FORT MYERS, Fla. — While preparing for his workday during a bucolic mid-March morning at the Red Sox’ spring training facility, Rick Porcello multitasked by chatting at his locker with a reporter about what was clearly a welcome topic: an appreciation of the ballclub’s dynamic outfielders, Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Andrew Benintendi. “The first thing any pitcher is going to appreciate about them is their defense,’’ said Porcello, the 2016 American League Cy Young winner who is entering his fifth season with the Red Sox. “Having those guys behind you who are going to run down pretty much any ball that stays in the park allows you to be aggressive. And obviously, they’re complete players, great hitters, great baserunners . . . ’’
Suddenly, Porcello halted his words as he spotted a teammate strolling by. It was Betts, the reigning American League Most Valuable player, heading toward the weight room, bat on his shoulder.
“Hey Mookie,’’ Porcello said. “Question for you.’’
Betts slowed his stroll and looked over.
“How lucky are we as pitchers to have you guys behind us in the outfield?’’
Betts smiled and continued on his way.
“We’re here for you, man,’’ he said over his shoulder. “You know we’ve got you, anyway we can.’’
. . .
Any way means many ways when it comes to the contributions of the Red Sox’ multitalented trio of outfielders. Start with the superstar Betts, 26, who led the American League last season in batting (.346), slugging (.640), and runs (129), while hitting 32 homers and stealing 30 bases.
How legendary was his season? He became the first player in major league history to be named MVP, win the batting title, earn Silver Slugger and Gold Glove awards, and win the World Series.
Betts’s 10.9 Wins Above Replacement in ’18 tied Ted Williams’s 1946 season for the second-best among offensive players in Red Sox history, trailing only Carl Yastrzemski’s impossibly brilliant season in 1967 (12.5 WAR). If Betts isn’t the best player in baseball, it’s only because the Angels’ Mike Trout can already rest his Hall of Fame case at 27.
Bradley, who turns 29 on April 19, is the most enigmatic of the trio, mostly because he is prone to prolonged, exasperating slumps. But he has his fair share of offensive achievements — in 2016 he hit 26 homers with an .835 OPS — and he provided a few classic moments of his own last fall, including driving in nine runs during a three-game stretch in the ALCS against the Astros. He was named the MVP of that series.
But most of Bradley’s highlights come from his defense in center field. He won his first Gold Glove last season, and Sox pitchers say it’s an injustice that he doesn’t have more.
— SportsCenter (@SportsCenter) July 29, 2018
“He’s as good as it gets,’’ Chris Sale said. “Us as pitchers we say it all the time, it feels like we’re playing with four outfielders.’’
David Price said there’s one defensive skill that Bradley doesn’t get enough credit for: his throwing arm.
“I can’t remember how many times I have a guy on second with no outs and I give up a single to center and they don’t score,’’ Price said. “He doesn’t get credit for that but that’s out of respect for Jackie.’’
Benintendi is the youngest of the outfielders at 24, but the former first-round pick with a swing that looks like it was lifted from a Yaz highlight reel continues to build respect and his résumé as he enters his third full season.
Benintendi provided a productive but uneven season in ’18, batting .290 with an .830 OPS, 16 homers, and 21 stolen bases. But he had just two homers from July 8 through the end of the regular season in 278 plate appearances. Manager Alex Cora plans to flip Benintendi and Betts in the batting order from last season, with Benintendi leading off.
“I’m looking forward to it,’’ Benintendi said. “I hit leadoff some in college and it’s not much of a difference. My approach will stay the same. I’m going to try to be a tone-setter like Mookie was last year.’’
Benintendi does acknowledge one specific goal this year, but it’s not on the offensive side.
“It would mean a lot to win a Gold Glove and join the club [with Betts, a three-time winner, and Bradley],’’ said Benintendi, who was a finalist in left field last season, but lost to the Royals’ Alex Gordon.
Benintendi certainly enhanced his defensive reputation during the postseason, when he made a couple of memorable defensive players, especially a spectacular diving catch of an Alex Bregman rocket with the bases loaded for the final out of the Game 4 win over the Astros in the ALCS.
