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August 21, 2009

Red Sox Woes Afield

When Does Defense Get Offensive?

by Marc Normandin

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A top-shelf defense can do some amazing things for a baseball team. Look at the Tampa Bay Rays in 2008, for a well-worn example. As we all know by now, in 2007 they were the worst defensive team of the modern era according to Defensive Efficiency, but the front office spent the offseason retooling in order to improve that one area of team performance, and they ended up in the World Series for the first time in their history. The Texas Rangers could turn out to be the 2009 version of the Rays, as last year they ranked lowest in Defensive Efficiency, which in combination with their home park made their starters far and away the least effective in all of baseball. This year they are sitting pretty at fifth in DER in the majors, and that reflects in the standings. They have an echo in the senior circuit-the Giants still can't hit, but their defense is among the league's best this year after sitting among the league's worst in 2008, and they are still a factor in the NL Wild Card race because of it.

Unlike the above examples, the Red Sox have headed in the opposite direction. Their front office is aware that defense is important, but knowing that is only half the battle, and it's showing on the field. The Sox ranked second in the majors in Defensive Efficiency in 2007, when they brought another World Series title home to Boston, and they ranked fifth in 2008, when they made it to the ALCS before falling to the Rays. In 2009, the Red Sox rank 29th, ahead of only the lowly Royals. Ranking directly ahead of the organization that's baseball equivalent of the kid who always gets picked last for kickball during gym is not a good thing.

Considering there was not that much turnover for the Red Sox lineup between 2008 and 2009, how could the defense have fallen this far? Today we will break things down by position and get an idea of just what these defensive issues have cost the Red Sox in the standings. For starters, the Sox' Defensive Efficiency in 2008 was .699, meaning they converted 70 percent of balls in play into outs. They also struck out 19.2 percent of all hitters faced, so they had no issues picking up outs. They have improved on their strikeouts a bit this year (thanks, Jon Lester) and are nearing 20 percent of all hitters faced, but are now converting just 67.8 percent of all balls in play into outs. While that may not seem huge, that two percent drop knocked them down roughly 25 spots in the rankings-two percent is a big deal when we're talking about thousands of at-bats, and it's caused the Sox to allow a .263 batting average against last year's .249 mark.

I'll be using Ultimate Zone Rating, converted into run values, as well as BP's own FRAA to gauge the changes in defensive value. UZR doesn't cover catchers, but we know things aren't going too well there, considering Jason Varitek has helped the Red Sox throw out fewer would-be basestealers than anyone else in the league. FRAA also has him at -1 this year against 2008's +4, so there's about a half-win shift in value.

Kevin Youkilis is one of the few defensive bright spots because he's been a few runs above average. UZR has him at +2.7 runs, but that's also split between first and third base. While he's been good enough at first (+5 FRAA), he's posted a Rate of 95 at third and picked up -2 FRAA there. The two systems agree on Youk's value pretty well here, but despite being above-average it's a step down from 2008 when he was worth about a half-win more via UZR. FRAA thought much more highly of his defense, and sees a drop from +23 to +3, basically two wins. That seems extreme though-I'm more inclined to believe the half-win drop in performance here.

At second, Dustin Pedroia has improved ever so slightly, going from +10 FRAA and +10.5 UZR in 2008, to +9 and +8.8 so far this year, meaning his final tallies should add up to something like or slightly better than his '08 marks. He's one of two players on defense with positive contributions in the one-win range on the entire team. Congratulations Dustin, you're part of the solution, not the problem.

Third base has not been a happy place for the Red Sox. Last year, while it was very clear that Mike Lowell was playing hurt, those problems were affecting his performance at the plate more than his defense. Sure, it hurt for him to go to his right, but he was still capable of that motion. This year, post-surgery, things have not gone as well, and he's essentially a one-legged third baseman. FRAA had him at +19 last year, while, UZR had him at +11.1. Both metrics agree that he has been awful in 2009, ranking him at -7 and -11 respectively. Lowell has cost the Sox one win against the average this year, and anywhere from two or three wins relative to 2008 defensively.

