Left Field Heroes

Starting in 1939, six men have roamed left field at Fenway Park for what we can call a significant period of time:

  • Ted Williams, 1939-1960
  • Carl Yastrzemski, 1961-1974
  • Jim Rice, 1975-1987
  • Mike Greenwell, 1988-1995
  • Manny Ramirez, 2001-2008
  • Jason Bay, 2008-present

From 1996 to 2000, the Red Sox went with, in chronological order, a mashup of Greenwell and Reggie Jefferson (1996), Wil Cordero (1997), and Troy O'Leary (1998-2000) — a generally awful combination that led to much wailing and gnashing of teeth for Red Sox fans the world over.

There were also Ted Williams' war years, 1943-45 and 1952-53. Assorted characters played the outfield in Williams' absence during World War II, and Baseball-Reference doesn't specify who played what position, but they all acquitted themselves well, and Bob Johnson in 1944 had one of the best seasons you've never heard of in a Red Sox uniform. The same could not be said of Williams' Korean War replacements, who were uniformly awful.

So out of the past 70 years, six players stood in front of the Green Monster for 60 of them.

With Jason Bay's 100th RBI Wednesday, it marks the 26th time in those 60 years that the left fielder has reached that milestone (27th, if you add together Ramirez's and Bay's totals from 2008). With his 31 home runs and counting, it's the 22nd season with a left fielder at 30 home runs or better. Drop the cutoff to 25, and it's the left fielders' 31st (32nd adding Ramirez and Bay again). 

Home runs and RBI are a pretty terrible way to judge offensive capabilities across eras though — Yaz hit during the era of the pitcher, while Williams was the lone offensive threat in an awful lineup the last 10 years of his career. Greenwell also was at his prime during an offensively depressed period.

Here are some OPS+ thresholds, with how many times these six men have reached them in 60 years:

  • 120 OPS+ — 47 times 
  • 125 OPS+ — 41 times
  • 130 OPS+ — 39 times
  • 150 OPS+ — 29 times

During those 60 years, Sox left fielders have posted a 150 OPS+ or better nearly half the time. Jason Bay, incidentally, is the only one not to achieve that level (Greenwell's monster 1988 says hello). A chart showing the left fielders' OPS+ since 1939 is after the jump.

Picture 2

I took out the war years on this chart, which shows an overall pattern of decline, which makes sense going from Williams to Yaz to Rice to Greenwell, yet notice how rarely the line drops below 100. From 1962, Yaz's second season, to 1991, the Red Sox never produced an OPS+ below 100 out of left field. For that matter, Yaz's rookie season was the only dip below 100 in a nonwar year between 1939 and 1991 — 47 qualifying years and just one OPS+ below 100. In 1992, Greenwell was injured and his replacement was Billy Hatcher, bringing that streak to an underwhelming end.

Rice picks up around year 33. You can see his 1977-79 peak cresting over the 150 mark in the middle of the chart. Greenwell's arrival in 1988 is evidenced by the sharp spike, but alas, he never fulfilled that promise despite being a solid player for several years. After the aforementioned period of mediocrity, Manny Ramirez's introduction brings some life back into the chart.

This isn't meant to be terribly scientific. I didn't go back and look at overall club production from the left field spot, or how the production out of left measured up against the league. It's just meant as an appreciation for the incredible run the Sox have had at one position over the past 70 years. For a great look at the Sox' left-field success versus the Yanks' center-field success using WARP, check out this Baseball Analysts post.

15 comments… add one

  • Nice, Paul.

    SF September 10, 2009, 8:50 am
  • How is 7 months of Jason Bay a “significant period of time”
    Its a small sample size..

    lardin September 10, 2009, 9:15 am
  • a season’s worth of data is a small sample size?

    dw (sf) September 10, 2009, 10:08 am
  • Excellent. As soon as I read the “6 players in 60 years”, I wanted a comparison of BOS LF and NYA CF.
    The LF specialization is interesting, as it’s probably one of the toughest positions to play adequately in any ballpark.

    AndrewYF September 10, 2009, 10:42 am
  • A season’s worth of data that corresponds exactly to a multiyear career is a small sample size?
    In retrospect, I should have included Troy O’Leary in my initial list, since he was in left 1998-2000. That would have been seven players to spend more than one season in left for the Sox in 70 years, and covered every year but the war years, 1996 and 1997. That’s just incredible.

    Paul SF September 10, 2009, 10:55 am
  • I don’t see how Jason Bay’s time has been significant. He’s performed, but when he flees for a better contract this off-season, who will care to remember him? And will you really list him alongside the others? That seems dubious.
    It’s a fine, and interesting, list otherwise. However one thing to remember is how almost all of these guys performed much better than they would have exactly because they played in front that wall.
    Besides the two best hitters of their generations (Teddy and Manny), the career splits of the others:
    Greenwell –
    Home: .312 .379 .490 .869
    Away: .293 .338 .421 .760
    Rice –
    Home: .320 .374 .546 .920
    Away: .277 .330 .459 .789
    Yaz –
    Home: .306 .402 .503 .904
    Away: .264 .357 .422 .779
    Even Manny in the last few years of his career in red showed similar trends.
    it’s probably one of the toughest positions to play adequately in any ballpark
    I disagree with this statement. The area needed to be covered is about half what it is at every other park. Sure, the caroms might be a bit tricky, but once learned they’re easily manageable. It may take a season, but it’s hardly tough.

