- Jeremy Lundblad, ESPN Stats and Information
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Think of it as what could have happened.
In 1992, the Boston Red Sox began the season with high hopes for their outfield. Mike Greenwell was coming off yet another .300 season. Ellis Burks finally looked healthy entering his prime. And after a torrid six-week stint to end 1991, Phil Plantier appeared destined to become the club's next great power hitter.
It wasn't to be. Burks and Greenwell saw injuries end their seasons in June. Plantier landed in Pawtucket by August.
In the end, Billy Hatcher, Bob Zupcic and Tom Brunansky became the primary figures in a Red Sox outfield that hit just .246 as a group. An 84-win team from 1991 won only 73 games despite the offseason addition of former Cy Young-winner Frank Viola. With Brunansky's team-leading 15 home runs, the Red Sox clearly weren't built to withstand poor outfield production.
Much like in 1992, injuries have stymied the Red Sox outfield in 2010. Jacoby Ellsbury is in the midst of his second DL stint, while Mike Cameron may not return to full health this season. That has pushed previously unknowns into the limelight.
Before his dramatic Red Sox debut, Darnell McDonald was that minor leaguer who once raced against a horse named Zippy Chippy. Daniel Nava was the long-shot prospect cut from his college team and emerged from obscurity. Both are great stories, and both have overperformed. Yet, inescapably, Boston's success has come in spite of its outfield.
Wednesday's standout performances from McDonald (2 for 4 with a homer and 2 RBIs) and Nava (2 for 3 with 3 RBIs) notwithstanding, as a group Red Sox outfielders came into that game hitting just .255, lowest in the American League. Over the last 35 years, only that 1992 outfield and the group from 1994 posted a lower batting average for the Red Sox.
Left fielders have combined to hit just .232, second-worst in the AL. Center field hasn't been much better, hitting just .245. In fact, those two spots have combined to hit a mere .220 with three home runs in road games.
Ironically, the Red Sox's outfield defense has also been among the worst in the league. Based on Baseball Info Solutions' defensive runs saved metric, the Red Sox (-15) are tied for the second-worst outfield in the AL. No team has seen worse defense in left, and only the Kansas City Royals have struggled more in center.
For the first four games of the season, the Red Sox had their outfield intact: Ellsbury-Cameron-Drew. Since then, they've yet to see those three reunited. But even more alarmingly, the Red Sox have yet to start any group of outfielders for four consecutive games since.
J.D. Drew is the only original outfielder to avoid the disabled list thus far. But even he has battled a range of ailments ranging from vertigo to neck stiffness to his current hamstring strain. With Ellsbury accounting for only nine games, the Red Sox's Opening Day outfielders have combined to play just 99 games entering Wednesday, fewest in the majors.
The result? Wednesday's outfield of Nava, McDonald and Josh Reddick was the 23rd combination used by the Red Sox this season. According to the Elias Sports Bureau, that's the most combinations used in the majors this season, four more than the Padres and A's. The most commonly used Red Sox outfield? The Bill Hall-McDonald-Drew combination has started 13 games.
Over the last 50 years, there has only been one season in which the Red Sox's outfield was in such a state of flux prior to the All-Star Game. In 1996, the Red Sox used 25 different outfields before the break, according to Elias. That was largely due to revolving doors in center (remember Milt Cuyler?) and right (how about Jose Malave?). That team was just 36-49 at the break before going on a huge second-half run once the outfield situation was stabilized.
This wasn't quite how Theo Epstein drew it up. Yet, the 2010 Red Sox were constructed to withstand a dip in outfield production -- albeit a slight one. With the arrival of Cameron and departure of Jason Bay, defensive transformation became the central theme of Boston's outfield. A minor downgrade in offense could be afforded, since other positions -- namely catcher -- would pick up the slack.
Despite the dip in production, it hasn't been a repeat of the disappointment of 1992. Nor has a slow start doomed the season as it did in 1996. Instead, the Red Sox lead the majors in runs scored and extra-base hits. They're on pace to top 95 wins for the fourth straight season, unprecedented in franchise history.
How can an offense thrive with a ragtag outfield weighing it down?
The answer is clear. Every regular who doesn't play in the outfield can make a legitimate case as an All-Star. Consider this: Non-outfielders are hitting .288 for the Red Sox. That's 10 points higher than the Reds, the next best team.
The Red Sox's catchers lead the majors with a .922 OPS. Boston ranks second in the AL at three other positions -- designated hitter, second base and third base -- and third at another (first base).
Outfield relief is surely on the horizon. Ellsbury appears to be progressing toward a July return and Epstein will no doubt kick the tires on the trade market.
Boston has already proven it can win without a productive outfield. So what happens when continuity and productivity return?
Ironically, the Opening Day outfield that was considered an offensive downgrade could end up being the upgrade that puts the Red Sox over the top.
Editor's note: Statistics are prior to Wednesday's game against the Rockies. Jeremy Lundblad is a researcher with ESPN Stats & Information. He provides statistical analysis for ESPNBoston.com.