Tank Talks Sox: A Brief History of the Red Sox Third Base Hell

How, exactly, did we end up here?

David Tanklefsky
May 26, 2017 - 11:35 am
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For the last five years, no team in baseball has had worse production from the third base position than the Boston Red Sox. 

Since 2013, the Sox are the only team in baseball to post a negative WAR at the hot corner. They rank last in weighted runs created (wRC+), an advanced stat meant to measure how players compare to league average, and fourth from the bottom in home runs and batting average. No group of third basemen in the American League has struck out at a higher rate than Boston over that five-year span. 

The Red Sox are a big-market club with a pedigree of productive third baseman. From Frank Malzone through Rico Petrocelli, Wade Boggs and Mike Lowell, Boston has often had All-Stars and (in the case of Boggs) Hall of Famers manning third base.

So it's worth asking, "How, exactly, did we end up here?" Can't-miss prospects missing, injuries and front office miscues are all part of the stew of stink. But the answer is actually pretty simple. It starts with The One Who Got Away.

2010: Nothing Was Ever the Same Again

In early 2010, the Red Sox signed veteran slugger Adrian Beltre to a one-year free agent deal worth $9 million. He was coming off an injury-shortened down year with the Mariners and turned 31 during the first week of the season. 

Beltre crushed everything he saw. He led the league in doubles, finished ninth in the MVP voting, got voted an All-Star for the first time in his career and had his second best season ever. By a bunch of measures (WAR, wRC+, slugging percentage) he had one of the ten best seasons ever for a Boston third baseman. That would have been more than enough, but he also posted the best defensive WAR at third in team history. The Red Sox brass's reaction?

Meh.

Boston reportedly wouldn't go more than four years, $52 million for Beltre's services. Texas signed Beltre to a six-year, $96 million deal and off he went.

On the face of it, Boston's decision made sense. Beltre was a soon-to-be 32-year-old entering his 14th season and the Sox were prioritizing signing Carl Crawford and trading for Adrian Gonzalez. Still, in Boston there's always something to be said for a guy who comes in and produces here. Beltre was a monster in his one year with the Sox. Far from being an outlier, 2010 turned out to be the beginning of an arc that took his career from very good to borderline Hall of Fame.

He would have been worth every penny.

From 2011 to 2016 in Texas, Beltre finished in the top 15 in MVP voting every year, made three All-Star teams, won three Gold Glove awards and posted a slash line of .308/.358/.516 while averaging close to 30 home runs a year. 

The Sox let a terrific third baseman walk...and they've been paying for it ever since.

2011: Hangin' In There

With Beltre gone, Boston sent Kevin Youkilis back to third for the 2011 season. In his final full year with Boston, Youk rode a .285/.399/.512 first half to an All-Star appearance, but got hurt in the second half and hit just .188 the rest of the way, missing most of the last six weeks of the season. Defensively, Boston went from sixth in defensive WAR at third base to 20th and would post negative defensive WAR ratings for the next five years.

Offensively, Sox third basemen went from first in wRC+, OPS and batting average to fifth, fourth and sixth respectively, according to Fangraphs. It was a drop off, but Boston wasn't terribly worried. They had someone waiting in the wings...

2012: The Heir Apparent

Will Middlebrooks went into the season as the top-rated prospect in the Red Sox system, according to Baseball America. He promptly began raking when he got called up in May following an injury to Youkilis.

For a while, it looked like Boston's Third Baseman Of the Future had arrived. He hit .326 with nine homers and 34 RBIs in his first 41 games. Boston sent Youkilis packing in a June trade that was best remembered for a 5-year-old kid losing his mind over Brent Lillibridge and the Sox turned the reigns over to Middlebrooks.