    Rob September 10, 2009, 11:21 am
  • rob, nobody likes to argue with paul more than i do, but i try to be fair when he makes a good point…sometimes it gets lost in the minutia, but he gets to the point in his 10:55am entry:
    “…That would have been seven players to spend more than one season in left for the Sox in 70 years, and covered every year but the war years, 1996 and 1997. That’s just incredible….”
    i happen to agree with him…as for whether or not left field in fenway is tough to play…how the hell would WE know?…legend has it that it is, and i would have a hard time disagreeing with that since it is the quirkiest left field in the majors, and i’ve seen enough visiting leftfielders butcher it badly…you may have a point with the park making the guys look good at home, so i’ll leave it to paul to rebutt that…

    dc September 10, 2009, 11:34 am
  • Yaz and Williams have long held that their stats would have been much better had they been given Yankee Stadium’s short right-field porch rather than Fenway’s deep right-field expanse. They may have gotten more singles and doubles off the wall than they otherwise would have, but those home run totals would have been even more impressive nearly anywhere else.
    Rob’s point also ignores that most hitters play better at home, and despite Fenway’s bandbox reputation, the Sox’ best pitchers have pitched better there, too. Simply showing home/road splits does nothing to counterbalance the notion that those hitters wouldn’t have tailored their swings for their home park, regardless of where they played.

    Paul SF September 10, 2009, 12:13 pm
  • Oh, it’s is incredible. It really is and worthy of exactly what I’m doing – dissecting it even further.
    Career at YS –
    Yaz: .278 .348 .434 .782
    Ted: .311 .510 .548 1.058
    Yaz speaks for itself. But realize that Teddy’s career SLG was .624.
    legend has it that it is, and i would have a hard time disagreeing with that since it is the quirkiest left field in the majors, and i’ve seen enough visiting leftfielders butcher it badly
    Legends are for movies and drunks. We know Fenway plays easy because we can see what those fielders do on the road. You’re also agreeing with me. What happens to visiting players who know a bit about how the wall bounces? When’s the last time Damon butchered the ball there? And how many times did he specifically play LF with a beard?
    It’s quirky but not difficult.
    If anything that interpretation lends a theory about why specific guys have stuck there and allows us to look for specific similarities between them as players. All were smart and patient, not fast enough for center but without the arm for right, and a who could use the wall as batting aid. Adding O’Leary to the list furthers the point:
    Home: .303 .358 .497 .855
    Away: .247 .306 .399 .705
    O’Leary is also helpful because we can see what he was before and after Beantown – a .730 OPS hitter.

    Rob September 10, 2009, 1:06 pm
  • Great stuff. Is it possible to include another line with the league average OPS+ for left fielders, so we can see how much above average they are for their position? For that matter, is it possible to have OPS+ adjusted for position? (It’s all well and good that they’re rarely below 100 OPS+, but I think it’s to be expected that the LF will be above average offensively.)

    Brownie SF September 10, 2009, 1:11 pm
  • Of course, I missed my main point. The reasons players have stuck in LF in a Sox uni is because they were the types to learn the wall as a hitter and defender. That likely isn’t something you learn in one or two seasons, especially not when breaking in with a club. But those that broke those nuts are the ones that found a regular gig.
    Don’t get me wrong. The list ranges from once in a generation players to the Hall of Very Good. We can debate endlessly each player and whether they would have been the same in other parks. Obviously some would while others wouldn’t. I’m just providing a context for the niche. It’s like a tenured job. Once you land it, you keep it. The comparison to CF in Yankee Stadium would also be excellent.

    Rob September 10, 2009, 1:13 pm
  • > Legends are for movies and drunks
    Clever. It was unreasonably dismissive of dc’s point — who I know to have been a long-time observer of the game — which was direct observation, not allegory. But who wants to get in the way of that wit.
    “Found a regular gig.” That is an understatement and you are being sarcastic, right? I mean, you actually looked up the numbers about what has happened across the game in other franchises since 1939 to really understand the interesting (at least if you choose to look at it) fact that the Red Sox have had a remarkable run in their unique Left Field in finding future pinnacles of the game?
    > The comparison to CF in Yankee Stadium would also be excellent.
    Okay. Four names came to my head immediately: Dimaggiao, Mantle, Williams, Murcer. Then I had to think. Mickey Rivers.. Rickey.. Roberto Kelly.. umm.. Melky? Glad for the link in the post.
    A far more interesting thing to consider would be a comparison to Pittsburgh’s phenomenal left field history of Kiner to Stargell to Bonds.

    attackgerbil September 11, 2009, 2:00 am
  • cool stuff Paul.
    AG, I didn’t know about the Pirates great history with left fielders. It’s funny to think that Bay is also on that list.
    So the Yanks have the great CF tradition. The Sox and Pirates have LF. I guess the Cards have had great 1b. What other teams have similar traditions?

    Nick-YF September 11, 2009, 4:08 am
  • “…Of course, I missed my main point. The reasons players have stuck in LF in a Sox uni is because they were the types to learn the wall as a hitter and defender. That likely isn’t something you learn in one or two seasons, especially not when breaking in with a club. But those that broke those nuts are the ones that found a regular gig.
    Don’t get me wrong. The list ranges from once in a generation players to the Hall of Very Good….”
    so rob, you wound up going full circle and, in essence, agreeing with paul, and me, that it is unusual to have so few players man a particular position for such a long period of a team’s history…success with the bat and glove was the obvious driver of that longevity…in other words, if ted williams was shelley duncan he would have been replaced along the line…and most of the guys [that you refer to as "once in a generation players to the Hall of Very Good"] on paul’s list would have been full time leftfielders anywhere else…although your acknowledgment of paul’s point is a bit understated, it still does the job…

    dc September 11, 2009, 8:13 am
  • What a great question! Which Major League franchises have the finest traditions of excellence at a specific position? There’s no better way to separate the one-team fans from true stewards of the history of the game.
    This is the best I can do. Granted, there are gaps here, but still … how about catcher for the Dodgers?

    SF Ryan in Tucson September 16, 2009, 1:32 pm

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