The old adage in sports is that defense wins championships. The Red Sox are trying to prove that to be true, by doing the exact opposite. We’re witnessing, day-in and day-out, one of the worst defensive teams in baseball and if they ultimately lose in the AL Wild Card game or take an early bow out in the playoffs, the defense will likely be a big reason why.
Sitting with 6 games remaining, the Red Sox are 14th out of 15 teams in the AL with 104 errors on the season and 33 of those errors have come from their starting corner infielders. Rafael Devers has had moments of strong defense this year followed by complete meltdowns and big mistakes. In terms of errors, he’s the worst defensive 3rd baseman in baseball, clear of the 2nd worst by 6 errors. For a team trying to make the playoffs, that’s awful, even if his bat has been on fire.
Now some would argue, and I agree, that the error stat is antiquated and doesn’t tell you the whole story about a player defensively. Here is where we jump into newer analytics to analyze Devers’ performance on defense this year.
A good overall defensive metric I like to look at is Total Zone Total Fielding Runs Above Avg or Rtot for short (it’s a mouthful). Rtot is described on Baseball-Reference.com as the number of runs above or below average the player was worth based on the number of plays made. Essentially, it’s the most accurate way to rate a player defensively where a 0 means someone is at the league average, a positive number indicates above average, and a negative number is below average. Looking at all 654 players with an Rtot score in 2021 and Rafael Devers is dead last, 654th at -19.
Then flipping across the diamond, 1B Bobby Dalbec has had a rollercoaster year with stretches of power and defensive flashes followed by completely falling apart in both areas. His Rtot is better than Devers (it had to be since Devers was last), but just barely at -11, 640th out of 654 players. His 11 errors are the 2nd most by a first baseman in baseball this year and frankly he could have had a handful more errors this season on plays he could, and should, have made. He’s cost the Red Sox runs on multiple occasions and has looked lost at times in the field (i.e. the pop foul off the bat of Aaron Judge on Sunday night). That’s not ideal when you have a partner across the diamond performing even worse.
While I don’t want to go position by position through the whole roster, there is one more player worth talking about, OF Hunter Renfroe. He has received a lot of attention for his outfield assists, and rightfully so, he leads all outfielders with 16, but he also leads all outfielders with 12 errors. The 16 assists and occasional stellar catch are great, but if 75% of them are offset by errors, then it’s not nearly as impressive or helpful for the Red Sox. Surprisingly, Renfroe’s Rtot is -9, 634th out of 654, just ahead of his 3 other teammates, the afore mentioned Devers and Dalbec, and Kike Hernandez, who sits at -11 and 643rd out of 654. Then just above Renfroe is Alex Verdugo who sits at -8 and 627th. As a team, they are -59, by far the worst in baseball. I think you get the point.
We need to be focusing more on defense as a major issue with the 2021 Red Sox. If you are a fan of the team, it needs to be addressed this offseason, because most of the worst defensive players are likely here for several more years. When 5 of your regular starters are in the bottom 4.1% of the all MLB players in defense, you’re in big trouble and put a ton more pressure on pitching and offense to compensate for mistakes. When fighting for a wild card spot in September, every game matters and poor defense could easily be the reason a team can’t get the job done. Nothing will change in the next week, but if this team is tied for the 2nd worst fielding percentage in baseball next year, don’t expect to see them in the playoffs again.
Defense and fundamentals might not always be the recipe for a championship team, but not paying attention to them will surely prevent a team from making a playoff run.