The Boston Red Sox won 108 games in the regular season, then went on to post a 7-2 record against baseball’s other two 100-win teams (the Yankees and Astros) in the playoffs, en route to the American League pennant. Teams like that tend to have many strengths, but there’s no greater strength for the Red Sox than their outfield of Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi.
According to Baseball Reference’s wins above average, the Red Sox had the best outfield in baseball— one-tenth of a win ahead of the Milwaukee Brewers, 11.5 to 11.4. And that’s despite, I’d argue, the two best position players in the NL this year (Christian Yelich and Lorenzo Cain) being Brewers outfielders. More importantly, the distance from Boston and Milwaukee to the third-place Yankees is about five wins. Two-thirds of the Los Angeles Angels’ outfield is Mike Trout (the best player in baseball) and Justin Upton (a four-time All-Star who hit 30 home runs and posted a 122 OPS+ this year), and in order to get to 11.5 WAA, the Angels’ outfield would have had to replace right fielder Kole Calhoun with one of the three best outfielders in baseball this year by WAA.
Boston’s outfield, in other words, is really good. Betts might well beat out Trout for AL MVP, Benintendi posted a 123 OPS+ with 63 extra-base hits and 21 stolen bases, and Bradley is one of the best defensive outfielders in the game. And it’s even better than it looks on the surface, because the team’s second-best position player, J.D. Martinez, spent most of his career playing outfield before starting at designated hitter 93 times this year.
These four players were all over the place in the ALCS. Bradley drove in nine two-out runs to take home series MVP honors, while Martinez put the Red Sox on top in the decisive Game 5. Betts and Benintendi both made game-saving defensive plays in a back-and-forth Game 4 to prevent moments that could easily have tipped the series back in Houston’s favor.
Unfortunately for Boston, the National League plays a purer, more demanding, more joyful brand of baseball than the soulless, efficiency-humping American League game Boston is used to. So after using the designated hitter 161 times in 171 competitive games this year, Red Sox manager Alex Cora will have to sit one of his outfielders in Games 3, 4, and (if necessary) 5 of the forthcoming World Series.
Cora has navigated National League competition quite successfully this year: His Red Sox went 16-4 in interleague play. But half of those games were at home, and two of the away games were started by Brian Johnson, who hit .324/.383/.492 in three years as a two-way player at the University of Florida and therefore knows what he’s doing at the plate. Besides, this is the World Series, which only superficially resembles an April yawner against the Marlins.
The good news is that Cora has options.
1. Play Martinez at first base
This is probably not going to happen, but it’s worth discussing anyway. Back when the Red Sox had both Adrián González and David Ortiz, managers Terry Francona and Bobby Valentine would try to get both bats into the lineup in National League parks by sticking Ortiz at first and moving Gonzalez to right field—nine of González’s 21 career games in the outfield came on the road for the Red Sox in interleague play in 2011 and 2012.
The main positive of this approach is that it would allow the Red Sox to keep one of the best outfield defenses in baseball intact. You’ll notice that Betts and Benintendi made those spectacular defensive plays in the ALCS from outfield corners; both of them could play center field quite easily, but they don’t because Bradley is one of the best defensive center fielders in the game. I’d rather have Cain, Tampa Bay’s Kevin Kiermaier, and Minnesota’s Byron Buxton out there on defense than Bradley, but after that Bradley’s as good with the glove as anyone. Bradley is the kind of center field who tends to just materialize under anything hit vaguely in his direction, so he doesn’t produce a ton of highlights, but he can put on a show when the situation calls for it.
Given how big an impact Boston’s corner outfield defense made in the ALCS, you’d understand if Cora didn’t want to screw with something that worked. And if Martinez can play right field, as he has more than 400 times in his career, he ought to be able to hack first base, which is an easier defensive position, and displace the largely uninspiring Steve Pearce–Mitch Moreland platoon the Red Sox have used there this year.
Now, here’s why that’s not going to happen. First, if they keep their rotation lined up as it is, the Dodgers are probably going to start two left-handers—Rich Hill and Clayton Kershaw—in Games 4 and 5 of the World Series, and Pearce has killed lefties this year, to the tune of a .304/.400/.559 slash line, which is more or less what Martinez hit against lefties this year. All things being equal I’d still rather have Martinez up against Kershaw and Hill, to say nothing of lefty relievers Alex Wood and Julio Urías. Pearce isn’t exactly Anthony Rizzo with the glove, but he’s a much better defender at first than Martinez would be.
