Thursday, May 26, 2011

What is the best outfield in Red Sox history?

Sexy Boston Sports Senior Ideas Man Joe Black gave me a mountain of post ideas yesterday. One he suggested was to compare the Red Sox current outfield of Carl Crawford, Jacoby Ellsbury and J.D. Drew to past Red Sox outfields like Manny Ramirez, Johnny Damon and Trot Nixon. With Crawford hitting so poorly right now, there isn’t much sense in using the current outfield as a basis for comparison. So after talking more about it we decided to find the best Red Sox outfield in history.

First, we have to define what we are talking about. By best Red Sox outfield in history I am not talking about which left, center and right fielders are the best in the team’s history. That would be too easy (Ted Williams, Tris Speaker, Dwight Evans). What I want to look at is which season the Red Sox had their best outfield top to bottom. Since defensive numbers do not accurately go back very far we are going to have to limit this to a look at the best hitting performances from a Sox outfield. To do this we are going to look at a player’s On Base Plus Slugging (OPS) relative to the league (for example, currently Crawford has a .599 OPS which is 36% worse than the league average). And in order to rank the outfields we will look at who is the best worst hitter of the group because, as the cliche goes, you are only as strong as your weakest link (obviously you could do this in different ways like highest total number or best outfielder but i want to know who had the strongest weakest link).

The Red Sox have had some fantastic outfielders in their history. Ten Hall of Fame outfielders (including Babe Ruth) have worn the red “B” (though 4 of those only played 1 season) and 2 others (Evans and Ramirez) should be in the Hall of Fame. The team is particularly famous for its string of Hall of Fame leftfielders that includes Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice and should be Hall of Famer Ramirez. They’ve also had a lot of All Star quality players patrolling the Fenway greens including Evans, Tony Conigliaro, Reggie Smith, Dom DiMaggio, Fred Lynn, Mike Greenwell, Ken “Hawk” Harrelson, Jason Bay, Drew and Damon. Before I dug into the numbers, my guess for top outfield would be one of the Rice-Lynn-Evans years or one of the Yaz-Smith-Conigliaro years. Well, as usual, I was wrong.

When Senior Ideas Man Joe Black gave me this idea, I thought it would take some serious research. I knew that I could pretty easily see hitting stats for every season in Sox history dating back to 1901, but that is 110 seasons of data to click through and I would have to write down all the strong candidates for best Sox outfield, which we already see there are a lot of. Fortunately, has something called the Play Index (paid subscription required) that basically makes it so you can find almost anything that ever happened in baseball history in less than 5 seconds. For instance, you want to know which player 5’10’’ or shorter had the most home runs from 1970 to 1977? That would be the 5’7’’ Joe Morgan with 151 over that span. The other thing the Play Index can do is show me which Red Sox outfields were the best ever. So without further ado, the top 5 in reverse order.

5) 1979 - Jim Rice (OPS 54% above league average)/Fred Lynn (76%)/Dwight Evans (15%): One of my guesses for best outfield turned out to be fifth by my criteria. The year after Bucky Dent, this talented young trio did everything they could to erase this memory but could not overcome a dominant Orioles team. If we were including defense this group would rank much higher as both Lynn and Evans won Gold Gloves (probably deservedly so) that season. This group also had the most home runs by quite a bit of any of the outfields with 99 combined. Two seasons later, this group was broken up when the Red Sox stupidly didn’t send Fred Lynn his new contract in time to ensure that he wouldn’t become a free agent.

4) 1902 – Buck Freeman (OPS 31% above league average)/Chick Stahl (17%)/Patsy Dougherty (21%): The year before the Red Sox, who were known as the Americans at the time, won the first official World Series, they ran out their fourth best outfield of all time. Of all the groups in my top 5, this one definitely has the weakest strongest link and is the only one without a Hall of Famer or should be Hall of Famer. If you wanted to boot them for a Ted Williams led outfield just to acknowledge his greatness I really couldn't argue with you. But I like to set my criteria first and then let the chips fall where they may and not tweak the standards to make the list look better. Freeman was a very good player for the Boston club, never having a below average season. In 1902, his 11 HR were second in baseball and he would go on to lead the league in homers the following year with 13. He also led the league in RBI both seasons. With a longer career (he really only played 8 full seasons) I wonder if Freeman would have been in the Hall of Fame.

