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Red Sox's Top 5 left fielders: Browne's take

@IanMBrowne
April 27, 2020

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun

No one loves a good debate quite like baseball fans, and with that in mind, we asked each of our beat reporters to rank the top five players by position in the history of their franchise, based on their career while playing for that club. These rankings are for fun and debate purposes only. If you don’t agree with the order, participate in the Twitter poll to vote for your favorite at this position.

Here is Ian Browne’s ranking of the top five left fielders in Red Sox history. Next week: center field.

Red Sox's Top 5: C | 1B | 2B | 3B | SS

1. Ted Williams, 1939-42, ’46-60
Key fact: His 121.9 fWAR is second in American League history to Babe Ruth.

Where to start? Nobody loved the art of hitting more than Ted Williams, and it’s possible nobody was better at it. Here we are, 79 years later, and Williams is still the last player to hit .400 in a season. In that golden 1941 season for baseball in which Joe DiMaggio had a 56-game hitting streak, Williams batted .406.

But it was the way he did it that stood out. Instead of sitting on his average as the season wound down, Williams demanded to keep playing. In fact, on the last day of the regular season, Williams played both games of a doubleheader against the Philadelphia Athletics and went 6-for-8.

One of the many amazing things about Williams was his ability to hit for average (.344 for his career) and power (521 homers). His career OPS was 1.116, which would be a career season for nearly any other player. As great a career as Williams had, his numbers would have been even more impressive if not for the nearly five full seasons he missed serving in World War II and the Korean War.

Because of a combination of fear from the opposing pitcher and having the keenest eye imaginable at the plate, Williams led the AL in walks eight times. It was impressive enough what Williams did during his prime, but then there’s his age-38 season in 1957, when he batted .388 with a career-high OPS of 1.257. A 19-time All-Star, Williams collected six AL batting titles and two AL Most Valuable Player Awards en route to the Hall of Fame.

2. Carl Yastrzemski, 1961-83
Key fact: Yaz is the all-time Red Sox leader in games, at-bats, runs, hits, doubles, RBIs, extra-base hits and total bases.

Imagine the pressure Carl Yastrzemski felt when he arrived in 1961 with the task of replacing Williams in left field. It took a few years, but Yastrzemski eventually became a legend himself. He put it all together during a magical 1967 season, winning the AL Triple Crown with a .326 average, 44 homers and 121 RBIs. And Yaz compiled those numbers during an intense pennant race that came down to the final game of the season. All Yastrzemski did in the last two games of the year was go 7-for-8 to vault the Red Sox into the World Series for the first time since 1946.

“He’s my hero. He always has been. He still is,” said Red Sox broadcaster Jerry Remy, who played with Yaz for six years. “He was so self-motivated to be good. I don’t think Yaz was the greatest athlete in the world. I just think he made himself into a great player.”

While his hitting exploits alone (3,419 hits, 452 homers) would have been enough to get him into the Hall of Fame, Yaz was also an elite defender in left field, winning seven AL Gold Glove Awards. Nobody knew how to play the Green Monster like Yaz, and that was before padding was placed on the wall in 1976. Yaz transitioned to first base later in his career and was also excellent at that position. His accomplishments were matched only by his impressive longevity. In 1977, at the age of 37, Yaz belted 28 homers, had 102 RBIs and won his final Gold Glove. And he still played another six years after that.

“The thing that impressed me the most about him is how hard he worked at hitting,” said Remy. “As he got older, the one thing he didn’t want to do is get beat on a fastball. Whatever his stance was, whatever he decided to go with, and he had many different stances towards the end of his career, it was always to be able to hit the fastball.”

3. Jim Rice, 1974-89
Key fact: Only AL player to top 400 total bases in a season since 1937.

Just like the two Hall of Famers ranked ahead of him on this list, Jim Rice played his entire career with the Red Sox. Though it didn’t happen until his 15th and final year on the writers’ ballot, Rice at last made it into the Hall of Fame in 2009. He had a dominant run that started with his rookie season in 1975 and ended in his second pennant-winning season of ’86. Over those 12 years, Rice slashed .304/.356/.520 with 350 homers and 1,276 RBIs.

