“My dad taught me that there’s hitting, defense, and base running. As long as you keep those three separated, you’re going to be a good player. You can’t take your defense on the bases, you can’t take your hitting to the field, and you can’t take your base running at the plate. But defense, is number one.” —Ken Griffey Jr.
Mookie Betts, Andrew Benintendi, and Jackie Bradley Jr. are all great, but together they’re historically great. They combined for a total 16.9 WAR in 2018, which was among the best in MLB. Bradley Jr. won his first Gold Glove and Betts won the AL MVP—not to mention they also won the World Series.
At this point, if an opposing hitter smacks a fly ball that doesn’t go over the fence, it’s almost a guaranteed out. This outfield defense may be the greatest of all-time. Obviously all three players are physically gifted with agility and speed to run down the ball, but it’s their preparation and awareness of their surroundings that makes them stellar.
Andrew Benintendi putting a little style into his catches pic.twitter.com/jvTGvo77XV— SB Nation MLB (@SBNationMLB) October 25, 2018
Due to the unique dimensions of Fenway Park, Benintendi doesn’t have a lot of room to work with, so his alignment for each hitter is paramount. There’s also a 37-foot wall behind him that comes with unfavorable bounces and bizarre caroms. There are several factors that each outfielder has to take into consideration before they step on the field and they’re all different. For example, there is a crosswind in Boston down the left field line that often pushes the ball to make it look like it’s out of play, but at last moment drifts back onto the field.
The Red Sox prefer their outfield alignment to be shallow. A perfect example of this was the catch that Benintendi made off the bat of Alex Bregman to save Game Four of the 2018 ALCS against the Astros. He had studied Bregman’s swing pattern and noticed that he’d often line the ball to shallow left field on fastballs. Benintendi was already playing shallow when he took two steps in moments before the pitch was thrown and made the the catch of a lifetime.
Andrew Benintendi went ALL IN on this catch to win it for Boston pic.twitter.com/A55C8g63NL— SB Nation MLB (@SBNationMLB) October 18, 2018
There’s also good chemistry between the outfield trio that is undeniable. They are all very comfortable playing with each other and know exactly where to be at all times. According to Fangraphs, the 2018 Red Sox outfielders accounted for the highest WAR (20.5) than any other team in the last 17 years.
Why do the Red Sox players always seem to be in the right place at the right time? The answer lies within the advanced data and more specifically Red Sox VP, Zack Scott, who was responsible for revolutionizing the team’s analytics department. Scott had worked in baseball research for 15 years prior to becoming the team’s VP.
He stressed simplified communication as a way to connect his analytics message to the players. He created small laminated index cards that the outfielders stick in their back pocket that have a specific defensive alignment for each opposing hitter. If you’re watching a game and see a fly ball that’s caught by a Red Sox outfielder who barely moves, it’s most likely because of Zack Scott.
However, the Red Sox exhibit the perfect type of defense which is using analytics as the foundation, but still allowing players to make adjustments based on their natural instincts.