The Red Sox Are Going For a Record They Shouldn’t Be Proud Of

The Boston Red Sox are well on their way to setting a record that no team wants to have, one that is holding them back in the standings.

Rafael Devers of the Boston Red Sox looks on against the Tampa Bay Rays during the seventh inning at Fenway Park.
BOSTON, MA - OCTOBER 5: Rafael Devers #11 of the Boston Red Sox looks on against the Tampa Bay Rays during the seventh inning at Fenway Park on October 5, 2022 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo By Winslow Townson/Getty Images)

“Defense, to me, is the key to playing baseball,” Hall of Fame outfielder Willie Mays once said.

When you think of Willie Mays, you may remember “The Catch” from the 1954 World Series, when he saved the game with a basket catch to keep the game tied 2-2. The Giants won that game 5-2 and eventually went on to win the World Series.

However, if you ask most baseball fans what they remember about Willie Mays, they remember the 660 home runs, a career .301 batting average, or the 339 stolen bases.

When it comes to defense, the Boston Red Sox are on pace to earn a record that no one wants. They are currently barreling towards becoming the worst defensive team in MLB history.

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How Do We Measure Defense?

Defense is rarely considered when looking at an MVP or Rookie of the Year race. We debate players based on their number of home runs, batting average, OPS, or wRC+. Defensive highlights are exciting, but the daily grind of measuring a player’s defense often goes unnoticed.

Outs Above Average (OAA) is a defensive metric on Baseball Savant that’s defined as “the cumulative effect of all individual plays a fielder has been credited or debited with, making it a range-based metric of fielding skill that accounts for the number of plays made and the difficulty of them.”

Suppose a player has zero OAA, that would makes them an average defender in the eyes of the metric. Since 2016, Statcast tracks every defensive attempts for every player, then adds them all up to figure out a player and team’s overall defensive value.

Bobby Witt Jr. turned heads in his rookie campaign last year with the Royals when he hit 20 home runs, and stole 30 bases. Witt Jr. joined Barry Bonds, Alex Rodriguez, Mike Trout (who did it twice), and Ronald Acuña Jr. as the only players under the age of 22 to hit at least 20 home runs and steal at least 30 bases in a season. Witt edged out shortstop Jeremy Peña for fourth place in American League Rookie of the Year voting, even though Peña was the far superior defender.

Peña finished with 7 OAA that season compared to Witt , who finished with -11. Peña cumulatively made seven outs that an average shortstop wouldn’t make, according to Baseball Savant, while Witt failed to make 11 plays that an average shortstop could make. Peña finished the season with 3.4 fWAR, while Witt finished at 2.3.

Credit to the 23-year-old Witt, who has flipped the script defensively to be the current leader in Outs Above Average this season. He knew he had to improve on defense and he did just that. Defensive value is extremely important to team success, but it often flies under the radar by fans, MLB award voters, and some teams when constructing a roster.

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Best and Worst Defensive Teams in MLB History

It may not come as a huge surprise, but the teams who win the World Series often are great defensively. The 2022 World Series Champion Astros finished the season with the second-most OAA. The Braves won the World Series in 2021, finishing 11th in OAA, beating the Astros, who finished second. Clearly, you need more than a great defensive team, but it’s still an incredibly important aspect of the game.

The best defensive season in the Statcast ERA was the 2017 Twins, who finished with 68 Outs Above Average, by far the best since the statistic was tracked. The Yankees beat the Twins in the playoffs that year, but credit to the Yankees, they were fourth in OAA in 2017. Brian Dozier led the team with a 126 wRC+, and Ervin Santana led the staff with a 3.84 xERA. The defense was a huge reason why the Twins even made the playoffs.

The worst defensive year was the 2017 Mets, who finished 70-92 and finished with -58 Outs Above Average. The defense wasn’t the main reason they finished far below expectations, but it certainly didn’t help. The Mets had three players with a wRC+ over 126.

That was the year Jacob deGrom threw 201 innings to a 3.17 xERA and finished 15-10. There is plenty of context to be added to that season, but it’s clear that if they were even an average defensive team, the 2017 Mets season goes a lot smoother.

The Red Sox currently sit with -51 Outs Above Average, placing them as the second-worst defensive team in the StatCast Era. The Reds rank 29th in baseball this season with -20 OAA. They are far and away the worst defensive team in the Majors and on track to be the worst since the Statcast Era began.

The Red Sox have 80 errors, six more than the 29th-ranked Giants. They have -24 DRS (Defensive Runs Saved), ranking 27th in baseball. All of this has cultivated in that lowest defensive rating in the league at -28.6, according to Fangraphs.

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The only player on the Red Sox who is an above-average defender by that stat is Alex Verdugo, who has one. By having 1 OAA, you are considered a slightly above-average defender, and he’s the best on the team. Yu Chang helped them out by adding 4, but he’s now off the team.

Kikè Hernandez was the worst of all, recording -14 OAA. He’s also been sent to the Dodgers, so the team isn’t quite as bad defensively as they were with Hernandez.

The Red Sox have the worst corner infield defensive duo in the league in Rafael Devers and Triston Casas. Justin Turner tried stepping in at first base, and that didn’t go well.

Masataka Yoshida has been phenomenal at the plate, rocking a .304 BA and a 127 wRC+. However, his overall value to the team by fWAR is the same as Ezequiel Tovar and Trent Grisham, who provide their value defensively. They are all worth 1.4 Wins Above Replacement this season.

While Yoshida adds plenty of value at the plate, he’s losing the Red Sox a boatload of value with his glove in left field.

Adding Trevor Story to the infield is huge if he returns to his glory days in Colorado. Last season, he was fantastic in second place, racking up 10 OAA. He was injured in the first place because of his arm, so we’ve seen the Red Sox work him back as a DH. Can he play shortstop this season? The jury is still out on that.

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In the meantime, they are going with Pablo Reyes at shortstop. He’s at -1 OAA even though he’s only played 22 games at the position so far this season. They acquired Luis Urias at the deadline, not because he was a flier, but because they seriously needed a second baseman.

In 2022 with the Brewers, Urias played 285 innings at second base, 499 innings at third base, and 200 innings at shortstop. He can man second base defensively, but his .169 batting average isn’t ideal.

The Boston Red Sox aren’t going to catch the Orioles for the division crown, but they are still within striking distance of the third Wild Card spot, sitting 4.5 games back of the Blue Jays. They can really hit, and the starting rotation will see Chris Sale and Garrett Whitlock return soon. However, if they can’t solve these defensive issues quickly, they have to play perfect baseball on the other side of the ball to have a chance.

Alex Cora addressed the defensive woes after two brutal defensive miscues that cost the Red Sox a win over the Mariners on August 2.

“We’ve been talking about defense all season,” Cora said. “You see us work before games. We’ve been talking about defense since spring training. At the end of the day, we have to make plays, right? We’ll go over it on Friday, talk about what happened and try to move on.”

Cora added: “We’re working. It hasn’t been pretty certain days or stretches. But we’ll keep working at it and we have to get better.”

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Since Friday, August 2, they’ve made six errors in six games.

So the question is, do the Red Sox write their wrongs in the last couple of months, or do they break the record for the worst defensive team of the Statcast Era?