It was an indefensible performance by a Red Sox defense that represents an increasingly glaring liability.
On Saturday night, the Red Sox suffered a 10-1 loss to the Rangers — the worst offense in baseball — in which they were charged with five errors, the team’s most in a single game since 2017. Yet even those five errors and two unearned runs understated how badly the team played in the field.
Yes, there were the throwing errors by Xander Bogaerts and Kiké Hernández, a muffed attempt by Rafael Devers to transfer the ball from his glove to his throwing hand, an errant pickoff attempt by reliever Hansel Robles, and a Hunter Renfroe overrun of a single down the right field line.
But there was also an almost comically slow roller (expected batting average: .120) that snuck through a shift for a run-scoring single; the even slower comebacker (expected batting average: .060) that bounced off the back heel of Eduardo Rodriguez for a run-scoring hit; and a slow-motion tag attempt by catcher Christian Vázquez that allowed Yohel Pozo, one of the slowest runners in baseball, to score.
Rodriguez also failed to cover first on a bouncer to the right side, resulting in a gift hit. The range limitations of Bogaerts and leftfielder J.D. Martinez were both exposed when a liner up the middle not only got past the shortstop’s outstretched glove, but rolled all the way to the Wall.
Bad Red Sox defense contributed to eight Rangers runs. Texas put 38 balls in play. The expected batting average on those 38 balls in play — based on the exit velocity and launch angle off the bat — was .236, according to BaseballSavant.com, meaning you’d expect roughly 29 outs and nine hits as a normal outcome. Instead, the Rangers reached base 18 times on those 38 balls in play — a shocking .474 rate that resulted in the sloppiest Red Sox game in recent memory.
“Awful.” “Unacceptable.” “Embarrassing.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora was unsparing in his postgame assessment. Still, even good teams endure a game like that one. Stuff happens that can make any team look like Little Leaguers on a given night.
But for the Red Sox, Saturday’s performance was not concerning so much for a single unwatchable game as for what it said about the bigger defensive picture.
According to Statcast data, based on the type of contact they’ve permitted, Red Sox pitchers this year have an expected batting average against of .242. But the team has yielded an actual average of .261 — a 19-point discrepancy that is the worst in the majors.
Playing in Fenway Park and the other hitter-friendly environments of the American League East makes it inevitable that the Sox will see more balls in play turn into hits than other teams. But the Sox have seen the pattern worsen in the second half (.230 expected average, .259 actual average), suggesting that more is in play than just the cozy dimensions of their home ballpark.
“We’re not in the business of trying to make plays. We have to make plays,” said Cora. “We haven’t been making plays for a while.”
There are several culprits:
▪ Across multiple publicly available metrics (Defensive Runs Saved, UZR, Outs Above Average), Hernández was an elite center fielder in the first half. His primary replacement in center since the All-Star break, Jarren Duran, has graded as average (OAA) to below average (DRS, UZR).
▪ At second, Christian Arroyo graded as average (OAA) to above average (DRS, UZR) in the first half. Hernández — the team’s primary second baseman since the All-Star break — has graded as significantly below average across metrics.
|Expected batting average||Actual batting average||Difference|
|Since August 14||.212||.275||.063|
▪ The team has been the worst in the big leagues at turning groundballs into outs this season. The Sox have allowed a .275 batting average on ground balls. No other team has been worse than .263. Likewise, the 29-point disparity between the expected average on grounders (.246) and the actual average is the worst in the game. Bogaerts and first baseman Bobby Dalbec both have graded as having well below-average range at their positions, resulting in considerable inefficiency at turning grounders into outs. That disparity has grown to 41 points (.274 actual average, .233 expected average) since the All-Star break. The expectation that Hernández — viewed as a Gold Glove-caliber second baseman entering the season — would stabilize the infield defense has proven confoundingly unfounded.
▪ Despite their struggles on grounders throughout the season, the Sox managed to limit damage by turning 77 double plays (tied for second most in MLB) in the first half. Since the break, the team has turned just 16, tied for fourth-fewest in the majors.
▪ In recent days, in order to accommodate the addition of Kyle Schwarber to the lineup, the Red Sox have used Martinez as a corner outfielder. Whereas the first half alignment of Hernández in center and Alex Verdugo and Hunter Renfroe in the corners excelled, the trio of Martinez, Renfroe, and either Verdugo or Duran in center has been a recipe for a lot of balls in play finding the lawn. In six days since Martinez went to the outfield, the Sox have allowed a .377 average on balls in play.
The appeal of acquiring a first baseman like Anthony Rizzo prior to the trade deadline was not just in his potential offensive upgrade, but also in the defensive improvement he offered at first base. The Sox instead acquired a player limited thus far to DH, thus forcing them to move a player best suited for DH (Martinez) into the field, and weakening their overall run prevention.
It would be misguided to peg the team’s poor second half (15-19) solely or even primarily on the defense. The Red Sox offense has sputtered since the All-Star break, scoring two runs or fewer 13 times and going 1-12 in those contests. It would be hard to identify defense as the cause of defeat. Still, the lineup’s slide has left the team with a diminished margin for error(s).
Instead of improving, the Red Sox have taken a drastic turn for the worse in the field.
Alex Speier can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @alexspeier.