Evolution of Fenway fielders

(Jim Davis / Boston Globe)

Boston outfielders are always reminiscent of the rest of the Major Leagues. There are two types of outfielders: the big and slow and then there’s the fast and nimble.

What Red Sox’ outfielders show is how those two types are at their best in Boston. From Duffy Lewis to Mookie Betts, Beantown is baseball’s Mecca.

In 1912, Tris Speaker was the poster child for the hard-nosed athlete who’d kick anyone who looked at him funny from Massachusetts to Timbuktu. When people think about that era, the antics of Ty Cobb come to mind, but without the flying fists of Fenway’s fearless fighter in center field, Cobb wouldn’t have zero World Series championships to Speaker’s three.

Speaker was the fast, strong player won Boston their 1912, ‘14 and ‘15 championships. He paved the way for decades of more gritty outfielders leading all the way up to the eighties with Pete Rose. Speaker was the type of outfielder who’s Hall of Fame abilities weren’t limited to the plate.

By contrast, in 1939, a young left fielder from San Diego, California took the field in front of the Green Monster. Coming in fourth for the Most Valuable Player Award in only his rookie season, Ted Williams might have won the award if he had played some defense. The Kid is a perfect example of the big, lumbering, power-hitter who can have a Hall of Fame career, but can’t even catch a cold.

Out of the Williams mold came several other greats: Hank Aaron, Giancarlo Stanton and Vladimir Guerrero all were at the top of their game from the batter’s box, but their gloves rarely found themselves very useful.

The year directly following Williams’ final season in 1960, he was replaced by future Hall of Fame left fielder, Carl Yastrzemski. Yaz was a combination of Speaker’s defense and Williams’ power.

The 18-time all-star was revered by his teammates and foes as one of the game’s greats. He was a seven-time gold glove winner, a three-time batting champ and in 1967, he won the triple crown. Modern stars such as Mike Trout, Bryce Harper, Aaron Judge and Betts budded from his mold.

Betts is the fourth chapter of the Boston outfield history; he’s different than all the previously mentioned BoSox’ despite possessing the power at the plate and in the field. While Yaz had the fundamentals and could hit homers, Williams made seemingly unattainable records and Speaker punched his way into Cooperstown, Betts doesn’t limit himself to fantastic stats.

Granted, he is in the top five in the American League in several batting statistics, fifth in general Wins Above Replacement in all of baseball and first in defensive WAR, stats are not only what he excels in: week after week, fans are left marvelling at the MLB Network highlights and it is unusual for Betts not to be featured in the top ten. Either he’s hitting a Stanton or Judge-like bomb or he’s making a Billy Hamilton-like grab in the outfield. Betts is the recognized model for the perfect outfielder.

While the Speaker, Lewis and Harry Hooper outfield of the early 20th century and the Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr. and Andrew Benintendi outfield of 2017 share similarities in the fast and nimble players, the 2017 Killer B’s have more flare. Williams and Yaz share the power at the plate, but Yastrzemski had a far better glove.

Williams could swing the lumber for more yards than Betts can, but it’s easier for Betts to rob a homer than for the Kid to field a grounder. Speaker and Yaz were about as good as one another, but they played different games: Yaz was respectable, but Speaker earned his respect through dirty grit.

Speaker and Williams were barely similar, for while Speaker hit for average, he played the field like few others, and Williams’ historic 1941 .406 batting average did not distract from the atrocity that occurred when the ball came near him. The real commonalities are between Yastrzemski and Betts; they both led the league in several batting categories, they both had great WAR and both made spectacular plays in the outfield.

No matter how you spin it, Boston outfielders set the stage for the rest of baseball and the future of the game. Beantown is ahead of the curve, but even they evolve.

 

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