Tomase: Sox outfield defense has remained elite without Killer Bs originally appeared on NBC Sports Boston
We couldn’t say much with certainty about the 2021 Red Sox except this — they’d be worse defensively in the outfield. How could they not be?
In the span of a year, they lost perhaps the greatest defensive center fielder in franchise history (Jackie Bradley Jr.), the best defensive right fielder of this generation (Mookie Betts), and a left fielder who delivered the signature catch of the 2018 playoffs (Andrew Benintendi).
They replaced them, respectively, with a second baseman (Kiké Hernández), a fullback (Hunter Renfroe), and a decent athlete (Alex Verdugo). There was no doubt the defense would suffer. The only question was how much.
It turns out the answer is hardly at all, because this group is proving there’s life after the Killer Bs.
The latest example came late Friday night, when Hernández made a game-saving throw from center to erase the tying run at the plate in a 3-2 victory over the A’s in 10 innings. It was the kind of missile that would’ve made Bradley proud, a one-hop strike to catcher Christian Vazquez that cut down Seth Brown on Sean Murphy’s fly to medium center.
“The way we play defense in the outfield is elite, put it that way,” said manager Alex Cora. “I know a lot of people had their doubts coming into the season, because we didn’t have Mookie, Benny and Jackie, but these three guys are playing up there, they’re playing elite defense. They throw to the right bases, they keep their throws down, their routes are great, the communication is outstanding, so defensively, we’re one of the best outfields in the big leagues, if not the best.”
It wasn’t supposed to be this way, but it turns out some decisions are best made on the fly. The Red Sox signed Hernández, after all, to be their starting second baseman, but the emergence of second baseman Christian Arroyo combined with the fact that Verdugo and Renfroe were best suited for the corners put Hernández in center almost immediately, and he has thrived there.
He’s not alone. While Hernández has saved eight runs in center, per Baseball Info Solutions, Renfroe is a plus-six in right and Verdugo is an impressive plus-8 in left. All told, Red Sox outfielders have saved a total of 22 runs, a figure topped only by the Rays (plus-26) in all of baseball.
As a means of comparison, the Dodgers are a minus-2, with Betts only plus-4 after routinely saving between 20 and 30 runs a year in Boston.
“The defense we have behind me, I trust these guys a lot,” said Friday’s starter, Eduardo Rodriguez. “I can put my life in front of whatever, because I know they’re going to protect my life. These guys are amazing. Every time I get a groundball, flyball, I know they’re going to make a good play. I just try to keep the ball in the ballpark because I know the defense I have, that’s how much I trust them.”
On Friday, that meant Hernández catching Murphy’s soft liner with all of his momentum carrying him towards the plate before unleashing a perfect throw.
“To be honest with you, I didn’t think he was going to send him,” Hernández said. “In my mind, my baseball clock, I felt like I came in a lot and I just wanted to make sure I made a good throw like down, to where the runner at first wouldn’t advance on the overthrow or whatnot in case the runner at third didn’t go. I want to make sure I took my time and made a good throw, and that’s what happened.”
There’s been a lot of that this year, with Renfroe making several highlight-reel throws, Verdugo ending an April win against the Twins with a diving grab, and Hernández making his mark on Friday night.
“I like playing defense,” Hernández said. “I take a lot of pride in it. Hunter’s really good. He does the same thing. We work really hard at it. Every day we’re out there taking live reads off the bat in BP, and of course Dugie’s a good athlete as well.
“Everybody talks about our lineup, but at the end of the day, pitching and defense is what wins ballgames and it shows when we pitch and when we play good defense, we win ballgames.”