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The best defensive outfield, the one likely capable of successfully defending baseball’s biggest lawn, instead patrols the game’s smallest parcel of land.
According to Red Sox analyst Greg Rybarczyk, Fenway’s outfield features approximately 87,000 square feet of fair territory, roughly 2,000 square feet less than the second smallest outfield (Citizens Bank Park in Philadelphia), and more than 13,000 square feet less than the largest outfield in the majors (Kansas City’s Kauffman Stadium). On top of that, there’s virtually no foul territory to reward range.
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For left fielder Andrew Benintendi, center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr., and right fielder Mookie Betts — the three outfielders most often responsible for lawn maintenance at Fenway — space is the primary defining feature of Fenway Park. Yet unusual square footage in each of Fenway’s three outfield positions is only one of the many idiosyncrasies associated with defending the Red Sox’ home turf.
“Not everybody else can do it,’’ said Bradley. “Not everybody else knows the nuances of Fenway, so you have a slight advantage from experience.”
What are those advantages? And what are the drawbacks of playing the outfield at Fenway Park?
Approximate area (per Rybarczyk): 22,600 square feet (30th of 30 MLB ballparks)
Wall: Green Monster (37 feet)
Benintendi is the chief victim of Fenway’s limited dimensions. The amount of outfield grass that falls in the 30-degree angle between the left-field line and left-center is the smallest slice of outfield in the game.
“You really don’t have room to run around,” said Benintendi. “You can’t have much range because everything is either off the Wall or you’re going to catch it anyway.”
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Of course, for some, the sense of confinement is increased by the massive Green Monster. There are players who become wobbly-kneed when looking up at the top of the Wall from anywhere near it. Yoenis Cespedes, for instance, wanted nothing to do with the Wall during his Red Sox cameo, playing it as if convinced that contact with the edifice would prompt it to topple on him.
Benintendi has no such qualms, though he does try to shield himself from the harshest collisions with the scoreboard.
“It’s big, and it doesn’t feel good when you run into it, but the benefit is that it’s so tall that when you run back, you kind of see it and know where you are. The warning track is kind of big compared to others, so it’s the familiarity with how many steps before the wall,” said Benintendi. “If I know I’m close, I sometimes jump — I may not have to, but it’s just in case I get hit. It’s so you’re not running straight into it. That’s what’s helped me — jumping and being prepared, just in case.”
Though the Wall creates hits, it also permits prepared outfielders an opportunity that Benintendi relishes: Trying to throw out a runner at second. Still, the disparate dents of the Wall create ricochets as unpredictable as the bounce of a basketball off the old parquet floor of Boston Garden. Bentinendi is still trying to map how the ball will react to different points along the Green Monster.
“I’ve still got to figure some stuff out,” he said. “That wall’s been hit so many times. You look at it, there’s dents all over. Some balls at the very top of the Wall that will shoot way back, and other times it will hit and drop straight down. You have to get used to it. To me, I just go to the edge of the grass and dirt and read it from there.”
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Left field at Fenway also features another element that can have an extreme effect on plays: The wind. Along the grandstand hugging the left-field foul line, wind can push a ball that appears destined for out of play to back into fair territory.
“My first year playing down there, I would run down the left-field line and overrun it, have to catch it over my head,” said Benintendi. “Now that I’ve played there a little more, I kind of understand what the ball is going to do.”
There is another wind current, however, that is less predictable — and less often appreciated. Along the Green Monster, high fly balls can get pushed around dramatically. On Alex Bregman’s fly to left for the final out of the Red Sox’ win in Game 2 over the Astros in the ALCS, for instance, some members of the Red Sox insist that the ball was heading over the Wall but got blown back onto the field. Benintendi, meanwhile, noted how the ball danced horizontally like a knuckleball.
“It was moving all over the place. I never feel what the wind is doing up above the Wall,” said Benintendi. “You’ve got to be on your toes, because it dances all around.”
That outlook, in turn, highlights the most critical aspect of playing left field at Fenway: Expect the unexpected.
