Boston Red Sox poor defense proving to be costly


There is plenty of blame to go around on this Boston Red Sox roster for the team’s disappointing start to the season. The pitching staff was atrocious in the early going, then the bats stopped hitting for nearly a month. While a frustrated fan base anguishes over whether the pitchers or the hitters are the biggest issue that needs to be fixed, an overlooked aspect continues to be their sloppy defense.

Take Sunday’s heartbreaking loss in Texas for example. Koji Uehara was trusted to protect a one-run lead in the 9th inning, but his failure to do so can’t be entirely blamed on him. The first batter that Uehara faced reached on an error by third baseman Pablo Sandoval to put the tying run on base. After recording two quick outs, manager John Farrell made the call to intentionally walk Prince Fielder. While we can debate the decision to put the winning run on base, Farrell at least had a reasonable explanation for it. Fielder has been among the best hitters in the league this year, so Farrell would rather take his chances with a pinch-hitter coming in cold off the bench instead of giving the opposing team’s best hitter a chance to beat them. That’s fair, it just didn’t work out.

More from Red Sox News

The reason why the Red Sox lost that game isn’t because of the decision to walk Fielder, but because of the defense. Despite that the only way that Josh Hamilton could beat them was with an extra-base hit, the Red Sox outfielders were aligned to play shallow. They played to try to prevent the tying run from scoring rather than playing no-doubles defense. Uehara hadn’t allowed a double all season to that point and Fielder hadn’t scored from first base on a double. So of course Hamilton ripped a line drive to left center field between two defenders that were hopeless to cut it off in time to keep Fielder from scoring the winning run.

The baffling defensive alignment in that situation was due to having a pair of converted infielders still trying to learn the outfield (you can also point fingers at the coaching staff for not correcting them). However, it never would have come to that if Sandoval hadn’t led off the inning committing an error – the team’s third of the game and second straight game committing three errors.

Boston’s defense has been sloppy lately, but they still rank in the middle of the pack this season with 31 errors in 51 games, which gives them a .984 fielding percentage that ranks 16th in the majors. That isn’t terrible, but error totals don’t tell you everything about a defense because it fails to factor in plays that should have been made that the defender never got to.

For this we can look to advanced statistics, such as Baseball Information Solutions’ Defensive Runs Saved. Boston is 23rd in the majors with -11 DRS this season, putting them well below average.

More from BoSox Injection

Hanley Ramirez was brought to town for his bat, but his glove is negating any value he provides offensively. Ramirez has been a butcher in the fielder, producing a major league-worst -11 DRS and he is tied for last in Total Zone Rating with -9. Ramirez leads the team with 12 home runs and 27 RBI, yet his defense has been so awful that he has produced a -0.3 WAR this season. Ramirez has never been considered a good defender, no matter what position he played, but he’s never produced a season with a negative WAR.

It’s not just Ramirez that has been a problem defensively. Sandoval has accounted for -5 DRS, Blake Swihart has -4 DRS despite playing in only 20 games and Xander Bogaerts is at -3 DRS. Even Gold Glove second baseman Dustin Pedroia is off to a rough start in the field with -3 DRS.

We know that pitching has been a problem for the Red Sox, but how much worse has it looked because of the poor defense behind them? FIP is a useful way to measure how a pitcher has performed based on factors that are in their control, such as strikeouts, walks and home runs. By eliminating the influence of the defense we find that each of the pitchers that started the season in the rotation have FIPs that are significantly better than their ERAs.

Outside of Clay Buchholz (9.25 K/9), the pitchers in this rotation have rather pedestrian strikeout rates and all of them have reputations of inducing ground balls at a high rate. That leaves them more vulnerable to the defense behind them, so having an infield defense that has under performed has hurt them more than it would most other pitchers.

The Red Sox have a lot of issues right now, but the defense may be the most damaging. If Boston can find a way to fix its leaky defense it will make the pitching staff look better. If the pitchers stop surrendering early leads, the offense will stop pressing. Too often have we seen this lineup deflated by the frustration of falling into an early hole that they are unable to climb out of.

It’s all connected. A lot needs to happen for the Red Sox to turn their season around, but it all starts with improving defensively.