After opening their current seven game road trip with two wins against the lowly Minnesota Twins, the Boston Red Sox are edging back toward respectability after their woeful 4-10 start. The team has not had any trouble scoring runs this season; their 5.44 runs per game mark is third in the American League behind the New York Yankees and the Texas Rangers. The Red Sox problems might appear to come down to pitching, pitching and pitching, but hidden behind their league worst 6.38 runs allowed per game is another significant issue.
The Red Sox have the third least efficient defense in the AL, only topping the aging New York Yankees and the Detroit Tigers, who are starting a lousy defensive first baseman at third. The current league average for team defensive efficiency is .700. Essentailly that translates to a normal batting average on balls in play of .300.If the Red Sox defense is on the field however, teams can expect a.321 batting average on playable balls.
All but 12 2/3 of Boston’s defensive innings have come will pitchers who have generated over 40% ground balls. Starters Daniel Bard, Jon Lester and Clay Buchholz are all ground ball specialists and Felix Doubront , who currently has a 41.9% ground ball rate, figures to be among that group eventually. So, the infield defense is a prime suspect in this area.
The most obvious problem with the Red Sox infield is at third base. Kevin Youkilis has looked terribly immobile at the position and back up Nick Punto, who was signed in large part for his glove, has not looked much better in very limited work. It is too early for advanced defensive metrics to be useful for estimating the runs lost or won by defense, but the early results from both UZR and Total Zone already paint a bleak picture for Youk. UZR sees him costing the 12.5 runs per 150 games based on these first 115 innings. Total Zone is of the same mind, with Youk on pace to cost the team 10 runs per 1200 innings. These numbers aren’t worth much as approximations of the actual cost of his glove, but from what we have seen so far the number is not going to be a positive one.
The other player that is draws suspicions in short stop Mike Aviles. At times this year Aviles has also looked a bit rigid at short and he has three errors in 15 games thus far. There has also been a negative perception of Aviles defensive abilities from his time in the Royals organization. That was certainly a factor in the spring training controversy regarding Aviles and top shortstop prospect Jose Iglesias.Aviles won the job and with his batting line currently at .333/.365/.567 no one should regret that choice, but the questions about his defense are still lingering.
Aviles is an interesting (and rare) case of a player whose glove gets derided by scouts and coaches but has strong defensive metrics. Total Zone,DRS, and UZR all like his glove work at short over his career and thus far, he is second in out of zone plays in the majors. Unlike Youk, it is not clear whether the perception of his defense is accurate.
With Dustin Pedroia and Adrian Gonzalez on the right side of the diamond, it is hard to believe that the team will remain weak on infield defense. Gonzalez has still looked like a gold glove lock with his early play. Pedroia has not been as unreal defensively as he was at the start of 2011, but with him, it is probably just a matter of time. Boston’s outfield has been fairly average by most estimates and the acquisition of Marlon Byrd should keep it that way in Jacoby Ellsbury’s absence.
An improved defense would help Boston quite a bit, but aside from Kevin Youkilis, there is not much room for dramatic improvement. The Red Sox haven’t played great defense so far and that has contributed to their early struggles, but the true talent of this team is well above their current .678 defensive efficiency mark. When that starts to show it will help ease the pressure on the pitching staff.