3) 1911 – Tris Speaker (OPS 57% above league average)/Duffy Lewis (21%)/Harry Hooper (23%): Three seasons in and we have yet to have one of our top outfielders lead Boston to the playoffs. Three seasons in and we have another team one year removed from a post season birth, as the 1912 Sox also won the World Series. This is not to take anything away from this group though. With Speaker and Hooper, this is the only group on our list featuring two Hall of Famers and also the only combination of Red Sox Hall of Fame outfielders that ever played in the outfield together besides Ruth and Hooper part time. They were also the youngest group on the list, with all three just 23 years old. Speaker seems to be a player that is slowly being forgotten by most baseball fans, but, according to Baseball-Reference, he had the 7th most valuable career of any position player. Ever. He is also 5th on the all time hits list with 3,514. As diehard a fan as I am, I know I always forget about Speaker when talking about the all time greats, but that is clearly a huge mistake.

2) 1968 – Carl Yasztremski (OPS 70% above league average)/Reggie Smith (26%)/Ken “Hawk” Harrelson (54%): This is probably the most interesting collection of players on this list, and the fourth group that missed the playoffs and was one year removed from the post season. Yaz, naturally, is the second greatest Red Sox of all time. Reggie Smith is one of the more underrated players in history. He ranks 12th on Baseball-Reference's career value list for all eligible position players not in the Hall of Fame. “Hawk” Harrelson finished third in the MVP voting this year, his only All Star season. “Hawk” is now known more for being “The Worst Announcer in the History of Announcing Things”. More importantly though, “Hawk” was necessary as a replacement for phenom Tony Conigliaro. Tony C was beaned in the face during the 1967 season and missed all of ’68. He was one of the best young players of all time, and though he made a comeback in ’69, he was never the same again. If we used Tony C’s seasons from ’66, ’67 or ’70, my earlier prediction of Yaz/Smith/Conigliaro would have been right, but it wasn’t meant to be.

1) 1988 – Mike Greenwell (OPS 59% above league average)/Ellis Burks (31%)/Dwight Evans (35%): Surprised? Me too. Because Greenwell and Burks both flamed out fairly early as elite players, it is easy to forget how great they were as young players. Some notables about the best Red Sox outfield (by my metrics anyway) in history: only one of our top 5 to make the playoffs; had the youngest (Burks, 23) and oldest (Evans, 36) players on the list; Evans is the only player on the list more than once; this group would have made the list for 1989 as well, ranking third, had  Burks gotten enough at bats to qualify for the batting title; Greenwell finished second in the MVP voting to Jose Canseco and has since demanded that the roided up Canseco give the award to him (Evans finished 9th). It’s a real shame that this team couldn’t capitalize on this incredible collection of outfield talent. Even when Evans stepped aside, the Sox got strong contributions from Tom Brunansky and then Phil Plantier and still couldn’t get over the hump. There must have been some pretty enormous expectations at the end of the 80’s for this Boston team with these outfielders, not to mention Wade Boggs, Roger Clemens and everybody else. Too bad they all came up empty.

For those wondering where today’s outfield would rank, it’s not even really worth looking at. Ellsbury is the only guy who would even crack one of these five outfields at this point. With Drew on the decline and Ellsbury with a limited ceiling, I wouldn’t expect an outfield featuring Ellsbury, Crawford and whoever takes over for Drew cracking this list unless that player is a bona fide All Star. That is not to say that the Sox do not have a good outfield right now, but it is a testament to how strong the Red Sox outfield has always been in their history. Any list that Ted Williams and Manny Ramirez do not make must be a pretty tough list to crack.

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