He was in the midst of a promising rookie campaign until he broke a bone in his hand and missed the last seven weeks. Over the next two years, he decomposed in front of our eyes. He was hobbled by a bad back. He had virtually no plate discipline. Middlebrooks hit .213 with 168 strikeouts and just 35 walks between 2013 and 2014. After marrying Jenny Dell, it was obvious that Middlebrooks got way more out of his Red Sox tenure than Sox fans ever did from him.

2013: Sinking

Middlebrooks strained his back in May and was hitting .192 before getting sent down to Triple-A the next month. He was replaced by Jose Iglesias who surprised a lot of people by hitting .330 for the year, but he had no pop and Boston finished the year ranked 24th in wRC+ at the third base position. The defense collapsed, as Middlebrooks, Iglesias (a shortstop playing out of position), Brock Holt and Pedro Ciriaco (remember him?) combined for the fifth worst defensive WAR in the league. Of course, this whole season comes with one giant disclaimer: the Red Sox won the World Series! That's the point of the whole thing, so does anyone even remember that their third basemen sucked? No? I do. They sucked.

2014: Rock Bottom

It seems like nobody really wanted to play third base this year. Middlebrooks hit .191 and had almost 30 more strikeouts than he did hits. By wRC+, he was the second worst offensive player in the entire American League. He continued indulging his worst impulses of swinging at everything he saw. From 2012 to 2014, among players with at least 800 plate appearances, he had the 5th worst walk to strikeout ratio in baseball.

Xander Bogaerts got some starts at third but was just a 21-year-old kid getting his feet wet in the bigs. He struck out a ton and posted a measly .297 on base percentage. Brock Holt was serviceable but far from an everyday third baseman. The Sox finished last in third base wRC+ and batting average and second to last in OPS. They got just 10 home runs out of the third base position. It couldn't possibly get worse. And then...

2015: Wait, Actually This is Rock Bottom: the Pablo Sandoval Experience

Determined to solve their third base woes by throwing money at the problem, Boston signed the Kung Fu Panda to a 5-year, $95 million deal in the offseason (just a reminder, this is one year and $1 million less than it took for the Rangers to get MVP-level production from Beltre four years earlier!).

Sandoval was spectacularly bad in his first year in Boston, hitting .245/.292/.366 with 10 home runs and 47 RBIs. By WAR, 2015 was literally the worst season at third base in the history of the franchise. I know I talked at the beginning of this piece about all the great Red Sox third basemen over the years. Well, in 2000, Wilton Veras and Manny Alexander got a combined 83 starts at third base. Do you know how bad you have to be to be worse than that? Pablo was.

2016: The Travis Shaw Lifeline

Sandoval played three games in 2016 before going on the shelf for the rest of the season. Into that vacuum went 32 round draft pick Travis Shaw. And guess what? He was better than Sandoval. Shaw hit an adequate .269/.332/.456 in the first half of the season with 26 doubles and nine home runs. Yes, he tailed off significantly in the second half but he still helped improve the Sox third base production by more than 100 points in OPS and lifted their collective batting average from a woeful .211 to .256.

Shaw made $515,000 last year and was under team control until 2022. Even if he was nothing more than average, he would have been a cheap stop-gap measure until 20-year-old prospect Rafael Devers (currently hitting .300 in AA-Portland) took over a year or two from now.

So of course, having lucked into a possible short-term solution, Boston traded him to Milwaukee for a pitcher who hasn't thrown an inning yet. As for Shaw? His nine home runs and 34 RBIs would lead Boston right now. Ouch.

2017: Third Base Hell

So here we sit. Red Sox third basemen are last in the league in WAR, wRC+ and slugging percentage. They've hit four home runs. Sandoval started off the year hitting .213 before going on the DL. Deven Marrero has been a competent defender but has done nothing at the plate. Marco Hernandez and Josh Rutledge round out the also-rans that have taken starts at third. 

There have been rumors they might go after White Sox third baseman Todd Frazier. He's making $12 million this year and hitting .192.

It shouldn't be this hard to find competency and it didn't have to be. They could have just signed the guy who was already raking here seven years ago.

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