Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Sox to Retire Boggs's Number

Boston should have retired Boggs's number a long time ago (Scuffed Balls)
More than two decades after playing his last game for the Boston Red Sox, Wade Boggs will have his number 26 retired at Fenway Park next spring.

This honor has been a long time coming for Boggs, who was inducted into the Red Sox Hall of Fame in 2004 and the National Baseball Hall of Fame one year later. It's strange the Sox didn't retire his number when he was elected to Cooperstown in 2005, given that they retired the numbers of Jim Rice and Pedro Martinez the same summers they were enshrined. It's also weird that they didn't stop giving out his number after he left the Sox, as they did with Martinez's 45 and Roger Clemens's 21.

And yet, it's fitting that Boston took so long to give him his due, given that he was never properly appreciated during his time there. Like Ted Williams before him and Joey Votto nowadays, Boggs was frequently criticized for being too passive at the plate, especially with men on base. People viewed him as a selfish hitter because he won batting titles and took walks, but never hit for much power or drove in many runs. His unwillingness to expand the strike zone or swing from the heels when the situation called for it drove fans nuts, making him seem more interested in padding his own stats rather than helping the Red Sox win.

Of course, nothing could have been further from the truth. Boggs was the ideal table-setter, an on-base machine who often put himself in scoring position via doubles (he clubbed 578 for his career). His job was not to knock in runs but to score them, which he did exceptionally well by averaging 100 runs scored per 162 games and twice leading the majors.

Everyone knew Boggs was a tremendous hitter, but few understood his true worth as a ballplayer. His gaudy OBPs and plus defense at the hot corner (which wasn't recognized until later, when he won back-to-back Gold Gloves in his late 30s) made him incredibly valuable. Baseball-Reference defines an MVP-caliber season as one where a player accrues at least eight wins above replacement, which Boggs did every year from 1985 to 1989. But frustrated Bostonians weren't the only ones underrating Boggs, who never finished higher than fourth in MVP voting. Moneyball was still two decades away, and nobody had WAR to tell them he was the American League's top position player in 1986, 1987, and 1988.

Of course, Boggs may not have been had he played elsewhere. He was helped immensely by Fenway Park, whose Green Monster allowed him to wait back on pitches until the last possible second, at which point he would flick his wrists and stroke another double or single off the wall in left. Nobody did this better than Boggs, who holds the highest Fenway average of all-time at .369. That was especially true before the EMC Club--then called the 600 Club--was erected in 1989, altering the wind currents within the park and making it much less favorable for hitters. It's no coincidence that Boggs never won another batting title after 1988.

Age and the 600 Club caused Boggs to tail off a bit in the early '90s, but his final year in Boston--1992--was the worst of his career. He slumped to .259/.353/.358 as the Sox sunk to last place. His contract was up and Lou Gorman, Boston's general manager at the time, let the 34-year-old walk, even though he was just one year removed from a .332/.421/.460 campaign in which he was worth 6.4 bWAR.

That proved to be a terrible mistake, as Boggs found a second wind with Boston's arch-rivals, the New York Yankees. Boggs batted .313/.396/.407 in his five years in pinstripes, making four All-Star teams and helping the Bombers to a championship in 1996--10 years after his previous World Series bid ended in agony. Following his New York stint he returned home to finish out his playing days in Tampa Bay, where he ended his career on a high note by batting .301 and notching his 3,000th hit on his 118th, and final, home run.

Boggs retired in 1999 as one of the five best third basemen in baseball history. His .328 lifetime average is the second-highest of anyone's career who began after World War II, while his .415 OBP ranks fifth among players who have debuted since 1945 and appeared in at least 2,000 games. He was an eight-time Silver Slugger winner, a five-time batting champion, and an All-Star every year from 1985 to 1996. His most impressive accomplishment, however, was batting .401 over a 162-game span from June 9th, 1985 to June 6th, 1986.

The Red Sox have gotten better about hanging up numbers recently, with four of their nine retired numbers coming since 2008. Hopefully that means they'll be ready to add more to the right field roof deck in the near future, as there's no shortage of deserving candidates. Or space.

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