We can be relatively sure of Pearce’s defensive superiority for two reasons. First of all, Martinez would have to pick up first base in a weekend; he’s played 18 professional innings at first, nine each in rookie ball and short-season A-ball all the way back in 2009. Second, Martinez isn’t exactly the kind of athlete who can learn a new position in a few days. He’s one of the worst defenders in the game at any position, a man who’s played 6,546 innings in the outfield only because he played on (1) 105-loss Astros teams, (2) Tigers teams that had Victor Martinez and Miguel Cabrera, two of the very few big leaguers I’d trust with a glove less than J.D. Martinez, and (3) the 2017 Arizona Diamondbacks, who played in the National League. Putting a glove on Martinez is a dicey proposition, and this is the first time the Red Sox have had to do so in an important spot.
Putting Martinez at first is worth at least thinking about, but Cora would be wise to move on from the idea quickly.
2. Keep the outfield intact and use Martinez as a situational sub
Boston’s going to have to pinch hit for a pitcher at least once a game during the Los Angeles leg of the World Series, so keeping his outfield intact and taking Martinez out of the lineup would give Cora the option of springing Martinez on the Dodgers at a time and place of his choosing. If the Red Sox trail early, Martinez could come in and pinch hit in the fourth or fifth and stay in the game for an additional plate appearance or two.
Bradley is the weakest hitter of the three starting Red Sox outfielders, but benching him would take Boston’s best defender off the field. They’d also lose a player who’s good on the bases (17 steals in 18 tries in 2018, despite only average straight-line speed) and can take a walk. And while Bradley hit just .200 in the ALCS, his three hits generated nine RBI and 10 total bases, and he also walked four times. Hence: the MVP award. (Plus, if you believe in “clutch,” Bradley has come through in big moments since he was young—here he is in 2010 driving in the tying run against Oklahoma with two strikes and two outs in the 12th inning of a College World Series elimination game then coming around to score the game winner. Bradley’s South Carolina team went on to win the national title and Bradley himself was named the tournament’s most outstanding player.)
But taking any at-bats away from Martinez, who hit .330/.402/.629 this year, would be evidence of Cora thinking too hard. Which brings us to …
3. Start Martinez in right, move Betts to center, and bring Bradley off the bench
Martinez is only a modest offensive upgrade over Pearce against left-handed pitching, but he’d be a gigantic offensive upgrade over Bradley. In the 2018 regular season, Bradley hit .251/.332/.437 against right-handed pitching, which is better than the league average, but he hit just .185/.260/.303 against lefties. That’s more extreme than Bradley’s career platoon split, but over the past six seasons, Bradley’s been 66 points of OPS better against righties than lefties.
Starting Martinez and bringing Bradley in off the bench would have several advantages for Boston. First, it would put Martinez in the lineup early in games, which would allow him to help the Red Sox establish a lead early and, if necessary, make way for Bradley as a defensive replacement later on, essentially giving Cora the best of both worlds. Second, while most of the Dodgers’ starters are left-handed, most of their relievers are right-handed, which makes Bradley, who hits righties just fine, a valuable pinch hitter. Finally, if Martinez reaches base late in the game, Bradley could pinch run for him, essentially combining his legs and glove with Martinez’s bat in crunch time.
Even though it’s weird to bench the guy who was MVP of the last playoff round, Benintendi, Betts, and Martinez are all just better all-around players than Bradley is. Without a DH, Bradley just isn’t a part of Boston’s best starting lineup. At least, not unless you go full Galaxy Brain and choose what’s behind Door no. 4.
4. Keep Bradley in center, start Martinez in right, move Betts to second base
Benching Bradley is a viable option for Boston because Betts is more than capable of hacking it in center field. In fact, he’s capable of hacking it on the infield dirt. Betts played about 2,500 defensive innings in the minors, four-fifths of them at second base. But once he hit the big leagues in 2014, he got punted out to right field not only because Bradley had beaten him to the majors and staked out center field, but because Dustin Pedroia had second base locked down. In addition to winning two World Series and becoming one of the faces of the team, Pedroia had just won a Gold Glove in 2013. No rookie was pushing him off the keystone.