Rice’s 1978 AL MVP-winning season is one of the most dominant in Red Sox history. He played in 163 games and batted .315 with 46 homers, 139 RBIs and 406 total bases. Though there were times the Green Monster helped Rice, he was an all-fields hitter who went deep many times to center and right. An eight-time All-Star, Rice led the AL in slugging percentage in 1977 and ’78.

“It was awesome because his wrists were so quick and he was so strong that he always sat on breaking balls,” said Remy. “He’d look for a breaking ball, and he’d hit it nine miles. Then he got a fastball and he’d make contact and shoot a line drive up the middle or to the opposite field. But you’d forget about that because all you thought about were his monster home runs. In my opinion, for a stretch of about five years, he dominated the American League. He was the most feared hitter in the league.”

One of the great what-ifs in Red Sox history is what would have happened if Rice had played in the 1975 World Series. Rice broke his left wrist late in the regular season, and the Red Sox lost to the Reds in seven games, losing Game 7 by one run.

4. Manny Ramirez, 2001-08
Key fact: His .999 OPS is third in Red Sox history behind Williams and Jimmie Foxx.

Make no mistake about it: Manny Ramirez was an absolute beast in the middle of the batting order in the 7 1/2 years he played with the Red Sox. But he loses some points for his unpredictable behavior, which included forcing a trade out of Boston when the Red Sox were trying to win back-to-back World Series championships in 2008.

Overall, however, the good outweighed the bad in Ramirez’s Boston years. He was a centerpiece for the 2004 team that broke an 86-year championship drought, leading the AL with 43 homers and being named MVP in the World Series sweep of the Cardinals. Though Ramirez’s behavior was inconsistent, his numbers couldn’t have been any more consistent. In each of his first six seasons with Boston, Ramirez was a 30-homer, 100-RBI player with an OBP that was .388 or higher. Ramirez had an OPS+ of 155 for the Red Sox.

Ramirez’s legacy is clouded by the fact that he violated the league’s substance abuse policy twice later in his career -- after he had left the Red Sox. His quirkiness will forever make him a fan favorite at Fenway. “Manny being Manny” included taking bathroom breaks in the Green Monster during pitching changes, high-fiving a fan while he was in the middle of making a great defensive play and once cutting off a throw from a fellow outfielder.

5. Mike Greenwell, 1985-96
Key fact: Finished second in 1988 AL MVP race.

Known as the Gator -- he loved to hunt alligators -- Mike Greenwell is the fourth of the five players on this list who played his entire career for the Red Sox. Amazingly, left field was patrolled by Williams, Yaz, Rice and Greenwell from 1939-96.

Though Greenwell isn’t in the same class as those who preceded him, he was a pure hitter who finished with a career batting average of .303. Greenwell was a line-drive hitter who always seemed to square the ball up. The two-time All-Star put it all together during that 1988 season with a line of .325/.416/.531 with 22 homers and 119 RBIs. A left-handed hitter, Greenwell played on four playoff teams.

Honorable mentions
• Before there was the Green Monster, Fenway Park had Duffy’s Cliff. That was the area of left field patrolled by Duffy Lewis, and it included a 10-foot incline before the wall. Lewis hit .289 over eight seasons with Boston (1910-17), a stretch that included three World Series championships.

Troy O’Leary was a key, underrated contributor to some solid Red Sox teams in the 1990s. His grand slam at Cleveland in Game 5 of the ’99 Division Series will forever be remembered.

• Four seasons into his career, it is clear Andrew Benintendi has the talent -- and the swing -- to emerge as an important part of Red Sox history, though inconsistency has been a problem so far. His diving catch to save Game 4 of the 2018 AL Championship Series will go down as a big moment in team history.

Tommy Harper played just three seasons with the Red Sox, but his 54 stolen bases in 1973 stood as a club record until Jacoby Ellsbury shattered it with 70 in 2009.

Ian Browne has covered the Red Sox for MLB.com since 2002. Follow him on Twitter @IanMBrowne and Facebook.