The Red Sox Do Have an All-Time Outfield

Let’s try, for a moment, to forget all about Game 4’s fan-interference controversy. It was a moment that looms incredibly large, absolutely, but it was also just one moment of the game, a moment that occurred in the bottom of the first. Maybe Jose Altuve was robbed of a home run by Joe West. Maybe Jose Altuve was going to be robbed of a home run by Mookie Betts. It didn’t resolve itself cleanly, but, what can you do? The rest of the game played out. The Astros even took the lead. It wound up as one of the longest nine-inning games in baseball history, but it didn’t feel like it dragged, because it included so much action.

We should consider some of that other action. And we might as well start at the very end. With two outs and the bases loaded in the bottom of the ninth, Alex Bregman swung at Craig Kimbrel’s first pitch and sent a shallow line drive into left. Andrew Benintendi charged, and he laid it all on the line. Benintendi made a do-or-die dive attempt. The Red Sox did. The Astros died.

Benintendi’s instincts apparently told him to move in slightly before the pitch. If he hadn’t done so, the game would’ve had a very different conclusion. All right, so, moving on, we can look at how the bottom of the eighth began. Tony Kemp led off for the Astros and pulled a line drive into right. The line drive wasn’t caught, but it was fielded by Mookie Betts. Kemp thought he had two bases off the bat. Against virtually anyone else, he would’ve had a double. But Betts made a genuinely perfect play and throw, and Kemp was out at second by a matter of millimeters. I don’t even think Kemp was guilty of bad or over-aggressive baserunning. I think Betts just beat him. That’s because Betts is the best.

I calculated Kemp’s break-even rate around 82%. That is, if Kemp thought he was 82% likely to be safe at second, it was worth going for it. Looking at the ball in play, you wouldn’t think the outfielder would have a prayer of throwing Kemp out. So it goes. One more clip. Now we go to the top of the sixth, when the Red Sox took a 6-5 lead. Jackie Bradley Jr. came up with two outs and a runner on second, with the Astros up 5-4. He didn’t wait around, because when the first pitch was thrown, he saw something he liked. Bradley didn’t miss it.

With one swing of the bat, the Red Sox’s chances of winning the game doubled. Center fielder Bradley delivered the big hit. Right fielder Betts later delivered a big throw. In the end, left fielder Benintendi delivered the big catch. For Bradley and Benintendi, I suppose, it’s a bit of a role reversal, but the general point is that the strength of the Red Sox outfield was on full display in Game 4. Each of the three players had a signature moment, to say nothing of the other good they did. And the outfield’s collective performance gives me a good reason to show you a table.

I assume you already knew the Red Sox have a good outfield. Even if you otherwise knew very little about them, it’s an outfield with Betts, and an outfield with Betts is sure to be at least pretty good. But I’ve got data to share with you. Just how good was this outfield during the regular season? At FanGraphs, we have splits like this going back 17 years. Here are the top ten outfields, by WAR, since 2002.

Top Outfields, 2002 – 2018
Team Year Batting Runs Baserunning Runs Fielding Runs WAR
Red Sox 2018 100.0 14.6 26.4 20.5
Braves 2004 73.1 6.9 51.1 18.5
Giants 2002 93.5 13.7 20.1 18.5
Angels 2012 63.9 19.6 24.7 17.2
Braves 2002 97.5 1.6 14.6 17.0
Blue Jays 2006 72.1 4.3 34.1 16.8
Brewers 2018 63.9 14.1 27.6 16.7
Yankees 2011 55.7 11.9 33.0 16.5
Cardinals 2002 80.8 7.4 20.5 16.5
Marlins 2017 99.6 -0.9 8.8 16.5

I know that WAR is an imperfect statistic, and it’s an imperfect statistic in large part because of the defensive component. But for whatever it’s worth, I trust outfield defensive numbers more than I trust infield defensive numbers in this modern age of so much shifting. And if you look at the final column, the Red Sox aren’t just in first place; they’re in first place by a full two wins over the next-best group. This is a special assortment of players — led by Betts, of course — and you can see below how the outfield is strong across the board.

