Powering Up With Xander Bogaerts

If Xander Bogaerts were a video game character you’d hold down the A button for three seconds and he’d start to glow red. Hitting for power is really easy when you’re glowing red. Bogaerts is a real person, not a video game character though, so hitting for power is considerably more difficult. Last season Bogaerts managed all of seven homers in 654 plate appearances. The fact that I can spell the number of homers means he didn’t hit many. Don’t let me mislead you though. The Xander Bogaerts of 2015 was a very good player. He played good defense, hit for average, and even stole some bases. He just wasn’t a power hitter. And that’s fine. Good, even. The odd part is the Bogaerts we saw last year was almost the opposite of the player we were expecting as he was coming up through the minor leagues.

Bogaerts’ calling card as a prospect wasn’t just his power, but that was an important feature. And yet last season the homers just weren’t there. That’s not how it was supposed to be. And so we’re left to wonder, what happened to the power bat we watched so intently zoom through the minor leagues?

To get a better picture of where Bogaerts will end up, it’s instructive to look at where he’s been. The Red Sox shortstop of the present has been the Red Sox shortstop of the future for going on six years now. In 2011 he hit 16 homers in 72 games in A-ball as an 18 year old. The next year he hit 20 homers combined while splitting time between High-A and Double-A at age 19. None of the teams he played for play in particularly homer-prone ballparks, so the power was legit. After the 2012 season Baseball America ranked Bogaerts as the eighth best prospect in baseball. At the time they gave his bat a 60 on the 20-to-80 scale. They gave his power a 70.

Bogaerts made his way to the majors in 2013, eventually taking over the starting third base job for the slumping Will Middlebrooks who, it turns out, is still slumping. It was fitting spot for Bogaerts as he had never been a standout defensive shortstop, just a player competent enough at the position to remain there during his speedy rise to the big leagues. Many thought third was where he would end up eventually anyway given his size (6’1, 210 pounds) and power, so being the starting third baseman on a World Series winning team seems like the ultimate realization of that idea.

Then 2014 happened. Bogaerts started the season at shortstop as the Red Sox hadn’t given up on Middlebrooks. Then Middlebrooks failed, the Red Sox brought Stephen Drew back from free agency hell, and moved Bogaerts back to third base. Then, a few months later, they moved Bogaerts back to shortstop. It might have been because of all that or it might not have been, but he spent the last four months of 2014 batting .202/.233/.304. The World Series-winning third baseman with 70 power had just spent the balance of the year slugging .304. How? Why?

Perhaps the answer can be found in Bogaerts’ approach. When he first came up in 2013 he pulled the ball with frequency. He did the same thing in the post-season. The combined number of plate appearances aren’t much (84) but you assume his plate approach wasn’t too different than it had been in the minors, and his minor league power numbers back that up. I should note that batters are able to generate better power by pulling the ball so pulling the ball would be consistent with Bogaerts’ skill set, or at least his expected skill set. The following season things changed, though mostly on the results front. Bogaerts still pulled the ball in 2014, in fact more on a percentage basis than he had the previous season. The problem was, although he was pulling the ball, he wasn’t hitting well. The middle and end of the 2014 season was a disaster for Bogaerts, for which he could thank many things probably, but the main culprit seemed to be the slider.

In 2014 Bogaerts hit .138 against sliders and slugged .160. Throw him a slider outside and he’d go fishing for it. His strikeout rate went up and his walk rate dropped. For the first time probably ever in his life Xander Bogaerts was bad at hitting.

Two main things happened in 2015 to change that. The first is Bogaerts consciously went the other way. A lot. He went from pulling the ball almost 50% of the time in 2014 to pulling the ball 34% of the time in 2015. At the same time he started to hit the ball the other way far more frequently, going from 19% in 2014 to 32% in 2015. So there’s that. The second thing, which you might expect given the first thing, is he stopped hitting the ball hard. Via our data, Bogaerts went from 34% hard contact to 27% with the difference distributed between his medium and soft contact rates.

Simply put, Bogaerts had become a slap hitter. He hadn’t been able to handle the sliders outside in 2014 and they had ruined him, so he adjusted and the way he adjusted was by slapping the ball the other way. But he didn’t just slap low and away sliders the other way. He  slapped, metaphorically speaking, everything the other way. He adjusted by swinging sooner in the count too, as his pitches per plate appearance went from 4.1 in 2014 to 3.8 in 2015.

Watch this video, or this one, or this one. You’ll see the same thing. Bogaerts takes a defensive swing, keeping his bat level and behind the ball and hits it the other way. It’s interesting to note that the first two videos are of Bogaerts hitting outside pitches the other way, but in the third video he gets a fastball in the center of the plate and takes it the other way. Again, that’s all fine. Hits are good. But this wasn’t how it was supposed to be. Remember the power potential? Where’d that go?

It’s pretty clearly still in there. It doesn’t take a scout’s trained eye. Just look at the guy and you’ll see it. That said, there’s no numbers I can give you that will show Bogaerts still has that power capability he had as a premium prospect way back when beyond what’s written in the the above paragraphs. He used to be a power hitter. Then he changed his approach and now he’s not. The question is whether or not he can integrate this new style with a bit of the skills that wowed scouts when he was a teenager playing in places like Greenville, South Carolina, and Salem, Virginia.

The Red Sox are still hopeful and honestly, so am I. The guy is big, strong and he can turn on a pitch. He was also quite young the last two seasons and more importantly, quite young to fail so publicly as he did in 2014. It took a huge adjustment in who he was as a hitter but Bogaerts put up a very valuable 2015 season on both sides of the ball. This version of Bogaerts is a good player, though it’s hard to see him as the franchise cornerstone he’d been. To be a franchise cornerstone you need to be able to hit with some more power, and unfortunately for the Red Sox and Bogaerts, real baseball players don’t come with A buttons.

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6 years ago

Yeah I’ve wondered if Xander fans have been trying to have it both ways here – using his swing change to justify his apparent new babip skill while ignoring that it likely seriously hampers his power potential at the same time.

In general I hate to see a prospect who was rated so highly based on a sweet power swing make such a severe change so young, just because he struggled in MLB at age 21. While the change might allow him to be a solid player and lower his risk of busting, imo it’s hard not to see it as limiting his star potential in the end.

6 years ago
Reply to  Damaso

I completely agree that this is one of those “you can’t have it both ways” situations. He would have to completely change his approach to gain power, which would crush his already absurdly high BABIP. The question becomes how much power can he actually develop to offset and average BABIP. I wouldn’t think 20 HRs instead of 10 would be worth it.

Tom Dooley
6 years ago
Reply to  ryancc

It isn’t just about dingers, though. He just needs to consistently hit the ball hard to produce doubles and HRs.

That requires a different swing. There were actually two problems before the new swing: 1) couldn’t cover the outside corner – this is fixed by the new swing. 2) couldn’t lay off sliders *off* the outside corner – this isn’t fixed by a swing at all. It’s fixed by discipline.

So in theory, he could get back to a more balanced, powerful swing while learning to layoff those pitches. In reality, though, that’s…really, really, hard and thus improbable.

You could make the argument that Xander has proven an ability to learn and adjust (defensively and offensively), but I expect him to level off as a good-hitting shortstop with some pop if you miss inside. That’s a good player, but not a star.

Daniel the Maniel
6 years ago
Reply to  Tom Dooley

He’s a hitter able to make an amazing realization about going the opposite way at the age of 21. I’d bet you by the age of 23 he’s got the power thing figured out as well. He will learn to really turn on the inside pitch in front of the Monstah and totally dominate. Patience, my young padawan …