Yesterday, Alex Speier of The Globe wrote a column addressing the red sox defensive woes in the second half of the year. In it, he talks about some of the trends that have almost certainly contributed to the Red Sox slide. The 10-1 loss to the Rangers was bad, but okay, it was a sloppy game and everyone has those. What Speier really gets into is how terrible the loss of Arroyo at second has really been, and how moving J.D. into left field to get Schwarber's bat into the lineup has made their outfield defense a disaster. I'll let you read the column for more on all that.
What I want to look at today is just how bad this team is defensively and where an upgrade may be incoming. Let's go position by position and see what stinks the worst. I'm going to review each position and the primary contributors there, and assign a grade from F- to A+.
It's mainly been Vazquez and Plawecki behind the dish, and the returns have been okay. Vazquez is a reputational defensive star, but that no longer seems to be the case. Through his first five season, Vazquez graded out as well above average per Fangraphs Defensive Runs metric but this year he's sitting right around four. For some context, Vazquez had never posted fewer than 8.3, and that was in the pandemic shortened season.
What's been hurting him this year? Well, Vazquez is now 30 and doesn't exactly have the frame of an elite athlete, even for a catcher, but it's more than that. His framing, which has always been well above average, is way down. Baseball Prospectus has him at just 2.5 framing runs (basically a measure of stolen strikes for his pitchers). His framing has been in decline since 2019, and when you aren't elite at anything else behind the plate — Vazquez grades out as average to below average on almost every metric there is — you need to steals strikes.
Is part of this on the pitching staff? For sure. It's easier to frame up better pitchers, and much easier to frame up reputational strike throwers. But it's not like the pitching staff has been bad, they've swung between okay and pretty good all year, and with Richards and Perez banished to long relief, the starting rotation has actually been really good during the recent skid.
Grade: C. Vazquez has a club option for 2022 that I think will be picked up, but with his bat and glove now lagging behind, it's hard to imagine the Sox bring him back long term.
This has been the black hole for Boston. Bobby Dalbec, Marwin Gonzalez, Danny Santana, Franchy Cordero and the now traded Michael Chavis all played at least 50 innings at first, and none of them have done a single redeeming thing there defensively. They've been miserable offensively, too, but that's been talked to death.
Dalbec has been the primary first base option, and he's not been anything approaching serviceable. He routinely whiffs when picking balls out of the dirt that should at very least be knocked down, and I've started to notice that he has very little idea where he should be going on bunt and relay coverage. What's so surprising is that I had Bobby as a potential above average defender over at first. His footwork and frame precluded him from playing third at the big league level, but I thought his hands would play at first. So far, they haven't.
His numbers tell a similar story. -9.6 defensive runs per Fangraphs, and well below average per DRS (-9) and UZR (-3.6).
As for the rest, well hoo boy. Marwin was released last week, partly because of the defensive issues at first and elsewhere. Danny Santana has been fringe average, but the sample isn't big enough to say much else. Franchy has played above seven games worth of innings over there and has been just okay outside of some shoulda had it type plays on pop ups. Chavis was pretty brutal as well, grading out poorly in all metrics and not passing the sniff test, either.
Grade: F. First base defense isn't a problem until it is. Devers and Bogaerts are both prone to low throws and not having a Mitch Moreland type to bail them out has impacted the entire infield defense. Expect Bloom to address this in the offseason, as first base has been a net negative on offense as well. Contending teams can't run out multiple replacement level players at first. I don't think Shaw fixes this long term, short term either.
Christian Arroyo has been something of a revelation this season, though injuries and other storylines have buried it somewhat. Across his 50 games played, Arroyo has not only slashed an impressive .271/.327/.465 — good for a 114 wRC+ — he's been a really good defender. Four defensive runs saved, above average UZR, and outs above average has him as perfectly average. Since he went down, Kiké has been the main replacement and while I always cut the utility guys some slack, he's not been good. -3 OAA, below average UZR at second. He's been very good in centre, but it may be time to look at a more quality back up to let Kiké move around to the positions he excels at.
Grade: C-. The grade should probably be higher, but more than half the innings have been played by average or worse defenders. If Arroyo's defense is for real and he continues to hit, I don't expect the front office will rush to make an upgrade here.
Ah, the curious case of Rafael Devers' defense. By OAA, Raffy is solidly piss poor at -8. By DRS, he's rather shit at -4. Then by UZR, he's merely neutral. After a surprising defensive performance in 2019, Raffy has once again fallen off a cliff. He's got a cannon for an arm, but he struggles to find his feet when making plays and if he's not on the run, he's spiking it at the first baseman's feet.
Third base is not traditionally somewhere you're expecting great defense, especially when the player in question is running a 137 wRC+ and having a career year, but you'd like some stability there. What's frustrating with Raffy, and Eck has pointed this out a couple of times, is that he'll make an error and it eats him alive for weeks. I've long been on the move Raffy to first bus, where you can theoretically hide him a little more. The problem with that of course is that it kneecaps his defensive value all together, as his primary skill is his arm.
