to the task and then some. Even after losing Mookie Betts, who for all of his other qualities is also up there as one of the best all-around defensive outfielders in the world, the Red Sox still are going to be about as strong as anyone out on the grass. Two-thirds of the spots are still filled with Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi, with the former being among the elite in center field and the latter being one of the better left fielders in the game. Then, they brought in Kevin Pillar. His bat shouldn’t be in the lineup on a daily basis, but defensively he has long been right up there with Bradley among the best defensive center fielders in the game and he’s now going to be splitting time between right and center field. That just leaves Alex Verdugo, who again is not Mookie Betts but he is a plus defensive right fielder with a strong arm to boot.
So, yeah. Balls that get beyond the infield are going to be fine for Red Sox starting pitchers. Well, at least those that don’t end up clearing the fence. The issue then becomes with the infield defense. The Red Sox should have one spot where they don’t have to worry most nights, as Mitch Moreland is a strong defensive first baseman. That’s the least valuable position on the diamond, of course, but I’ve personally felt defense there is underrated and it’s better than not to have good defense there. Next to him, José Peraza is solid there, and while Michael Chavis is below-average the shift should be able to help him.
When we move over to the left side, however, we get to the portion of the roster that could take the Red Sox rotation from bad to unplayable, though not necessarily. Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers, jn my view at least, should be shooting for league-average defense. The former has been, by some metrics, roughly around that, though other metrics have put him among the worst defensive players in baseball. I think he’s a bit below the league-average mark, but is still generally fine there.
The bigger question to me comes down to Devers. We all know his short career to this point in the field has been a bit of a rollercoaster, coming up as a guy who looked like he’d be moved across the diamond sooner than later. He started last season still on that trajectory, but over the last few months of the year he started to turn things around in a big way. By the end of the year, he was playing like an average defensive player at the hot corner, and maybe even above that.
We’re only two games into this season so we certainly can’t make any grand judgements, but he’s made two errors already. The issue with Devers has never really been the athletic mechanics or any lack of physical ability, but just making poor decisions. That has been the case with his two errors this year as well, one with a poor throw and one on a misplay on a slow roller. We’ve seen him make both of these plays many times.
The Red Sox are going to give up a lot of runs this year no matter who is playing behind them, but with a playoff field of 16 teams the smallest changes can lead to large differences in their standing at the end of the year. One of those small changes can be the effect of the team’s defense, which is going to be under a spotlight this season with the entire rotation being below-average at missing bats. There will be a lot of balls in play, and the performance of the defense — and really the performance of the left side of the infield — could be the difference between sneaking into this huge playoff field or being one of the seven AL teams to miss the boat.