By a very slight margin, the Red Sox just had the best hitting outfield since 2002. But compared to all other outfields, their baserunning has also ranked in the top 10%, and their defense has also ranked in the top 10%. Betts is the everything guy. Bradley is more of a defense-first player, and Benintendi is more of an offense-first player. J.D. Martinez has made some helpful cameos. The Red Sox outfield isn’t perfect, but it’s closer to perfect than other outfields have been. By the best data we have here, anyway.

Out of curiosity, I went to Baseball Reference so that I could search further back. I don’t always like to have 2002 as a threshold. Using the Play Index, I couldn’t search for all-time combined outfield WAR, but I could at least find the all-time best outfields at the plate. Here are those numbers:

Top Hitting Outfields
Team Year sOPS+
Yankees 1927 148
Yankees 1941 144
Indians 1994 144
Red Sox 1979 141
Yankees 1939 140
Yankees 1928 139
Yankees 1940 139
Cardinals 1948 138
Rockies 1997 138
Red Sox 2018 138
SOURCE: Baseball-Reference
sOPS+ compares the team split to the league-average split.

The Red Sox are tied for eighth place in history. This is a table that considers hitting, and only hitting. The Red Sox outfield also has other strengths. The baserunning and defense might lift them only higher. It does seem like the Red Sox have had the best outfield since at least 2002. I don’t know if they’ve had the best outfield ever, and I imagine they probably haven’t. Ever is a long time. But the Red Sox are somewhere in that conversation. Possibly or probably top ten. Possibly or probably top five. No, it’s not evenly distributed; Betts is the best player in the group by a lot. But that’s hardly something to hold against them. Benintendi and Bradley have shown what they can do. If anything, they might be underrated on account of Betts’ presence.

At the end of the day, the outfield is only part of the equation. Teams don’t try to build the best outfields. They try to build the best rosters. Compared to the Red Sox, the Astros have their own strengths. Yet, on Wednesday night, the Red Sox outfield made almost all the difference in the game. I’m not sure how many of us have ever seen a more talented group.

Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.

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3 years ago

Bonds made up 12.7 of that 18.5 outfield WAR for the 2002 Giants

3 years ago

The article should be titled “Entire Red Sox Outfield Slightly Better Than Barry Bonds”.

I am a Giants fan and watched the entire 2002 season and even I had to look up his fellow outfielders: Shinjo/Lofton and Reggie Sanders.

3 years ago
Reply to  manormachine

But I’m sure this is true of most of the others on the list. ’27-28 Yanks had Ruth. ’39-41 Yanks had DiMaggio. Angels have Trout. Braves had Jones. And so on.

3 years ago
Reply to  LMOTFOTE

2002 Cardinals were fairly balanced with Edmonds and Pujols both being really good.

3 years ago
Reply to  burts_beads

Yes, and J.D. Drew was good as well. Pujols 7.2, Edmonds 6.2, Drew 5.6

Some other teams with very good third-best outfielders:
1980 Oakland As, with Rickey Henderson (7.8), Dwayne Murphy (6.3), Tony Armas (5.5)
1925 Detroit Tigers, with Harry Heilmann (6.5), Ty Cobb, 5.4, and Al Wingo (5.1)
1895 Philadephia Phillies, with Ed Delahanty (7.5), Billy Hamilton (6.9), and Sam Thompson (6.3) is the best I’ve seen in terms of even distribution at a high level.

3 years ago
Reply to  LMOTFOTE

J.D. Drew was actually the outfielder who carried the WAR freight for that ’04 Braves team – he produced 8.6 WAR to Jones’ 5.3. It was the best season of his career by WAR.

3 years ago

On a related note, I’m surprised there is only one recent Angels team on the WAR list.