Did anyone check to see if Julio Lugo used a glove this year with Boston, or were we all too busy averting our eyes from every play that involved the shortstop? In 37 games played at short, Lugo cost the Sox -7 runs defensively. While UZR isn't split by team (Lugo is with the Cardinals now) it agrees with this severe rating, putting him at -11 for the season. Just like in 2008, when Lugo's replacement, Alex Cora, played average defense at short, his 2009 replacements have picked up the slack, at least defensively. Nick Green put up a -4 FRAA at short in 77 games there-UZR has him at +1.8 for the year, but that counts all his defensive innings (he's above-average at third and second) and Jed Lowrie put up +2.8 and zero according to UZR and FRAA respectively. All three players sucked the life out of the offense with every at-bat, and have cost the Sox far more in offensive wins than their defense can make up for. After shedding Lugo, the Sox picked up Alex Gonzalez, who is nowhere near as good as his flashy style makes him out to be, and is an even worse hitter than I imagine a blindfolded Lugo or Lowrie with one arm tied behind his back to be. This is the one position where offense is a bigger problem than defense, but even with Lugo's already being excused, the Sox at best break even on defense here.

The outfield has been a mess. I'm not sure what FRAA's deal with Jason Bay in 2009 is-after giving him -40 runs defensively in 2008, he's at +7 this year, which seems unlikely given UZR has him costing his teams at least one win (and closer to two) the past two seasons defensively. I'm much more comfortable with the consistency of UZR here when it comes to assessing Bay; by year's end he will have cost the Sox two wins with the glove, so despite his .300+ EqA, he's not the elite player many consider him to be. This may shock you, but according to both FRAA and UZR, Manny Ramirez was basically average defensively in 2008. He put up a -2.5 UZR for the year and was -1 with Boston according to FRAA, so despite the fact Manny's past D is the stuff of comedic legend, his 2008 was solid for the Sox, meaning Bay has cost this year relative to last.

FRAA and UZR are split on just how good J.D. Drew is-UZR likes him as a guy worth about a win, whereas FRAA thinks he's a few runs above average. Either way, he joins Pedroia and Youkilis as a positive contributor. Center field has not been as lucky, with Jacoby Ellsbury having some issues. Last year he was so good defensively that the Sox traded away Coco Crisp, thinking Ellsbury could handle the job all by his lonesome. While he excelled in center last year (and was even better in the corners) according to both UZR and FRAA, he's struggled to repeat that success. He's down from +21 FRAA to -12 this year, and from +16.5 to -11.1 via UZR. This could just be a one-year blip, but whether it is or not, it's hurting the Sox in the present. Anecdotally, Ellsbury doesn't seem to be as reckless defensively as he was last year-if he's concerned about his health, he should rein it in on the basepaths and keep the speed showcase for the outfield, but that's just my opinion on what I have seen. (If anyone has something to contribute on Ellsbury, please share in the comments.)

Taken in total, the Red Sox may have lost something like seven or eight wins' worth of value just on defense, relative to the 2008 club that fielded so well. Relative to just the average, they have lost 4-5 wins with the glove thanks to Lowell's limited range and movement after hip surgery, Bay's inept play in front of the Green Monster, and Ellsbury's sudden loss of value on defense, not to mention the fact that Coco Crisp is no longer around to help beef up the late-inning glove work in the outfield. If the defense was better, then John Smoltz (.390 BABIP) might still be on the Red Sox, Jon Lester and Josh Beckett's early issues would have been harder to notice, and Brad Penny (.326 BABIP, 4.57 FIP) would look like a credible fifth starter. Best (or worst, depending on your team of choice) of all, the Sox would most likely be in first in the AL East with a bit more cushion than their current Wild Card-leading status gives them.

As for how you start to fix this problem, the Sox have already started in by acquiring Victor Martinez to take some of the load off of Varitek and Lowell, and by showcasing Josh Reddick to the fan base. If Reddick's bat isn't as ready as his arm and range, then picking up someone like Matt Holliday rather than re-upping on Bay this winter would solve a lot of problems-Holliday would hit well in Fenway, and his glove would give them a multi-win upward swing. That's the future though, and it's a bit hypothetical-for now, the Sox defense is broken, and there isn't much they can do about it besides hope the rotation and offense can carry the load for the next two months.

Related Content:  Defense,  Boston Red Sox,  UZR,  FRAA

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