'Game changers' Jackie Bradley Jr., Brock Holt, Mookie Betts bring youth, athleticism to Red Sox outfield

July 03, 2014 - 5:25 am
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A year ago, the Red Sox outfield was an area of strength for the club. Jacoby Ellsbury and veteran Shane Victorino provided not only solid offensive output but often stellar defense in right and center field while Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes held down the fort in left. Things are different in 2014. The offensive struggles of Red Sox outfielders have been no secret, but the outfield alignment could feature three rookies, including two players who have a total of 53 games worth of outfield experience between them. However, the inexperience of Jackie Bradley Jr., Brock Holt and Mookie Betts might not be a detriment to this Red Sox defense. In fact, the players bring some positives to the table. "We feel like between Brock, Jackie and Mookie, when they play in the outfield we have three center fielders chasing the ball around," said bench coach Torey Lovullo, alluding to the speed and athleticism of three. "They'€™re game changers. When those three guys are out there we feel like we have guys who can go chase the ball and execute a game plan as good as anybody." Defensive performance isn't an easy thing to quantify, and there aren't nearly as many statistics to analyze performance as there are for hitting and pitching. But the Red Sox outfield grades out pretty favorably when looking at the numbers. Prior to Wednesday night, the Red Sox actually ranked second in the majors in defensive runs saved for outfielders and third in ultimate zone rating (another defensive metric that attempts to quantify how many runs a fielder saved or gave up through their fielding performance). At least when it comes to those two metrics, the Red Sox outfield defense actually has been better this season than in 2013, when the outfield ranked fifth in DRS and eighth in UZR. Bradley obviously deserves a lot of the credit for stabilizing the defense in the outfield. While his offensive performance has left something to be desired this season, he'€™s shown time and time again that his defense is major league ready and in fact makes him one of the better outfielders in the game. He's saved about nine runs this season when going by DRS, which ties him for sixth amongst major league outfielders. Nava also has saved nine runs. Not that the young outfielders have gone without making their share of mistakes. Betts, more so than Holt, has shown some vulnerabilities. On Wednesday night, the second baseman-turned-center fielder misplayed a ball off the wall in left-center when trying to back up Gomes. The ball bounced over his head and resulted in a triple. "There are a lot of angles you have to take, so many different ways to go about getting balls. I had a couple of mishaps [Wednesday] but I'€™m still learning," Betts said. "It'€™s more just getting used to this field because not all fields are like that. Some are just off the wall and in the gap and you go and get them but here, when they're off the wall you have to play them at certain angles." For Holt and Betts, transitioning to the outfield is a challenge by itself. As Betts alluded to, learning to play in an outfield as nuanced and irregular as Fenway Park's doesn't make the shift any easier. But  Gomes offers that their youth and relative inexperience may give them an advantage when it comes to manning the field both at Fenway and on the road. "Wherever you've played outfield before, it'€™s 100 percent different [at Fenway]. So everything you do know is -- not out the window, but there's a lot more things on your plate here," Gomes said. "[But] they don't really know any different. To tell you the truth, I think it'd be a lot harder for a veteran to come here and kind of figure it out. But when you have someone who's not really groomed yet, I think it's a little bit easier." With the imposing presence of the Green Monster, the spacious right field and the odd dimensions in center, Holt and Betts have had a lot to learn, and fast. We talk about [the oddities of the park] a lot, we bring them out there -- [first base coach] Arnie [Beyeler]'€™s great at kind of directing the traffic [out there]," Lovullo said. "There's no replacing the time that you put in for all that work and the game reps, that's what takes a little bit of time. Gomes, who has done his part to try to help the new outfielders adjust, says that it's important to let them make mistakes as they learn to adapt to the positions, and that there's no substitute for experience. "You've got to let a guy find himself first," Gomes said. "Compare it to hitting -- you're not going to bring out a curveball machine or a slider machine when he's only got a couple of at-bats up. You've got to let him succeed and fail at some things first." Playing alongside two unseasoned fielders has its own challenges for someone like Gomes, who has to adjust to the rotation of rookies manning center and right field. "There's a certain comfort zone when you know the guy next to you, similar to a quarterback and a wide receiver," Gomes explained. "Granted, it might be the same route, but on occasion you know exactly where he's going to be because of where his comfort zone is. At the end of the day, it's the same, same rules apply." While the team struggles to find the lineup that will give it the greatest offensive production, having two players who are willing and able to provide a ton of flexibility is crucial. "[Holt and Betts have been] outstanding, to tell you the truth," Gomes said. "There are guys who have said no to that opportunity, like, 'Hey, we need you to go to the outfield,' and they're just not comfortable out there. These guys are doing anything they can to be here and stay here." And while Holt and Betts adjust to their new positions and Bradley continues to excel in the field, it can be easy to forget just how inexperienced these players are. While Holt has a couple of short major league stints under his belt (albeit exclusively playing the infield), Betts is just 21 and began this season in Double-A, and Bradley has just over 900 major league innings under his belt. "Coming to and playing in Boston is a challenge in itself, so managing the expectations and then going ahead and just performing is a balance they have to figure out," Lovullo said. "I think we're watching our young players grow up right before our very eyes, so more of a mental challenge early on that kind of develops as they get a little more confidence and time. We've got special guys here ... that we'€re going to be counting on in the future and they're doing a very capable job."

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