Red Sox outfield defense may struggle again in 2023

Former Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr.
Former Red Sox outfielder Jackie Bradley Jr. / Maddie Malhotra/Boston Red Sox/GettyImages

The Boston Red Sox face the reality that the shift is off for the 2023 MLB season; it turns out that baseball is doing a "back-to-the-future" with rules. That walk into the past is the 1968 MLB season, otherwise known as the year of the pitcher. Carl Yastrzemski won a batting championship in the AL with a .301 batting average. The league hit just .230. What happened?

Baseball is in constant flux between offense and defense, and defense - whose primary component is pitching - was dominant. It was slowly happening; a significant factor was an enlarged strike zone and the height of the mound. The hand wringing commenced. What to do?

The hitters needed an advantage or an equalization, so the mound was lower from 15" to 10", and the strike zone went on a diet. Hitting perked up, and all was good with the baseball world. Now we are at it again. The shift is the answer, or hopefully will be since hitters cannot quite comprehend "Wee Willie" Keller and his "Hit 'Em Where They Ain't."

Expect outfield defensive woes to continue for Red Sox

The shift will emphasize outfield defense, an area in which the 2022 Red Sox were abysmal. The metric of choice among the metric boffins is UZR, and this has undoubtedly got significant traction and is now considered the go-to metric and the deeper I get into the metrics increase my stroke risk. Long gone is Project Scoresheet. The Boston outfield in 2022 was 26th in MLB with a -10.7 UZR, and in Defensive Runs Saved (DRS), they were 26th with -20.

Want to feel some pain? In 2022 (400 innings min.) Mookie Betts had a 12.5 UZR, Andrew Benintendi checked in at 6.9, and Jackie Bradley Jr. at 6.0. In 2018 that trio helped guide the outfield defense to a 26.4 UZR. The Boston leader in 2022 was Enrique Hernández at 0.6. Hernández is slated for shortstop so their best outfield defender is now an infielder. The only other in the positive range was the departed JBJ at 5.3.

Adam Duvall has arrived with a hopefully Big Bat to alleviate the losses of Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez. Duvall is a possible center fielder in waiting and does have a Gold Glove. Duvall posted a -2.1 UZR and -3 DRS in 2022.

The Red Sox could use an infusion of Lorenzo Cain's defense

Jarren Duran is a converted infielder, and it showed in 2022. Duran - arguably the fleetest of all Red Sox - managed a -7 DRS in just 462.2 innings. That made Duran the "winner" in the Red Sox DRS lottery and a prime reason why Duran looked lost in the outfield.

Masataka Yoshida can hit, and defensively, the best you can say is Yoshida can hit. Yoshida is the presumptive left fielder, and in Japan, his defensive history in left is not encouraging —a -15 DRS in 3013 innings in left field.

Alex Verdugo, Rob Refsnyder, and even Christian Arroyo are not defensive pluses in the outfield and, to the metrics gods, clearly liabilities, but certainly not in the rarefied liability category of Manny Ramirez. Will someone sparkle in camp? The Red Sox could dip into their minor league system, but sending a prospect to limited duty is a development deficit.

The one solution is strictly Old School, bringing in a defensive glove for late innings. Baseball in another era would utilize a defensive player in late innings, and teams had just such players. A player that can give the pitchers comfort and one of the remaining free agents stands out from the list.

That player is Lorenzo Cain. He has slowed with the bat and afoot of late, but he - like JBJ and other defensive specialists - does not project out as an everyday player; with that said, Cain still had a 3.2 UZR.

The Red Sox currently have $25 MM+ in cap space according to Spotrac, and Cain should not make a significant dent in that. He can be had on the baseball cheap, and having a late-inning quality glove in the outfield could calm the nerves of pitchers with fragile psyches. He is an established veteran clearly on the downside of his career who can fill in for short-term injuries, pinch hit, pinch run, and provide defensive support.

The single most important commodity in baseball is an out. They are precious, and last season the Red Sox outfield gave some back to the opposition, and I have yet to see much change.