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If Defense Wins Championships…

07.29.09 at 10:41 am ET
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What if Roy Halladay can’t fix what ails the Red Sox? What if another lethal bat won’t address the team’s foremost weakness?

With just days until the trading deadline, the greatest issue facing the Sox may not be their pitching or their lineup. Instead, it could be that the team’s Achilles heel is the same one that altered the shape of the franchise on July 31, 2004.

That year, the Red Sox made the dramatic decision to trade Nomar Garciaparra as part of a four-team blockbuster that brought Orlando Cabrera to Boston with the hope of improving a porous defense. This year, on the whole, the Sox’ defense has shown signs of similar weakness.

By several measures, the Red Sox’ defense has been among the worst in baseball this year. And last night, it played a huge role in a crushing 9-7 loss to the A’s in 11 innings.

The most noteworthy miscues came as Oakland pushed across three runs in the ninth to tie the game against Sox closer Jonathan Papelbon. On consecutive two-out plays, the Sox failed to convert infield grounders into outs, with shortstop Nick Green compounding those issues by committing throwing errors.

On the first, a ball skidded off the mound past Papelbon. Green rushed in, fielded off balance and winged a ball into the dugout.

“That,” said Green, “was a play nobody makes, it was just not the right decision, I should have just held onto it.”

The next play was a grounder into the hole between third and short by Rajai Davis of the A’s. In past years, third baseman Mike Lowell – who was playing in – might have made the play. On Tuesday, he did not, and so Green was left to field the ball at deep short. He unleashed a hurried throw to first that Davis beat; the A’s speedster then raced to third as the ball bounded down the right-field line.

Though the errors were glaring, it is worth noting that from May 18 through July 27, Green had committed just one error, and was playing defense at an above-average level. Even so, those ninth-inning dribblers highlighted a problem that may be more significant than a couple of errors.

The Red Sox gave up a colossal 21 hits in their loss to the A’s. The natural conclusion would be to say that the pitching was atrocious. But while it wasn’t a brilliant night for Sox pitchers, their performance was likely better than the unbelievable 9-21-0 on the scoreboard might suggest.

Sox pitchers didn’t allow any homers, fanned nine batters and walked a modest total of three in 11 innings. These should all translate to strong outcomes.

But their performance was made considerably harder by the fact that balls kept “finding holes.” Oakland had eight ground-ball hits, four of which never left the infield. The problem for the Sox is that such events – softly hit balls “finding holes” or being turned into infield hits – have been relatively commonplace this year.

“Sometimes you wish they’d hit the ball hard somewhere so you don’t feel like you’re getting cheated,” Sox starter Clay Buchholz said. “Sometimes mis-hits find holes. It’s baseball. You win some, you lose some. Tonight was just a tough night.”

By one measure, in fact, the Sox may be the worst team in baseball at turning a ball in play (anything except a walk, a strikeout or a homer) into an out. The Sox’ have turned just 67.4 percent of balls in play into outs, the worst mark in the majors.

Some of that can be luck, in which case, a turnaround could be just around the corner. And some of that is a byproduct of playing in Fenway, though even if accounting for park effects, the Sox would still be one of the worst defensive teams in baseball.

While it’s easy to suggest that the Sox have their issues in the field, it’s also possible to take the argument too far. It would be too easy to exaggerate the defensive struggles on the basis of one brutal night against the A’s, especially since the Sox have basis to say their defense is improving.

Since the team made the decision to stop having Julio Lugo play short, its defense became better. On nights when Kevin Youkilis is at first and Dustin Pedroia at second, the Sox have a pair of Gold Glovers patrolling the right side of their infield. The left side is another story, particularly given the limitations in the field of Lowell as he recovers from surgery.

“Rest and time will allow him to get closer to 100 percent,” Sox G.M. Theo Epstein said of Lowell at the time of the deal for Adam LaRoche last week. “It’s clear to those watching the games that he’s not moving around as well as he would like…He might not be 100 percent till 2010.”

Stats through Monday

Stats through Monday

The problem for the Sox is that Lowell is nowhere near his defensive norm in 2009. According to John Dewan’s Fielding Bible Plus/Minus – which measures the number of plays above or below the number an average defender would make – Lowell entered Tuesday having made 20 fewer plays than the average third baseman.

That is a far cry from his steady excellence of the last few years, when Lowell made six, seven and seven more plays than the average third baseman. The Sox believe that his range will continue to improve the further that he gets from surgery, and it bears mention that Lowell’s excellent defensive instincts remain undiminished.

On Tuesday, he made a fine running play on a foul pop in the Oakland dugout, reaching over the rail on the run to snag the ball. Even so, the Sox are simply struggling to turn balls in play into outs, and there is little doubt that Lowell’s range is a part of that.

The being the case, it will be interesting to see how the Sox lineup changes on Wednesday, with David Ortiz out of the lineup and a left-handed starter on the mound for the A’s. Lowell is starting, as are Youkilis and LaRoche. Will Lowell be the starting third baseman or designated hitter? The answer could be revealing about the Sox’ defensive concerns.

Lowell’s not the only one who has had his defensive struggles this year, at least as measured by Dewan’s Plus/Minus system. Jason Bay’s defense registers a -11, although some of that is a byproduct of playing in Fenway, where the Wall does very strange things to left-field defensive measures. Surprisingly, Jacoby Ellsbury is a -9 defensive player this year, a pretty startling change from 2008, when he made eight more plays than the average centerfielder.

All of that said, the Sox are once again exploring every possible avenue for improvement. And so while the attention has focused on discussions about Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee, Victor Martinez and Adrian Gonzalez (a Gold Glove first baseman), it would not be a surprise to see the Sox make another move to further reinforce a defense that has been a weakness this year.

This offseason, when the Sox pursued Mark Teixeira, they noted that he was a player who could impact them both offensively and defensively. Now, as the trade deadline approaches, the team would once again appear to have a desire to improve in both of those areas.

Read More: defense, Julio Lugo, mike lowell,
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