“You never know what’s going to happen,” said Benintendi.
Approximate area (per Rybarczyk): 33,200 sq. ft. (29th of 30 MLB ballparks)
Walls: Green Monster (37 feet), center field (17 feet), triangle (sloped), bullpen (5 feet)
Like Benintendi, Bradley laments the snugness of Fenway’s dimensions, particularly in left-center.
“I feel like I’m limited,” said Bradley. “I don’t like being confined. I want to be able to let the long legs gallop a little bit.”
The implications of the limited space against the Wall are twofold. Not only does it deny Bradley the opportunity to make plays requiring greater range, but it also increases the likelihood of collisions with unforgiving surfaces — or, alternatively, caroms off the Wall that pinball at a player who is in mid-jump. For Bradley, then, the paramount challenge of playing center field is to resolve the riddle of its boundaries, to find a way to make plays at the walls without suffering damage while trying to do so.
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“You hit it hard enough, you’re going to go down. You’re not going to win,” said Bradley. “You want to be able to play this game for a long time. You’re going to make some great plays [if you crash into walls], but to continue to do it day-in, day-out, there’s got to be a happy medium in there somewhere. You’ve got to be able to attack the Wall in a smarter way with certain angles.”
In center field, there are a lot of angles thanks to the fact that the field’s perimeter is shaped with jagged cuts and straight lines rather than smooth, rounded edges. That fact, as well as the differing heights of the fences that force a number of quick calculations — how to time steps if trying to pull back a ball from over the bullpen, how aggressively to pursue a ball coming off the Wall in left-center, how to shield the body on plays right at the wall in center — delights a center fielder who enjoys plays that demand a high degree of difficulty.
“I enjoy it, being able to be creative with where you are,” said Bradley. “It’s almost like an artform, just being able to make adjustments on the fly.”
Approximate area (per Rybarczyk): 31,200 sq. ft. (2nd of 30 MLB ballparks)
Walls: Bullpen (5 feet high), rightfield grandstand (3 to 5 feet)
Unlike his colleagues, Betts is entrusted with the chance to roam free in the vast expanse of right field at Fenway, and it often feels as if he’s playing on skates — gliding in to catch sinking liners that drop in front of many peers (Yasiel Puig in the World Series comes to mind), racing back to swallow drives into the corner and at the bullpen fence.
“Being that I’ve got so much room, I feel important in a certain way, and just try to do my best to cover it all,” said Betts. “It’s tough to do, but I like challenges.”
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The Red Sox position their right fielders shallow, and Betts is, on average, lining up 286 feet from the plate (the shallowest of any right fielder who played defense for at least 1,000 plate appearances). While there are some unusual angles and hops — particularly along the steep curve of the grandstand fence from Pesky’s Pole, just 302 feet from the plate, to the bullpen — Betts has become comfortable with those quirks. The bigger concern is the possibility of getting broken by the low fences of the position.
Betts has some history with the dangers of the right field limits. In 2015, when playing center field, he suffered a concussion when flipping over the bullpen fence trying to prevent a home run. That incident, as well as warnings from one of his early-career mentors, Shane Victorino, inspired Betts to approach the fences with caution.
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“[Victorino] is actually the one that kind of told me he wished he hadn’t done what he did because he hurt his body. Before I even got the chance to do that, he already told me not to,” said Betts. “I was able to take steps in learning how to protect myself.”
The success of that education became clear later in 2015. One afternoon, Betts did pregame work with first base and outfield coach Arnie Beyeler on how to handle plays at the bullpen fence. That night, he made an incredible, game-ending catch while leaping over the fence to rob Orioles slugger Chris Davis of a home run — and instead of falling into the bullpen, used his right hand to pull himself back onto the field.
He’s also wary of Pesky’s Pole and the low grandstand fence down the line, preferring to attempt sliding catches into the corner rather than risking a false step that could sideline him for months.
“I’ve put in so much work,” he said of Fenway’s right-field fences. “I’m ready for it.”
Alex Speier can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on twitter at @alexspeier.