FORT MYERS, Fla. — On the back fields of Fenway South Saturday morning, Red Sox manager Alex Cora had his infielders sprawling, diving, and leaping in pursuit of a rapid succession of balls he sprayed at them from a distance of about 45 feet with a fungo bat.
At one point, Cora drilled one past Rafael Devers.
“Olé!” yelled one fan.
Cora and the infielders broke into laughter, before Cora jokingly admonished the onlooker.
“Don’t ask him for an autograph!” he shouted.
When Devers later made a diving stop, Cora encouraged Devers to wave to the same fan.
Just to give a small look at the sort of infield work the Red Sox are doing to work on first steps… There’s been a lot of this - fungo flips in rapid succession so players don’t know where the ball is going and have to be prepared to move in different directions pic.twitter.com/Tf0DaVn0ce— Alex Speier (@alexspeier) March 21, 2022
Such scenes have been regular this spring, with infielders taking part in high-intensity drills meant to improve the first-step quickness that often seemed absent last year. In those exercises — and, more dramatically, in the six-year, $140 million deal with Trevor Story — there is an acknowledgement: The Red Sox need better infield defense.
“Going into the offseason, it was something that we spent a lot of time talking about, trying to figure out what’s the most, the best way to help guys improve,” said third base coach Carlos Febles, who works with the infielders.
The need to do so was obvious. The Red Sox did more to turn seemingly harmless ground balls into rallies than any other team in baseball last year. Across the game, hitters had a .241 average on grounders. Against the Red Sox, that jumped to .273, the highest against any team in the game.
|Statistic||Major league average||Red Sox||Red Sox rank|
|Average on grounders||.241||.273||30th|
|Expected average on ground balls||.242||.251||29th|
|Hits on ground balls||424||486||30th|
The Sox gave up 486 hits on grounders — again, the most in the majors. The average team allowed about 62 fewer hits on ground balls.
The problem wasn’t at one position. It was everywhere.
|Player||Position||Outs above average||Rank|
|Rafael Devers||3B||-13||43rd of 43|
|Xander Bogaerts||SS||-9||35th of 36|
|Bobby Dalbec||1B||-7||36th of 36|
|Kiké Hernández||2B||-4||34th of 37|
|Christian Arroyo||2B||+1||21st of 37|
Statcast’s Outs Above Average (OAA) examines the likelihood that a ball in play is converted into an out based on a fielder’s positioning, how hard the ball was hit, and its launch angle. Based on that data, Baseball Savant identified Devers (13 outs below average) and Bobby Dalbec (minus-7 at first base) as the worst qualifying defensive players at their positions. Xander Bogaerts (minus-9) was second-worst among shortstops. While Christian Arroyo graded as just above average (plus-1) at second base, Kiké Hernández (minus-4) was fourth-worst in his 47 games at the position.
“Everybody points out the left side of the infield,” Cora said of Bogaerts and Devers. “It’s not only those two guys that everybody talks about.”
Even before signing Story, the Red Sox focused on making their players more agile, and more explosive in their first steps. Febles has emphasized better pre-pitch movement, believing better timing on a hop could help infielders react quicker.
“We were not consistent on our pre-pitch. Because of that, we were not good on the first step,” said Febles. “We’re focusing with guys now on making routine plays. That’s our main focus. That’s why we’re focusing on pre-pitch, so we can get to those balls we should get.”
Of course, adding Story should help as well. The 29-year-old has long graded as a well-above-average fielder, credited with 18 career outs above average at short — a position with the highest bar in the infield. Though he graded as seven outs below average at short in 2021 — partly the product of an arm injury — the Sox envision him providing standout defense at second.
“I played with Dustin Pedoria. I played with Ian Kinsler. Those two guys were Gold Glove guys,” said Bogaerts. “Story has that kind of capability also.”
“You’re going to be pitching to contact even more,” starter Nate Eovaldi said. “To have Bogey and Trevor up the middle, our team immediately gets a lot better and it’s going to be fun.”
With Story’s shortstop-caliber range at second, the Sox may shade Bogaerts slightly more toward the hole — where he struggled to make plays last year — and thus move Devers slightly closer to the third-base line, freeing him to make more plays to his left and taking advantage of his strength in that direction.
Story should help with their range, but he alone will not be enough to turn the worst defensive infield in baseball into a source of consistency and stability.
And so the Sox are looking to Dalbec to build on the defensive progress he made last year at first base, a position he played full-time for the first time. For Devers to develop greater consistency in his fundamentals and allow his above-average range (“The best on the team,” noted Febles) to play. And for Bogaerts, whom they view as incredibly reliable on balls he reaches, to improve his anticipation and first-step quickness.
Bogaerts and Devers both were given offseason strength-training programs geared to increase their defensive explosiveness, with some early promising signs. In Monday’s exhibition game against Atlanta, both initiated double plays in the early innings. Atlanta coaches Ron Washington and Eric Young, both considered excellent judges of defensive talent, took note.
“Those guys, they know baseball,” said Cora. “They’re the world champs for a reason, and they’re good baseball people, so I love playing them because they’re very honest and they like what they see.
“They’re very impressed with Xander and Raffy, the way they look, the way they’re moving.
“We’ll take it as a compliment.”
They also have taken Story as a complement, part of the hope to transform an area of weakness.