Boston Won Without X as a Factor

Xander Bogaerts triple-slashed .288/.360/.522 in 580 regular-season plate appearances in 2018, which translated to a 133 wRC+ and 4.9 WAR. Both figures represented career highs. Like his teammate Mookie Betts, Bogaerts thrived offensively while largely maintaining a disciplined approach at the plate. This year, the 25-year-old swung at 61% of pitches he saw in the strike zone and just 43% of pitches overall. Both figures sit below league norms (just 16 of 140 qualified hitters swung at pitches in the zone less often this year) and are broadly consistent with Bogaerts’scareer figures. Bogaerts can, clearly, be a successful major-league hitter without taking a cut at every tempting fastball and slider he sees in the zone. He’s done it in each of past four years.

He did not, however, do so during this World Series. The only ball he struck really well in all five games was a second-inning double against Hyun-Jin Ryu in Game Two; his only other hits were a soft line-drive single in the ninth inning of Game Four that appeared to be almost the accidental result of a swing on which Bogaerts rolled over badly, and a single in the seventh in the clincher. Everything else he produced during this World Series was, for the most part, a weak ground ball or, in one horrible sequence of the 18-inning marathon that was Game Three, a ground out to second, a ground out to the pitcher, a ground out to the catcher, a strikeout swinging, and a ground ball into a double play. Bogaerts seemed simply unable to get his timing right for any consistent length of time in this World Series. Nor, until the final game, did Mookie Betts or J.D. Martinez.

Although all three Boston stars struggled to a greater or lesser extent during this Fall Classic — a matter examined by Jeff Sullivan earlier today — I’d like to focus on Bogaerts for much of this piece because his struggles seem, at least to me, the most pronounced — and most out of line with his performance during the regular season in 2018 (and, one presumes, his forthcoming performance in 2019). The first ground out in that horrible five-PA sequence I mentioned above, against Kenley Jansen in the ninth inning of Game Three, is instructive for its demonstration of Bogaerts’ Series-long inability to time up usually hittable pitches. (Please note: I’m not saying I could do this. I would cry if someone threw something past me at even 85.) The first pitch of the sequence was a sinker at 95 that Bogaerts took as a strike on the lower inside corner of the plate. Here it is:

That Bogaerts took this pitch at all is, in and of itself, a unusual. Not hugely unusual, but a little. Bogaerts’s first-pitch strike rate is quite a few points lower than league average, in general, and he swung at that particular pitch 68% of the time this year. But, hey, it’s one pitch. What’s to worry about? The second pitch in the sequence was a cutter at 93 just above the zone and away at which Bogaerts offered but did not come close to hitting. Eh. Hitting Kenley Jansen is hard. But the third pitch was the same as the second — a cutter at 93 just above the top of the zone and away — and Bogaerts again failed to time it up, instead fouling it nearly straight back and into the net protecting the residents of Chavez Ravine’s top real estate.

At this point, Bogaerts had seen three straight fastballs — the last two of which were cutters, and basically identical — and two different eye levels. Jansen’s next pitch was, perhaps unsurprisingly, a slider, which was a good idea hamstrung somewhat by the fact that he delivered it into the patch of dirt just to the right of Yasmani Grandal’s right knee. As Grandal popped out of his crouch to pick it up, Bogaerts stared at the dirt just to the right of his right knee and did nothing except, perhaps, ponder the immediate future. The count was 1-2.

Jansen’s next pitch of the sequence was his fourth in five that was a fastball of one sort or another between 93 and 95 mph, and his fourth in five that caught some portion of what could plausibly be called the zone. This is the type of pitch that, even with two strikes, you might expect a right-handed hitter on top of his game to time up and smack into right field for a single or, with a little luck, a double down the line. But Xander Bogaerts was not on top of his game during the Series, and this is what happened instead:

That’s an emergency swing, and not an especially good one. Bogaert’s entire body collapses toward the pitch, and it’s just his fast wrists that get him to the pitch at all. When he does, the result is a weak grounder to the right-hand side, rather than the line drive that could have resulted from a pitch like that, at that point in the sequence. Could have. Maybe I’m being a little unfair to Bogaerts. It’s very difficult to hit against Kenley Jansen at the best of times, and that cutter is nothing to sneeze at. Like I said, I think would cry. But I think we all know that Xander Bogaerts at his best can do damage on the pitch we just saw him damaged by. And we all do know that Bogaerts hit just .136 in 22 World Series at-bats. He struck out six times.

One of my favorite things about the postseason is how the usual relationships between inputs and outputs that govern success in the regular season fail to apply. The Red Sox won 108 games this year in large part because Betts, Martinez, and Bogaerts all had tremendously productive seasons at the plate. Those three men then combined to go 13-for-63 in the Series, with 18 strikeouts and just five extra-base hits. The Sox’ win last night, in a game that was over basically from the get-go, was due in large part to Betts and Martinez. But that wasn’t the story of the Series, and that’s kind of fun. The Red Sox didn’t get much out of their best hitters during this Fall Classic, and they won anyway. I’m sure Xander Bogaerts will take that.

Rian Watt is a contributor to FanGraphs based in Seattle. His work has appeared at Vice, Baseball Prospectus, The Athletic, FiveThirtyEight, and some other places too. By day, he works with communities around the world to end homelessness.

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Baron Samedi
5 years ago

This is not the headline we need, but it is the headline we deserve.

5 years ago
Reply to  Rian Watt

You can ALWAYS blame Carson.