The Boston Red Sox desperately need to upgrade their infield defense
Boston allowed a .324 average on balls in play, worst in the majors.
Playing half of their games in hitter-friendly Fenway Park, where a routine fly ball can turn into a double by scraping the shallow left field wall, is part of the reason for the staggeringly high BABIP. However, as Schoenfield points out, the Red Sox allowed a .308 BABIP on the road, which was among the worst in the majors. They can’t blame their ballpark for that.
The blame falls primarily on the defense, particularly an infield defense that allowed an MLB-worst .273 average on ground balls. Many pitchers attempt to induce ground balls looking to turn them into easy outs but Red Sox pitchers see those grounders sneak through the infield for base hits at a higher rate than any staff in the majors.
These metrics point to the limited range of the players on the left side of the infield. Rafael Devers and Xander Bogaerts are superstars at the plate but they are also arguably the worst defensive duo in baseball.
Devers owned a -5.5 UZR last season, which ranked 29th out of the 31 major league third basemen with 500+ innings at the position, per FanGraphs. He tied for last among third basemen with -13 defensive runs saved. Devers is often criticized for his mental miscues. His 22 errors were the second-most committed by a major league player at any position. Piling up errors at an alarming rate is only part of the problem though. Devers only gets charged with an error on balls that he fumbles or botches the throw. There are plenty more that he never gets to, balls that most third basemen would turn into outs but Devers allows them to slip by for a hit.
Bogaerts isn’t quite as brutal in the field but his glove isn’t exactly encouraging. He actually snuck into the top-10 among qualified shortstops with a solid 2.3 UZR, his highest rating by that metric since 2015. His nine errors tied for the 4th fewest among qualified shortstops.
Range is the biggest issue with Bogaerts. His -2.2 RngR ranked 18th among 21 qualified shortstops and his -5 defensive runs saved ranked 16th. Bogaerts doesn’t commit many errors because he doesn’t get to enough balls hit in his direction to even attempt to make the play.
Fixing the infield defense should be a priority for the Red Sox but there isn’t an easy solution. They certainly aren’t taking the bats of Devers or Bogaerts out of the lineup but the defense can’t improve significantly if they are left at their respective positions.
Schoenfield suggested signing Gold Glove winner Carlos Correa to play shortstop, which would push Bogaerts to third base and Devers to second. Bogaerts spent some time at third early in his career and his limited range would be less of a liability there. The transition to second for Devers is a bit more questionable but perhaps he would be less prone to mistakes if he had more time to gather for a shorter throw compared to when he’s manning the hot corner.
This solution obviously hinges on the Red Sox winning a bidding war for Correa. Boston has shown they are willing to spend some money but that doesn’t mean they are ready to shell out the $300+ million it would take for the top position player on the market.
Chasing Correa might be a pipedream but the concept of signing a defensive upgrade at shortstop while rearranging their other infielders can still be a viable strategy with a cheaper alternative. The loaded crop of free-agent shortstops quickly dwindled prior to the lockout but Trevor Story remains available and the Red Sox could explore the trade market for additional options.
There’s always an emphasis on finding pitching but imagine how much better the Red Sox staff would perform with a competent defense behind them. Nathan Eovaldi was the team’s ace last season, producing a decent 3.75 ERA while leading the league with a 2.79 FIP. His ERA would have been a lot closer to his FIP with an improved defense.
The outfield defense isn’t elite by any means but it was solid last season and should improve with the return of Jackie Bradley Jr. The infield needs some work.
BABIP can be a fluky statistic that can be swayed by luck but that’s not always the case. When the defensive metrics show your infielders are butchers with the glove, the sky-high BABIP allowed by the pitching staff isn’t a fluke. The Red Sox didn’t suffer from bad luck, they have bad defensive infielders.