Wednesday, June 28, 2017

A History of Great Red Sox Outfields

The Red Sox have a long lineage of talented outfields (Boston Baseball Prospectus)
Before the season began there was an ungodly amount of hype surrounding Boston's young outfield of Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Mookie Betts -- who, you might remember, made the cover of Sports Illustrated (thankfully, the jinx has spared them). Some went so far as to crown them the best outfield in team history, on par with the club's vaunted trio of Jim Rice, Fred Lynn, and Dwight Evans during the mid and late 1970s.

While the current crop certainly has that level of talent (Betts and Benintendi both have Hall of Fame ceilings, while Bradley could wind up being a modern day Reggie Smith), such talk is wildly premature. They haven't even played 100 games together yet! Benintendi's just 22, and it's far too early to project how his career will pan out. Betts -- a superstar on the rise -- has yet to celebrate his 25th birthday and stonewalled Boston's attempts to lock him up last winter, meaning his future in a Red Sox uniform is far from guaranteed. Bradley is the outfield's elder statesman at 27, and yet he's actually the most volatile in terms of performance due to his streakiness. His glove is amazing, but his ebbs and flows at the plate have led some to wonder whether he'll be Clay Buchholz with a bat in his hands.

In any event, this is shaping up to be an outstanding outfield for the next few years at least, and hopefully more. But the Red Sox have been often blessed with many great outfields, going back to their first dynasty a century ago.

Indeed, Boston's original golden outfield consisted of Duffy Lewis in left and Hall of Famers Tris Speaker in center and Harry Hooper in right. The trio led the Olde Towne Team to championships in 1912 and 1915 before Speaker was traded at the start of the '16 season. But so rich with pitching were the Sox that they still won it all without Speaker that year, then won again two years later with Babe Ruth caddying in right when he wasn't pitching.

Following the sale of Ruth in 1920, the Red Sox were largely bereft of talent at all positions throughout the next two decades, but by the late '30s they had once again assembled a stellar outfield. The 1938 trio of Joe Vosmik, Doc Cramer, and Ben Chapman all bettered .300, leaving no room for a brash 19-year-old rookie by the name of Ted Williams, who would have to wait until '39 to get his chance.

The Kid's arrival signaled a changing of the guard, as Dom DiMaggio joined him a year later. By the time Williams was chasing .400 in 1941, Boston had a completely new outfield from the one he'd been shut out of three years prior. Williams and DiMaggio were mainstays into the early '50s, when DiMaggio retired and Williams briefly departed for Korea, but in all that time the Red Sox never found a long-term right fielder to round out their trios. Sam Mele, Stan Spence, and Al Zarilla proved capable, but none stuck.

When Williams returned from Korea, he joined Jim Piersall in center and Jackie Jensen in right. By this point Williams was well into his 30s and increasingly banged up, missing an average of 36 games per season from 1954-1960. While still a fearsome hitter, he was unable to suit up enough to approximate his sublime production during the '40s, when he averaged just under 10 bWAR per season from 1941-1949. Piersall was a defensive wizard in the mold of his precessor, DiMaggio, but didn't stand out offensively. Jensen hit a lot of homers and drove in lots of runs, even stealing the MVP from a vastly more deserving Mickey Mantle in 1958.

The retirements of Williams and Jensen in the early 1960s paved the way for the next great Red Sox outfield, which came together during the franchise's dark days in the middle of the decade. Williams' replacement, Carl Yastrzemski, took over left field in 1961 and quickly emerged as one of the league's best at the position. He was joined in right three years later by teenaged phenom Tony Conigliaro, who immediately made his mark as one of the most prolific young sluggers in baseball history. Reggie Smith completed the outfield during the Impossible Dream summer of '67, finishing as AL Rookie of the Year runner-up. Unfortunately, Red Sox fans never got to see that outfield live up to its potential, as Tony C caught a fastball in the eye and was never the same.

It would be nearly a decade before Jim Ed and Freddie Lynn joined Dwight Evans in Boston, with both receiving cups of coffee in 1974 before bursting onto the scene as Rookie of the Year and MVP frontrunners in '75, leading the Red Sox to their first pennant since '67. The Gold Dust Twins, as they were called, were at their best from 1975-1979, but Evans didn't truly blossom as a hitter until the '80s, by which point Lynn was out west and Rice was past his prime. They never wonted for a third musketeer, however, as the likes of Tony Armas, Mike Greenwell, and Ellis Burks ensured that Boston always had one of the league's top outfields during the '80s.

Once Rice retired in 1989 and Evans left the following year, however, the Red Sox struggled to find an identity for their outfield. After decades of having Cooperstown-bound fixtures patrolling left, right, and center, the Red Sox filled their ranks with a motley crew of solid, if unexceptional veterans. Jack Clark, Otis Nixon, Troy O'LearyReggie Jefferson, Jose Canseco, and the legendary Tom Brunansky all rotated through. It was definitely a weird time for Red Sox outfields, with no real continuity to speak of.

That came to an end, briefly, in the early 2000s, when the Red Sox inked Manny Ramirez to an eight-year, $160 million deal before the 2001 season. He was joined the following season by Johnny Damon, giving the Red Sox an excellent outfield for the first half of the decade with Trot Nixon in right. Together they helped their beleaguered franchise end its 86-year curse in 2004, etching their names in Boston lore.

Until the Killer B's coalesced, however, the mid-2000s to mid-2010s resembled the '90s in that the outfield was constantly in flux. Left field became a revolving door after Manny forced his way out of town, with cameos from Jason Bay, Carl Crawford, Cody Ross, Jonny Gomes, Daniel Nava, and Brock Holt. Coco Crisp didn't materialize into Damon 2.0 while Crisp's successor, Jacoby Ellsbury, was unbearably injury prone. J.D. Drew manned right field for five utterly forgettable seasons before fading away, while Shane Victorino had that one magical year during the 2013 World Series run before breaking down.

That brings us to today, with what is likely the most athletic outfield in Red Sox history. Boston essentially has three center fielders, as all three have played the position. Bradley and Betts are arguably the best defenders at their positions, and Benintendi isn't your typical first baseman/DH masquerading as a left fielder (looking at you, Hanley Ramirez). They're all fast and graceful and have great arms -- they all belong in the outfield. So they're probably the best defensive outfield the team has ever had, plus they can hit, too. And dance. Boy, can they dance.

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