Commentary

A game of Red Sox musical chairs

What if outfield roles were switched up to cater to Fenway Park?

Updated: March 2, 2011, 9:59 PM ET
By Joe McDonald | ESPNBoston.com

FORT MYERS, Fla. -- The Boston Red Sox have a fairly elementary defensive philosophy when it comes to balls being hit into the outfield: Don't let them hit the grass.

According to the ESPN Stats & Information gurus, there were a total of 722 hits by opponents off Boston pitchers at Fenway Park during the 2010 season. A total of 460 landed in the outfield.

With the way the current outfield positions are occupied for the Red Sox, there's a good chance many baseballs will find a resting spot in leather and not on the ground with Carl Crawford in left field, Jacoby Ellsbury in center and J.D. Drew in right. That trio was on display Wednesday afternoon at the City of Palms Park, where the Red Sox lost to the Atlanta Braves, 6-1.

Unlike any other ballpark in the big leagues, Fenway Park's outfield dimensions are unique.

According to ESPN senior researcher Keith Hawkins, the exact measurements of the outfield at Fenway Park are as follows: Fenway Park measures 310 feet down the left-field line; 379 feet in left center; 390 feet in center field; 420 feet in deep center (known as the triangle); 380 feet in deep right field; and 302 feet down the right-field line (the Pesky Pole).

The Green Monster measures 37 feet high. The center-field wall is 17 feet high. The bullpen fences are 5 feet high and the right-field fence is 3 to 5 feet high.

From a player's point of view, the left-field corner and the Monster are challenging, especially with such limited real estate. Center field has the triangle, and the challenges in right field begin at the Pesky Pole and all the nooks and crannies that follow along the base of the wall.

Plus there's little room to play with in foul territory down the lines.

Prospect Ryan Kalish made his major league debut with the Red Sox in 2010 and he played all three outfield positions during his stint. He played 11 games in left field, 38 in center and two in right. Only 28 of his 53 games were played at Fenway.

"First of all, they're all special," Kalish said. "It's unique and very gratifying when you can play all three outfield positions at Fenway. I really never thought about it, but it's a super unique place."

Because Kalish is still new to the big league scene, his fresh outlook at playing the outfield in Boston is also unique.

"It's crazy because you would think center has the most room to cover, but really right field has the most," he said. "As far as center, when you see the ball going into the right-field gap, you know you need to get on your horse. In left field, you know you have some room, and if it's crushed, it's off the wall."

Red Sox outfielder Darnell McDonald also played all three outfield positions in 2010 and agrees each presents its own challenges, especially right field.

[+] EnlargeRyan Kalish
Jerry Lai/US PresswireRyan Kalish understands the quirks of Fenway Park's outfield, having played all three positions there last season.

"Right field is like another center field," McDonald said of Fenway's outfield. "It might even be bigger than center field. It's not about the open-field speed; it's about knowing and getting the lead on the ball. It's tricky. Then you've got the sun right in your eyes during day games. J.D. does his thing over there."

You might wonder why we're talking about Fenway Park when the Red Sox are 1,500 miles south at their spring training home, City of Palms Park.

Hypothetically speaking, let's have a fun discussion. Because right field is so vast, would it make more sense to have a speedy player like Crawford or Ellsbury play that position because either can cover more ground? If so, should Drew play left field at Fenway?

Let me reiterate, this is only a hypothetical. And to make the discussion more interesting, ESPN Boston has asked everyone involved for their thoughts on the matter.

"I don't really know how to answer that question," Crawford said. "Since I don't know how to answer, I don't have an answer."

Obviously, Crawford will be the team's full-time left fielder for the foreseeable future. There have been many superstar players who protected the grounds in front of the Monster, including Ted Williams, Carl Yastrzemski, Jim Rice and Manny Ramirez. (Yes, even Manny.)

Now it's Crawford's turn.

He's no stranger to left field at Fenway Park. He played a total of 76 games in Boston during his career with the Rays, so he already has an understanding how to be successful in left.

Every batter, every situation is different, of course, but Crawford likes to position himself in a little, similar to how Ramirez played when he was in Boston.

"You have to be ready to make a quick decision, especially on low liners because if the ball is over your head, it's probably off the wall," Crawford said.

Ellsbury is another guy who has played both left and center field at Fenway. When asked for his opinion about our hypothetical discussion, like Crawford, Ellsbury didn't bite.

"You still have to play half your games on the road," he said. "I don't even know how to answer that."

Thanks for playing along, Jacoby.

Since right field has the largest area to cover, the argument is why shouldn't Crawford or Ellsbury play on that side? The answer is simple: Drew has become arguably one of the best Red Sox ever to play right field at Fenway Park.

He may not look like he covers much ground, but he's able to position himself perfectly and has a strong and accurate arm.

[+] EnlargeJD Drew
Derick E. Hingle/US PresswireJ.D. Drew is outstanding in right field at Fenway, but could he be even better there in left field?

"J.D. is a really sound, fundamentally sound outfielder," Red Sox manager Terry Francona said. "He glides, and I don't think people realize how good he is because of the way he has that appearance going after balls. He's played right field at Fenway pretty much flawless and that's probably the toughest right field in baseball. We take it for granted because we see him out there all the time, but he's really good."

Drew led all major league right fielders with a .996 fielding percentage in 2010. He made only one error in 236 total chances, and it marked the second straight season he led the AL at his position.

As Ellsbury pointed out, half of the games are on the road, but Drew played a total of 71 games at Fenway Park last season.

There's a strong possibility that Drew might retire when his contract expires at the end of 2011. Either way, he's become the best of his generation to play right field at Fenway Park.

"You kind of get used to doing what you do," Drew said. "It's the biggest right field in the league as far as depth behind you and over your left shoulder. You've got the right-field line that can eat you up. You realize when a ball is hit down that line, you're trying to keep it to a double and not extend it to a triple.

"You've got the short wall in the bullpens that you've got to worry about breaking your back on if you jump too high. There are nuances that you pick up on as your career goes along at that ballpark. It's difficult because in the blink of an eye, it can eat your lunch. Hopefully, you're on top of it pitch to pitch."

It didn't take Drew long to get used to playing right at Fenway. He quickly learned that in the corner you need to get the ball back into the infield as quickly as possible.

When asked if he ever thought about playing left field at Fenway Park, he admitted it's never crossed his mind.

"No, not really," Drew said. "The one thing about playing left, if the ball is over your head, it's usually off the wall, so that kind of limits you to where you can play and where you can stand. It is very unique compared to everywhere else in the league, but probably in a good way."

But if he had to, Drew said he could handle the transition from right to left at Fenway because during his collegiate career at Florida State, where he played mostly center field, there was a wall in left similar to the Monster.

It's a safe bet Francona won't oblige this discussion and flip-flop his outfielders from their natural positions anytime soon. But, with the Red Sox in the heart of spring training, and with the regular season a month away, it's a fun topic to debate. "Fenway is like no other," McDonald said. "If you have three good athletes out there, they would make the adjustments."

Joe McDonald covers the Red Sox for ESPNBoston.com.

Joe McDonald

Reporter, ESPNBoston.com

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