Although defense is one of the more mundane baseball topics, it can have the potential to make or break a team. Seven of the top eight teams in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) made the playoffs in 2020, and both the Rays and Dodgers found themselves in the top five in the category. Despite this, the Red Sox’s lackluster defense has surprisingly been one of the least-talked about aspects of the team.
To put it lightly, the Sox’ defense stunk last year. They finished second to last in Defensive Efficiency, which tracks the percentage of balls in play converted into outs, and ranked 20th in DRS. A lot of blame for the team’s dismal performance was placed on the team’s rotation/bullpen without taking defense into account. I’m definitely not here to defend last year’s pitching because that would be an impossible task, but it’s short-sighted to not see the kind of impact defense can have.
I wrote an article a couple of years ago that contrasted Chris Sale’s 2019 season to Justin Verlander’s. Despite both pitchers having had strikingly similar numbers, Verlander was being talked about as a Cy Young candidate and Chris Sale was far from any of those discussions. A main difference was the Astros had one of the best defenses in the league while the Sox had one of the worst. Both Sale and Verlander finished with almost the exact same FIP, but Sale’s ERA was 2 runs higher than Verlander’s.
The difference between FIP and ERA can be very telling about the effect a defense is having. There’s a reason FIP standing for Fielding Independent Pitching. On an individual level there are other factors at play and it can become a bit more nuances, but on a team level, if a team’s FIP is significantly lower than their ERA, that team’s defense is likely holding back its pitchers. In 2020, twelve teams held a FIP lower than their ERA. Of those twelve, just one was a playoff team. If the Red Sox want to contend anytime soon, improving the defense will have to be a priority. So, where do they start?
The main culprits are on the left side of the infield. Despite their outstanding offensive displays, Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers have largely been anywhere from kind of bad to disastrous on the other side of the ball. Using DRS, since 2016 Bogaerts has been the worst defensive shortstop in the league and Devers has been the worst defensive third basemen in the league. That’s just one metric, but it does paint a picture that makes it seem impossible to have them both playing on the same side of the infield. Yet here we are.
Now obviously, making changes isn’t as easy as it sounds. Devers and Bogaerts have been wildly productive offensively, and it would be absurd to suggest sitting either of them at any time. The Red Sox’ 2021 lineup seems set for now, but adjustments might need to be made in 2022 if this trend continues. The shortstop market for that year is loaded, and the Sox may look to sign someone like Trevor Story and move Bogaerts back to third base. Devers would then be moved to first, where him and Triston Casas could swap back and forth between 1B and DH. Talk about a fun one-two punch for years to come.
At this point we’re just bouncing ideas off the wall, but the Red Sox will need to make defensive upgrades sooner rather than later. Factoring in the likely loss of Jackie Bradley Jr. to an already-weak infield has me worried, despite my faith in Alex Verdugo. As evidenced many times above, it’s tough to make the playoffs with a lackluster defense. After 2020’s pitching display, I’d like to give our staff and bullpen as much help as they can get.