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Red Sox Replace Carl Crawford with Polar Opposite

After years of having Manny Ramirez and then Jason Bay patrol left field in front of the Green Monster, the Red Sox made a dramatic change in course in 2011 by bringing in Carl Crawford. Instead of using the position to get another bat-first, hide-the-women-and-children defender into the line-up, the Sox opted for speed and defense instead. Crawford, of course, was a disaster, and the Red Sox took advantage of an opportunity to rid themselves of the remainder of his contract by shipping him to Los Angeles in August.

With their new found savings creating a hole in left field, the Red Sox have reportedly decided to go back to the old left field plan, and are nearing a two year contract with right handed slugger Jonny Gomes. Given that they already re-signed David Ortiz, DH is not open in Boston, so Gomes’ playing time is going to have to come in left field. And that makes this signing pretty interesting.

Because he spent 2009-2011 in the National League — 2 1/2 years with the Reds, half a season as a National — he’s played a decent amount of outfield during his career. However, he’s never been a regular OF in the American League, because AL teams have the ability to DH guys like Gomes, and both of his previous AL employers have taken advantage of that option.

With Tampa Bay from 2003-2008, he made 227 of his 354 starts — 64% — at DH. Last year with the A’s, he started 46 of 74 games — 62% — at DH. In five full seasons in the AL, Gomes has never started more than 50 games in the outfield in a single year. Even in the NL, when the DH wasn’t an option, Gomes only averaged 88 starts per year in the outfield. Put simply, no one has ever looked at Jonny Gomes as a regular option in the OF, because, frankly, he’s terrible out there.

In 3,500 career innings in the outfield, he’s posted a UZR of -37, which translates out to -13 runs per full season. DRS rates him even worse, coming in at -50, as does Sean Smith‘s Total Zone. Gomes is basically as bad as an outfielder can possibly be while still being considered a passable part-time player at the position.

Defensively, Gomes is basically Manny Ramirez. But, of course, the Red Sox have already seen Manny Ramirez play left field in Fenway Park, and while it was painful to watch, they also won a couple of World Series titles with him in left field. Bad outfield defense isn’t, in and of itself, a deal breaker, and there’s an argument to be made that sticking a horrendous defender in front of the Green Monster allows you to hide his deficiencies, since the proximity of the wall to the plate means that there’s just less ground to cover.

With a two year deal for Gomes, the Red Sox are set to test that theory once again. While he’s almost certainly not going to be an everyday player for Boston, he had enough leverage as a free agent to ensure that he’s going to be in the mix for fairly regular playing time, perhaps in some kind of 50/50 job share with Ryan Kalish if the Sox go on to acquire a full-time right fielder later in the off-season. Or, if not with Kalish, some other left-handed outfielder, because there’s no real way the Sox can view Gomes as a regular against right-handed pitching.

Here are Gomes’ career splits:

LHP 1,100 0.284 0.382 0.512 0.385 140
RHP 1,962 0.222 0.307 0.424 0.318 93

If there’s such a thing as a lefty masher, it’s Jonny Gomes. The sample sizes with platoon splits aren’t large enough where you should just take the un-regressed numbers at face value, but even regressing them 50% back towards league average, you’re still left with something like a .360/.330 split. And, given how bad Gomes is defensively, a .330 wOBA against right-handers makes him essentially a replacement level outfielder against right-handers.

Gomes can thump lefties well enough to be valuable in the 150 to 200 plate appearances per year he can rack up against them, but against righties, there’s not much of a benefit to having him in the line-up. Realistically, he’s best served as a pinch-hitter coming off the bench for when the right-handed starter is replaced by a left-handed reliever, but it seems unlikely that Gomes secured a two year deal from Boston to be a bench player on days a right-hander takes the mound, which is about 75% of the time in Major League Baseball.

So, given the fact that Gomes signed with Boston and got a two year deal, I think we have to assume he’s going to get some starts against right-handers, and because of Ortiz’s presence, he’s going to get those starts in left field. And that brings us back to the question of whether the Green Monster can really hide the defensive deficiencies of a guy who can’t run. There is no question that it’s a smaller area in terms of square footage than most left fields, but there’s still an equal amount of lateral distance between the left fielder and center fielder in Boston as there is in any other stadium in America. The Monster might reduce the amount of times Gomes has to charge forward on a blooper since he doesn’t have to worry about as many balls being hit over his head, but he still has to run side to side to get balls down the line or in the gap. Less space doesn’t equal no space.

And, of course, the Red Sox play 81 games on the road. We can’t simply take a -15 defender, put him in Boston, and assume he’s suddenly going to be league average. It’s possible that he might be a bit less harmful in home games, but we’re probably talking about an adjustment from -15 to -10. And that’s assuming that Gomes hasn’t gotten worse with age.

Maybe when the terms of the deal come out, we’ll find out that Gomes only got a few million dollars and agreed to a job as a platoon player because he just really likes New England and wanted to be closer to the intellectuals at Harvard and MIT. It’s Jonny Gomes, though, so I’ll file that as unlikely. If the Red Sox signed him to be a fairly regular left fielder, my guess is this isn’t going to work out so great.

It’s one thing to live with lousy defense when you’re getting Manny Ramirez’s bat into the line-up. It’s another thing to make that trade-off to get Jonny Gomes’ bat in the line-up. Gomes is a nice role player and a useful part-time hitter against southpaws, but asking him to be more than that looks like an overextension of his skills. We’ll have to wait and see how he ends up fitting into the Red Sox final roster, but let’s just say that I’m not convinced that the Sox have really replaced Carl Crawford just yet.