If Raffy wasn't hitting, I'd be inclined to be harder on him, but the truth is that when he had a competent first baseman he looked way better. Average to slightly below average defense at third, when the trade off is one of the 25 best hitter sin baseball is passable.
Grade: C+. I know, I'm playing favourites here. Ideally, Raffy could DH more or play some first base, but 1) there's no great options to play third, 2) there's already a logjam at DH and 3) third base is not a premium position of concern defensively.
Ah, Xander. Xander, my tremendously strong nephew. One of the best hitters in baseball and the pulse of the Red Sox, having grown up winning titles and learning from the Red Sox greats of the previous generation. I've written about Bogey being slept on as a top four to five shortstop, but most of his value is coming from his bat. You have to reach and squint and make all sorts of concessions to see him as a plus defender.
There's disagreement on whether or not Bogey is a bad shortstop or a good shortstop. OAA has him way below average, and DRS has him at -10 for the year. And yet, Fangraphs Def metric — which measures fielding runs plus positional value — actually has him at 5.0, which has him well above average. Most of that value is coming from the fact Bogaerts is a premium offensive player playing a premium position with a relatively high degree of competence.
There is no arguing, Bogey has his flaws in the field. His range is suspect, his throws can be a little errant. He's not a supreme athlete, taking away hits or anything like that. But Bogaerts is steady, and I don't think anyone is going to successfully argue that his defense is sinking the team. And like Raffy, you give a .900 OPS guy a little more slack.
Grade: B-. Watching Bogaerts play shortstop and then looking at the numbers are two totally different experiences. He looks fine, but then Statcast tells us he's mediocre at best. I'm inclined to believe my eyes and say that Bogey is a steady defender with some issues, but competence at short is underrated.
I was expecting to see a disaster here, and while there is some evidence to suggest that J.D being in left is a disaster for the defense (see Speier's column for more on that), I see no such disaster. J.D. is not a good left fielder, but he's largely fine. Especially when he's only being asked to cover Fenway's left field. Think about it, J.D.'s main flaw defensively is that he's a great lumbering man who can't run. Left field at Fenway requires little in the way of running, and to be frank, the wall is more helpful than harmful. Yes, balls are going to hit it and squirt away, but it generally means a home run has been turned into a single or double, which is a net positive outcome.
J.D., Verdugo, and Franchy all grade out as being average by OAA, UZR and Def. Verdugo specifically has been good in left, using the wall to his advantage and doing well to get the ball in quickly. I know people are killing Cora for the current alignment, with J.D. in left most days, but I don't see what else there is to do. The real problem with this is that it moves Verdugo to centre, with Kiké at second, and that is a problem.
Grade: C. Left field hasn't really hurt the Sox this year, but they haven't exactly stolen any wins either.
As I said earlier, Kiké grades out as an elite centre fielder thanks mainly to his arm (4.4 throwing runs) and range (+4% success rate added). The injury to Arroyo has pushed Kiké to second, where he's floundered, and moved a combination of Duran and Verdugo to centre, which has been booty butt cheeks. Verdugo has profiled as a corner outfielder since he was a prospect, lacking both the instincts and foot speed to play centre, and while Duran has elite speed he has even worse instincts and it ends being a wash. Duran has graded as either neutral or bad depending on the metric you use, but just by looking I see someone who is not reading the ball off the bat. With Verdugo, he's best in left where his below average arm doesn't hurt him and his lack of speed doesn't cost him.
Grade: B+. Kiké has been outstanding for the Sox, and when Arroyo is back I suspect Cora will do whatever he has to get him back there. Expect Verdugo to lose some playing time, as his bat doesn't warrant exposing the team to his defense, and I wouldn't be shocked if Duran is in AAA before the end of the month.
Hunter Renfroe has been good! There's not a ton else to say. His arm alone makes him an above average right fielder, and he's shown that he can run down some balls out there in Fenway's notoriously big right field. OAA has him as average, but that's not taking into account his arm.
Renfroe is having a career year and is likely looking at a bit of a payday because of it. He's arb eligible, but I suspect Bloom will buy out those remaining arb years if the price is right.
Grade: B-. Renfroe has been the primary right fielder and has done a good job. He's made a couple of boneheaded plays on rollers, but he's more than compensated with his big arm.
You'll notice that the very best defenders on this team are still deeply flawed. Kiké is the only guy who is playing at an elite level, but his flexibility is actually hurting him now as he's stuck filling in at second. I think defense is overrated as a concept, but competent defense is vital. Your first baseman cannot be this bad. Pick one or two, for shits sake, Bobby.
I also think it's worth noting that the championship in '18 featured JBJ, Mookie, Mitch Moreland, and the best version of Vazquez behind the dish, with Sandy to spell him. Defense doesn't matter until it does, and when you're operating like the Red Sox are — trying to find wins in the margins — it really starts to matter. Remember how the Sox finished the final game against the Astros? Benny's sliding grab. How many runs did JBJ save for the pitching staff during his tenure?
That's not to say that it would have been right to pony up and pay JBJ a fortune. He's a notoriously streaky hitter and is strikeout prone on top of it. All I'm suggesting is that the front office look to improve the defense by getting some more sure handed help.