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The Red Sox Defense Is A Problem

At 30th out of 30 in Defensive Runs Saved, the makeshift middle of the field has not provided early returns.

Pittsburgh Pirates v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Opening Day was one week ago today, and while that is a very small sample in the grand scheme of things, there are still plenty of takeaways that can be drawn from this start. The Red Sox should be 1-5, and if not for one of the most shocking errors on an anticipated game-ending play in MLB history, they would be.

Speaking of bad defense, in our Preseason Predictions Roundtable I stated that the Red Sox defense up the middle (along with starting pitcher health risks) was my biggest concern with the team entering 2023. Decade-long shortstop mainstay Xander Bogaerts gave way to Enrique Hernandez, who had never started more than 17 games at Short in his career and is on the wrong side of 30. Hernandez’ previous position, centerfield, shifted over to 34-year-old Adam Duvall who had started 68 games there in his entire career. Second baseman Christian Arroyo, while playing a position he’s comfortable with, has not been the epitome of health either. Arroyo has never played more than 87 games in a single season and is taking the spot of Trevor Story for most, or all, of the 2023 season. If you’re looking for infield depth, newcomer Adalberto Mondesi quietly shifted over to the 60-day IL before Opening Day, which will keep him out until the final days of May.

Defensive metrics are not always the easiest to understand, nor do they always lead to direct conclusions about a player or team’s defense. Some of the various ratings can be subjective, there are a few different rating systems, and they all have abbreviations that no normal human being should have taking up space in their brain. UZR, OAA, DRS, WTF, etc. There has not been enough of a sample in 2023 for Statcast to populate Outs Above Average (OAA), so DRS will have to do. In short, DRS takes a batted ball that is hit to a specific location on the field at a specific speed and determines a likelihood that this play should be made. The more unlikely the play is to be made, the more positive the score if the defender makes the play, and vice versa on the negative side. Any other FAQs can be answered here at Fielding Bible (which also populates on Fangraphs).

These metrics can be useful, however. For example, if the Red Sox are 30th out of 30 teams in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), I would conclude that this is not good. Entering play on Wednesday, that’s where the Red Sox stood and, yeah, small sample and all but it isn’t even close. At a Team DRS of negative-9, Boston is 3 runs behind the 29th place defensive team (Oakland, -6). If we narrow it down to the three players up the middle, they themselves are a negative-4 DRS combined in the early going.

Fangraphs | DRS

The concern with fielders playing away from their most confident position is with inexperience and with a lack of range, rarely reflected on the surface with errors, putouts, and assists. When the Red Sox largely ignored defense in 2021, the result was a pitching staff who allowed a .323 batting average on balls in play (BABIP), a full 18 points higher than the second place team. I assumed this would be recent enough in this current administration’s brains to not allow that to happen again. It was difficult to look at this defense in the preseason without thinking it looks like they’re piecemealing it together. This surely wasn’t the Plan A defensive approach when entering the Winter Meetings.

Next, the running game. After a double steal executed by Pittsburgh on Wednesday, opponents are 14-for-14 against Boston this season. All 14 of these have occurred in the 27 innings that Reese McGuire was behind the plate, while there have been zero steal attempts in the 27 innings that Connor Wong has been behind the plate. With McGuire, most of these steals have been on the pitcher, but they also have come almost unanimously without a throw. McGuire also allowed a very damaging passed ball on a strikeout during Tuesday’s game with two outs and no one on base. Ji Hwan Bae homered as the next batter, giving Pittsburgh a 2-1 lead that they never relinquished.

The stolen bases have been a joint effort between the pitchers. It feels like a lack of preparation for the season’s new rules. And if you had any further questions about the defensive prep for this season, watch these ten seconds from Wednesday that nearly ended with Rafael Devers on the 60-day Injured List.

I see some subpar DRS’s on that play. A microcosm of a lifeless performance over the past three days at Fenway Park against the lowly Pittsburgh Pirates. Alex Cora needs to find some signs of life from this team in Detroit (2-4) this weekend, before heading into a four-game set against the Rays (6-0) who are taking no prisoners at this time. Otherwise, expect the same empty Fenway that we saw on Wednesday over the next six months.