State of the Sox: Center Field
Over the next ten days I will be posting an overview of every position on the Red Sox. Today we will be looking at center field. Read the others here: First base, Second Base, Third base, Shortstop, Left Field
Center field in 2019:
Center field was neither a weakness nor a true strength of the Red Sox in 2019. Jackie Bradley Jr. was the primary center fielder, seeing 557 plate appearances at the position, with Mookie Betts and Andrew Benintendi both seeing limited playing time (74 and 33 plate appearances, respectively). Boston’s center fielders accrued 2.7 bWAR, 13th in MLB among center field units. Bradley Jr. had his typical season full of ups and downs (OPS by month: .406, .843, .992, .622, .796, .794), and ended the season with a .225/.317/.421/.738 line with 21 homers, 28 doubles, and a 90 wRC+. Defensive metrics seemingly indicate that he had the worst defensive season of his career, but due to the nature of defensive metrics (most need 3 seasons worth of data to be predictive), this was likely something of an anomaly rather than the start of a decline. Bradley Jr. struck out and walked slightly more than usual, but most of his statistics were right in line with his career norms.
Depth chart for 2020:
Center field in 2020 should be primarily manned by Bradley Jr. That said, the addition of Kevin Pillar could cut significantly into Bradley’s playing time. In 2019, Bradley performed notably better against righties than lefties. These were his splits:
Bradley vs. righties: .230/.324/.464/.787 with a 101 wRC+
Bradley vs. lefties: .213/.305/.335/.640 with a 67 wRC+
Pillar, on the other hand, was significantly better against lefties than righties. His splits were as follows:
Pillar vs. righties: .252/.280/.401/.681 with a 78 wRC+
Pillar vs. lefties: .278/.305/.519/.823 with a 105 wRC+
Bradley was an above average hitter against righties, and was absolutely abysmal while facing lefties. Pillar was the exact reverse. Both are phenomenal fielders. It would make a ton of sense for Boston to consider platooning the two in order to take advantage of their strengths and mask their weaknesses. Other than those two, Benintendi could see some time in center on occasion if multiple outfielders get injured or need rest days at the same time.
How center field can be better than 2019:
Boston’s centerfielders weren’t bad in 2019 by any means, but definitely have room to improve. At this point, we know who Bradley Jr. is. He will go months at a time where he will look as though he has never held a bat in his life, then will morph into a left-handed Mike Trout for a few weeks. By the end of the season, he’s almost always right around average offensively, which, combined with his fantastic defense, makes him a very useful player. Pillar is a similar player to Bradley at the end of the season; he gets there, however, by being consistently slightly below average offensively, rather than by alternating between completely inept and dominant the way Bradley does. We should not expect anything else out of these two players—both are far enough along in their respective careers that we know that this is simply who they are. If, however, the team plays Bradley against righties and Pillar against lefties (as suggested above), both players could see a spike in offensive production. This could easily lead to a boost in centerfield production as a whole.
How center field can be worse than 2019:
Again, we know who Bradley Jr. and Pillar are as players. It is unlikely that either one will fall off a cliff—after all, Bradley Jr. will only turn 30 in April, and Pillar just turned 31 in January. Additionally, while Bradley Jr. performed significantly better against righties than lefties in 2019, it was actually his second worst season against righties since 2015. I do not see him performing worse against righties than he did last season, and even if he did, his line as a whole should still improve due to the ability of the team to sit him against lefties. Were one of Bradley or Pillar to get injured, it could lead to a decline in center field production, as the healthy one of the two would be forced to become an everyday player rather than half of a platoon. Furthermore, it is unlikely but not out of the question that one or both players could start to decline due to age. Neither is all that old, but we have seen players decline in their early thirties and fail to recover.
I believe that both Bradley Jr. and Pillar will have better seasons than they did in 2019. The ability of the Red Sox to platoon the players in order to take advantage of their strengths should be immensely helpful. Bradley Jr. was an above average hitter against righties, and Pillar was against lefties. The combination should give Boston average to above average offensive production out of center field. Toss in the fact that both players are outstanding defensive outfielders, and it becomes easy to envision center field being one of the strengths of the 2020 Red Sox.