Red Sox outfielders are racking up assists at an amazing pace

BOSTON, MA - JUNE 26: Alex Verdugo #99, Enrique Hernandez #5, and Hunter Renfroe #10 of the Boston Red Sox celebrate a victory against the New York Yankees on June 26, 2021 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images)
BOSTON, MA - JUNE 26: Alex Verdugo #99, Enrique Hernandez #5, and Hunter Renfroe #10 of the Boston Red Sox celebrate a victory against the New York Yankees on June 26, 2021 at Fenway Park in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images) /
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Red Sox outfielders have been assisting the pitching staff all season

The Boston Red Sox pitching staff has performed admirably this season but their success owes a tip of the cap to the outfield defense that supports them.

Martin Perez was credited with his seventh win of the season against the Los Angeles Angels on Monday. The lefty produced a solid effort, holding the opposing lineup to one earned run while lasting into the sixth inning, but he wouldn’t have notched this victory without the stellar play of his outfielders.

The game’s biggest highlight was the leaping catch made by Kike Hernandez in center to rob Luis Rengifo of a two-run homer that would have given the Angels the lead in the second inning. That play proved to be a game-saver with the Red Sox eventually winning by only one run.

Snatching a ball destined to clear the fence is one way to keep runs off the board. Another way is the ability to throw out runners on the base paths. The Red Sox did that twice against the Angels in cases where the outfield assists led to the prevention of runs.

An Angels rally was cut short in the fifth inning by an assist from Danny Santana. Shohei Ohtani dropped an opposite field base hit into shallow left on a fastball inside. Santana charged the blooper and fired a laser to home plate. The umpire initially called Jose Rojas safe at home but the Red Sox challenged the call and it was overturned upon review.

One inning later, Max Stassi was thrown out attempting to stretch a single into a double. Instead of two runners in scoring position with nobody out, the Angels had a runner on third with one down. A shallow popup by the next batter wasn’t nearly deep enough to score the runner from third and a ground out followed to end the inning. Had there only been one out instead of two at that point, it’s possible the runner from third could have scored if he had been off on contact.

Red Sox lead the way with outfield assists

The assists proved pivotal in a one-run game but these game-changing throws have been piling up for the Red Sox all season. Boston leads the majors by a comfortable margin with 28 outfield assists this season. The Miami Marlins rank a distant second with 19.

Hunter Renfroe leads the way with a major league-leading 11 outfield assists while Kike Hernandez and Alex Verdugo are both tied for sixth with five. The trio makes up the primary outfield alignment used by the Red Sox this season but three others have recorded at least one assist as an outfielder on this team.

Boston is on pace for a staggering 53 outfield assists this season. To put that in perspective, the Red Sox recorded the second-most in the majors in 2019 with 37, trailing the Cleveland Indians by only one.

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Teams piled up outfield assists far more frequently in the first century of the game’s existence when strikeout rates were minuscule compared to modern standards, meaning more balls were hit in play. No major league team has recorded more than 53 outfield assists since the 1983 Seattle Mariners (69). Only eight teams have recorded 53+ since 1970. Only the Kansas City Royals have topped 50 since 2000 (51 in both 2011 and 2012).

The Red Sox outfield has a chance to accomplish something that hasn’t been done in the 21st century. The record of 102 set by the Boston Beaneaters in 1894 will probably never be broken. Even if we only count the modern era (since 1901), no team will come close to the 90 outfield assists by the Red Sox in 1908. That has much more to do with how the game has evolved with an emphasis on strikeouts than it has to do with the quality of the outfielders.

It’s time we gave this Red Sox outfield the recognition it deserves for being elite. Not only are they dominating the outfield assist category, Boston outfielders also lead the league with 23 defensive runs saved and they rank fourth with 10.1 UZR.

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A pitcher can still be great without a strong outfield behind them, especially if they punch out a ton of hitters or generate ground balls at a high rate. A great defensive outfield can help a good pitcher look great though. That’s what this year’s Red Sox outfield has been doing to assist their pitching staff.