So after Betts started 14 games at second in 2014, he’s only played six big-league innings there since. But Pedroia, who missed most of the season with a knee injury, isn’t holding down second anymore, and his replacements haven’t exactly filled the void. Three players have played more than five games at second for the Red Sox this year. The first was Eduardo Núñez, last seen playing third base like his hands were covered in Vaseline. Núñez left Game 3 of the ALCS with an injury, but even if he were healthy I’m not sure I’d trust him to carry a plate of food across a crowded dining room right now.
Next up is Brock Holt, a useful left-handed bat off the bench who played six defensive positions for the Red Sox this year and recently became the first MLB player to hit for the cycle in a playoff game. He’s fine (109 OPS+ this year), but he’s not as good as Bradley on defense, Martinez on offense, or Betts in any facet of the game.
Then there’s Ian Kinsler, who came over from the Angels at the trade deadline. Kinsler has a better Hall of Fame case than most people realize, but he’s 36 years old and at the end of his string. In 37 regular season games after the trade, Kinsler hit just .242/.294/.311, and in the playoffs he’s hitting .250/.280/.375 with 11 strikeouts in 25 plate appearances.
In short, Boston could stand to improve at second. And while Martinez isn’t a good enough athlete to move to the infield with just a few days of prep, Betts absolutely is. If nothing else, I’m relatively confident he won’t hurt himself. Apparently, Cora is too.
Red Sox are considering Mookie Betts at second base for the NL games in the World Series. A lot of factors to consider, Alex Cora said. They’ll take a look at matchups. One way or another, JD Martinez will play.
— Jason Mastrodonato (@JMastrodonato) October 20, 2018
There’s precedent for something like this happening before, too. In 1968, the Detroit Tigers won 103 games and the World Series. That team’s famous for a few reasons: Tigers ace Denny McLain became the last pitcher to win 30 games in a season. Left-hander Mickey Lolich won three games in the World Series, including Game 7, in which he pitched a complete game on two days’ rest to beat Bob Gibson. But perhaps the most amazing thing about the 1968 Tigers was their shortstop situation.
It’s important to remember that 1968 was the nadir of the second dead ball era. Carl Yastrzemski won the AL batting title with a .301 batting average, Gibson posted a 1.12 ERA and threw 13 complete game shutouts, McLain won 31 games, and Don Drysdale threw 58 2/3 consecutive scoreless innings, setting a record that stood for 20 years. This is the season that got the mound lowered and the DH instituted in the first place. But even in that preposterously pitcher-friendly environment, Tigers shortstop Ray Oyler posted a (league-adjusted, remember) OPS+ of 20. Twenty.
Tigers manager Mayo Smith soon found that it wasn’t easy to replace Oyler. Three players played at least 50 games at shortstop for the Tigers in 1968. Here are their batting lines:
- Ray Oyler: .135/.213/.186
- Tommy Matchick: .203/.248/.286
- Dick Tracewski: .156/.239/.236
So Smith got creative and moved his center fielder, Mickey Stanley, to shortstop. Stanley had never played any shortstop at any professional level until August 1968, when he moonlighted there during a weekend series with the Yankees, and then not again until September, when he started seven of Detroit’s last nine games at short. Stanley started all seven games of the World Series at short, went 6-for-28 and committed two errors, but the Tigers won the series. By Stanley’s standards, Betts, who has more than 2,000 career minor league innings on the infield, is a veteran.
And sure enough, on Sunday morning Betts was at Fenway Park, working on double-play pivots with Pedroia in front of reporters.
I want this to happen so badly it’s giving me the runs. Not only, or even primarily, because I believe putting Betts at second would be the smart thing to do. Mostly it’d be stupefyingly audacious to play the best player in the series—hell, one of the two or three best players in the entire sport—at a position where he’s logged six innings in the past four years. Real blaze of glory stuff.
If it works, it would be a legend-making moment for Betts. I not only know Magic Johnson started at center in Game 6 of the 1980 NBA Finals, I know what numbers he put up (42 points, 15 rebounds, seven assists), and not only do I hate the Lakers, that game happened years before I was born. Betts could produce the kind of performance we tell our grandkids about if this works, and even if it doesn’t work, it will be fascinating to watch.
Does it make a certain degree of sense to just bench Bradley and start Martinez in right? Sure. But that’s straightforward, conservative thinking. And fortune favors the brave.