Red Sox defense has shown positive and negative signs

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 15: Rafael Devers
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 15: Rafael Devers /

Has the Red Sox defense regressed in 2018? There are positives and negatives in the early analytics of the Red Sox defense – especially at third base.

Are you a believer in defensive metrics? As the process has become more refined I have grudgingly accepted that there is considerable validity to the process. This certainly does not mean that my eyes deceive me when I see a bonehead play that would embarrass a tee ball player.

Lost in the elixir of a surge of victories is the Boston Red Sox defense. The season is still in its infant stages and that certainly applies to statistics. Defensive statistics are quite fluid as the season progresses. An injury can impact a player’s defensive performance as noted by Dustin Pedroia in 2017.

Last season, Boston had the top-ranked defensive team in the American League according to FanGraphs. I happen to rely extensively on the blanket Ultimate Zone Rating (UZR) in which Boston finished second in 2017 with a team 22.1 UZR based on analysis of information synthesized by Baseball Information Solutions. This season, Boston has a -1.8 UZR for tenth place in the American league through April 18.

In 2017, much of Boston’s defensive magic was related to the outfield, particularly Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley. The Red Sox in 2017 had a team total of 68 Defensive Runs Saved (DRS) and Betts alone contributed 31 DRS and Bradley added an additional 10. That skewered a team total that was best described as collectively ordinary in the infield.

The other position of note in 2017 was catcher where Boston was ranked first in the American League. In the defensive glossary for catching is the disclaimer that the system is “far from perfect” regarding catching analysis.

There are two positions of note that have a correlation to 2017. The first is third base and Rafael Devers. Devers was a disaster at third last season. Error-prone and poor decisions that were questionable and that was packaged with inconsistent range and an arm that could be perilous to fans in the first base box seats. Devers finished with 14 errors and a -4.6 UZR in 507.2 innings.

More from BoSox Injection

Manager Alex Cora and his staff pledged on the sacred memory of Frank Malzone to get some measure of improvement from Devers. So far, the early results are promising. In 150 innings (through April 18), Devers has made three errors, but his 0.8 UZR is marked improvement. If this trend continues memories of a potential Butch Hobson redux may be purged from the Red Sox Nation collective memories.  I am ready to beg forgiveness for my harsh criticism.

The second area is catcher. The Red Sox are now ranked 14th in the American League in catching compared to 2017 where they were a solid number one. Christian Vazquez and Sandy Leon are pitching a shutout in stolen bases as eight bases have been pilfered with nary a baserunner cut down. That will most certainly change as the season rolls on.

Vazquez and Leon may be ranked low, but the pitching staff is a solid number one and the catchers have some significant influence on that. I could care less about pitch framing or runners cut down, but I do care about pitching and the pair the Red Sox have are solid contributors to that.

As far as being a metrics believer one informational note is the early analytics on Andrew Benintendi and J.D. Martinez. Historically the metrics for Martinez have been abysmal. An iron glove? Looked that way. So far with a minuscule sample, Martinez has a 19.8 UZR/150 and Benintendi a -11.7 UZR/150. You do not have to be a baseball savant to ask who you would rather have closing the gap in left field or charging a line drive.

Next: Sox fans need this Mookie Betts t-shirt

The most overlooked aspect of defense is pitching. Should it be included? Baseball is unique in that the defense controls the ball and that centers around that little bump in the middle of the diamond. There is a mound (pun intended) of statistics that delineate the significance of the craft – pitching. So far, boys and girls, the Red Sox staff are on to something special.