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For Sox, glove is in the air

Posted by Tony Massarotti, Globe Staff  February 17, 2009 03:49 PM

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FORT MYERS, Fla. -- In the Boston clubhouse now, from first base to third and left field to right, the feeling is indisputable. There's a lot of glove in this room.

"The defense is not insignificant," Red Sox general manager Theo Epstein said today as the Sox continued spring training workouts at their minor league complex. "It's pretty darn important."

Maybe in 2009 more than ever before.

The Red Sox project to be a less potent offensive club this year, their first since 2000 without any contribution from Manny Ramirez. The good news is that Manny Magoo won't be playing left field anymore, either. Add in the probability that Jed Lowrie will be the team's starting shortstop, and what we could see, from start to finish, is one of the best defensive Red Sox clubs of all-time.

Last year, after Lowrie replaced Julio Lugo at shortstop, the improvement in the Red Sox' defense was considerable. Through July 11, when Lugo served as the starter, the Sox ranked ninth in the league in fielding percentage. From that point forward, after Lowrie took over, the Sox ranked first. After the trading deadline, when the Sox effectively swapped Ramirez for Jason Bay, the Red Sox had an average or above-average defender at every position on the diamond.

Here is how the Red Sox defense potentially shapes up this season:

  • In the infield, the Sox will have players who have won at least one Gold Glove at catcher (Jason Varitek), first base (Kevin Youkilis), second base (Dustin Pedroia) and third (Mike Lowell).
  • Their shortstop (Lowrie) and center fielder (Jacoby Ellsbury) will take the field on Opening Day without ever having committed an error at their positions in a regular season major league game.
  • To round it out, their left fielder (Jason Bay) and right fielder (J.D. Drew) are fundamentally sound defenders.
  • On the bench they have backups like Rocco Baldelli and Mark Kotsay, both of whom are regarded as above-average defensive players.

"I think that can be a strength," Sox manager Terry Francona said when asked about the defense. "I think Ellsbury in center field grew last year into being a pretty good defender. I think that'll only get better as he learns the league and gains confidence. It's something we talked about today. Go around the outfield, J.D. and Bay are both good. Rocco is very good. Youk and Pedey are Gold Glove-caliber. Lowell's Gold Globe-caliber. And we think our catcher's really good.

"We have the makings of a very good defensive team and it's something that's maybe more important to us now than maybe it was a few years ago. ... As long as we win, that's what we're shooting for. But there's different ways to do it. There's a cumulative effect on a pitching staff, when you're catching the ball and it ends up where it's supposed to."

All of this brings us back to Epstein, whose stint as GM began during the offseason preceding the 2003 season. Since that time, the Red Sox have scored more runs than any other team in baseball. Yet for as much credit as Epstein has received in building the most prolific offense in baseball, he has received relatively little credit for building a club that has been among baseball's best defensive units over the last three years.

Over that span, beginning in 2006, the Red Sox have finished first, second and third in the American League in fielding percentage. The 2006 club that featured Alex Gonzalez at shortstop set club records for fewest errors (66), highest fielding percentage (.989) and most errorless games (106). The Sox now could be very much in the same class, though the club refrains from evaluating its capability in traditional ways.

Example: Let's say 10 balls each are hit to Lugo and Lowrie. The former gets to all 10 and makes one error, producing nine outs and a fielding percentage of .900. The latter gets to only nine and handles them all cleanly. Though Lowrie's fielding percentage would be 1.000, Epstein would view them as equals based on the fact that each produced nine outs in 10 chances.

"Basically, what we're trying to measure is how often fielders' chances turn into outs," Epstein said. "As a whole, our teams have been good about turning balls in play into outs and that's an important part of run prevention, which makes it important in terms of winning."

With that in mind, it's important to understand how the Red Sox view roster construction and, for lack of a better word, team building. In the mind of Epstein and his baseball operations staff, the game is split into two primary areas: run production and run prevention. Every general skill falls under one of those two branches. With regard to run production, the most important fundamental areas are hitting and baserunning; with regard to run prevention, the two most fundamental areas are pitching and defense. Ultimately, the goal is find a combination of those skills that produces a positive result in each branch.

Last year, for example, speed was a greater part of the Boston offense than in years past, helping to explain why the Sox finished second in the league in runs scored. Relative to 2006, the 2008 Sox hit 19 fewer homers; just the same, they scored 25 more runs. If the offense drops again this year, as many expect, the Sox may benefit greatly from the combination of a deep pitching staff and surehanded defense that should limit scoring opportunities for the opposition.

Maybe that helps explain why Epstein seems more optimistic about this team than some others.

"I think a lot of people believe that pitching is 90 percent of the game and I don't believe that," Epstein said. "I think the game is 50 percent run production and 50 percent run prevention."

With regard to the latter, the Red Sox this season could prove quite stingy, particularly given the potential depth of their pitching staff. Generally speaking, good pitchers record strikeouts or induce poorly hit balls. The poorer the contact, the more likely an out, especially for a skilled defensive team. With regard to run prevention, the 2009 Sox seem to have almost everything going for them, from power arms to sure-handed fielders, even if there is some concern about Lowell's mobility at third base in the wake of offseason hip surgery and Drew's ongoing back issues.

But assuming health, the pitchers and fielders on this club should work quite well together, which could produce a very different brand of baseball.

"It's huge," said Francona. "When you're giving an extra out, you're going to lead to some problems -- not only on the scoreboard, but with extra pitches with the pitching staff and frustration. I would think if I'm a pitcher and they put it in play, [and if] I know our guys going to catch it, that's a good feeling."

On paper, at least, the 2009 Sox will catch it.

At this stage, that's one thing we all should be able to count on.

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Updated: Mar 1, 07:24 AM

About Mazz

Tony Massarotti is a Globe sportswriter and has been writing about sports in Boston for the last 19 years. A lifelong Bostonian, Massarotti graduated from Waltham High School and Tufts University. He was voted the Massachusetts Sportswriter of the Year by his peers in 2000 and 2008 and has been a finalist for the award on several other occasions. This blog won a 2008 EPpy award for "Best Sports Blog".

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