2016: #Astros 3B Alex Bregman is #MLB‘s No. 1 prospect
2017: #RedSox OF Andrew Benintendi is #MLB‘s No. 1 prospect
2018: Benintendi makes an incredible catch to rob Bregman and save Game 4 of the #ALCS. pic.twitter.com/auNfxHj5JI
— MLB Pipeline (@MLBPipeline) October 18, 2018
As a trio, they’re dangerous offensively, and perhaps even more so this year should Bradley’s adjustments to his swing lead to more consistency. And their competitiveness, camaraderie, and chemistry (“Being with Jackie is all I know,’’ said Betts) makes them arguably the best defensive outfield in baseball today — though Red Sox teammates will hear no other argument.
“They have a system to where they know where each other are, they know the ballpark extremely well, Benny plays that wall like no other, Jackie makes catches in that little triangle out there, knows all the angles, and Mookie covers probably the biggest right field in all of baseball,’’ Sale said.
. . .
Betts, Bradley, and Benintendi (with an honorary nod to occasional outfielder J.D. Martinez) are still carving their place in Red Sox history. But they’ve long since impressed their outfield predecessors who made history before them.
“I just love watching them play,’’ said Fred Lynn, the 1975 American League Rookie of the Year and MVP and a four-time Gold Glove winner as the regular center fielder through 1980. “They’re outstanding offensive players or trending that way. And I love their attitude on defense. They take it personally when a ball falls for a hit.’’
Lynn said they remind him of “us,’’ a reference to the sensational outfield of Lynn, Jim Rice, and Dwight Evans in the mid and late ’70s. It’s a high compliment, and one Evans, who won eight Gold Gloves in right field in 19 seasons (1972-90) with the Red Sox, is happy to second. “I have great appreciation for them,’’ said Evans, a special instructor in spring training. “Beyond their obvious ability, they’re very smart, and they’re always trying to get better. I love them individually and as a group. They’re the best in the game.’’
The Yankees, with sluggers Giancarlo Stanton and Aaron Judge in the corners and underrated Aaron Hicks in center, might dispute that, but the Red Sox’ outfield is younger, superior defensively, and tallied more Wins Above Replacement a season ago. (The Red Sox’ three outfielders totaled 16.9 WAR. The Yankees: 14.2, with Judge the leader at 5.5.)
Perhaps there are grander parameters at play for this group. The Red Sox have almost always had a compelling-to-extraordinary outfield. Here are five of the best:
Duffy Lewis, Tris Speaker, and Harry Hooper (1910s); Ted Williams, Jimmy Piersall, and Jackie Jensen (1950s); Carl Yastrzemski, Reggie Smith, and Tony Conigliaro (primarily 1960s); Rice, Lynn, and Evans (primarily 1970s); Mike Greenwell, Ellis Burks, and Evans (late ’80s-early ’90s).
It seems very premature to argue the current outfield is among the best in baseball history. But that argument already has been made, and quite compellingly.
Last October, after Benintendi’s instantly iconic catch against the Astros, Jeff Sullivan at fangraphs.com wrote a piece titled “The Red Sox Do Have An All-Time Outfield.’’ He cited the site’s version of WAR (which differs from baseball-reference’s version) and the data it has going back to 2002. The ’18 Red Sox outfield ranked first among all others in that 17-year span at 20.5 WAR, coming in ahead of the 2004 Braves (18.5), 2002 Giants (a Barry Bonds-led 18.5), and the 2012 Angels (a Trout-led 17.2).
Sullivan, using baseball-reference data that goes back farther than fangraphs’, used the advanced metric sOPS, which compares a team’s OPS in a given season to the league average, to identify the best hitting outfields of all time. The 1927 Yankees were first, the ’79 Red Sox fourth, and the ’18 Red Sox eighth. And that’s just offensively. Defense is their greatest strength, and they are adept, aggressive baserunners too.
“I don’t know if they’ve had the best outfield ever, and I imagine they probably haven’t,’’ concluded Sullivan. “Ever is a long time. But the Red Sox are somewhere in that conversation. Possibly or probably top 10. Possibly or probably top five.’’
Betts isn’t ready to proclaim a specific place in history for the Red Sox outfield, who like Lynn, Rice, and Evans are all homegrown. “We’re all good athletes that always give our best effort,’’ said Betts. “But our satisfaction for all three of us comes from doing things that win games. It’s not about rankings or awards. It’s about doing what’s best for the team.’’
That’s just another way of reaffirming what he told Porcello that spring morning. We’ve got you, any way we can. This much is true, too: The Red Sox are ever so fortunate to have them.