The Struggles of Three Shortstops

Bogaerts isn’t taking advantage of the Monster the way he could. (Photo: Keith Allison)

Last week in this space, we took a look at some shortstops predominantly known for their gloves who’ve taken some real (and not so real) steps forward with the bat. (Zack Cozart was not included; he deserves his own article soon.) This time, let’s flip the script and assess the light offensive production of some shortstops known for their bats not all that long ago.

Brandon Crawford, Xander Bogaerts and Trevor Story are all at different career stages and bring unique skill sets to the table. Crawford is 30 years old and has been a linchpin for multiple World Series champions. Bogaerts, amazingly still only 24, won a ring at age 20, weeks into his major-league career. He, like Crawford has a single 20-homer season to his credit. Story, 24, launched 27 homers in only 97 games in his rookie 2016 campaign. Whatever their differences, all three currently share something in common: all of them have struggled with the bat this time around.

These players were heralded all-around prospects throughout their minor-league career. Each season, I compile my own minor-league position-player prospect list, based on production relative to level and league and adjusted for age. The three players qualified for my list a total of eight times, with all three recording a peak ranking in the top 35 (No. 35 for Bogaerts and Crawford, No. 32 for Story).

That’s a big deal: as I don’t adjust for defense or position on my list, it’s tough for shortstops to shine. This is basically a master full-season follow list, which I use to define the population of players upon whom to conduct more traditional analysis. All three combined offensive potential with the defensive chops to stick at a premium defensive position.

How real are these players’ diminished levels of offensive performance? Let’s drill down into their plate-appearance-frequency and batted-ball-quality data to get a better feel.

In the two tables below, such data is provided for all three players.

Plate Appearance Frequency Data
Name POP % FLY% LD% GB% K% BB%
Crawford 2.3% 33.3% 17.8% 46.6% 20.1% 6.6%
Bogaerts 4.8% 24.8% 20.9% 49.6% 17.7% 7.1%
Story 6.0% 42.0% 18.3% 33.7% 36.1% 9.5%

Contact Quality/Overall Performance Data
Crawford 71 53-87 85-92 79-93 89 67 87
Bogaerts 91 64-35 99-94 167-135 72 88 76
Story 135 111-103 111-105 279-117 108 63 71

The first table lists each player’s K and BB rates, as well as the breakdown of all of their BIP by category type. For this table, color-coding is used to note significant divergence from league average. Red cells indicate values that are over two full standard deviations higher than league average. Orange cells are over one STD above, yellow cells over one-half-STD above, blue cells over one-half STD below, and black cells over one STD below league average. Ran out of colors at that point. Variation of over two full STD below league average will be addressed as necessary in the text below.

The second table includes each player’s Unadjusted Contact Score. This represents, on a scale where 100 equals league average, the actual production level recorded by each player on balls in play. Basically, it’s their actual performance with the Ks and BBs removed. Their Unadjusted and Adjusted Contact Scores for each BIP category are then listed. Adjusted Contact Score represents the production level that each player “should have” recorded if every batted ball resulted in league-average production for its exit-speed/launch-angle “bucket.” Players assessed an extreme grounder-pulling penalty would be in red font; none of these players were assessed such a penalty, though Story qualified for one.

Finally, overall Adjusted Contact Score, actual wRC+ and Projected Production are listed. Projected Production adds back the Ks and BBs to the Adjusted Contact Score data to give a better measure of each player’s true performance level.

Crawford’s raw offensive line is the worst of the group. His K and BB rates, particularly the latter, have moved a bit in the wrong direction this season. Much of the drop-off in his performance this season can be traced to a single number: his subpar liner rate. The good news is that liner rates are much more volatile than other BIP types. Positive regression can be expected, though perhaps not quite soon enough to salvage his 2017 campaign.

The lefty hitter has also been quite unlucky across all BIP types, with his Unadjusted Contact Score exceeding his adjusted mark on all BIP types. His average fly-ball authority has been almost exactly the same in 2016 and 2017 (90.4 mph average both years, 85 and 87 Adjusted Contact Scores). His average liner authority has declined a bit (93.7 to 90.7 mph, 100 and 94 Adjusted Contact Scores). Another positive? His pop-up rate has been almost cut in half this season.

Bottom line: except for the effects of the lower liner rate, Brandon Crawford is virtually the same, almost exactly league-average bat that he was as recently as last season. He’s better than his 2017 numbers and has multiple seasons of solid all-around value ahead.

Any discussion regarding Bogaerts must be prefaced with a nod to his youth and the significant accomplishments already in place for his age. That said, there are scary aspects to his profile. He’s gradually developed a fairly significant ground-ball tendency. That, in and of itself, isn’t a huge deal, as Fenway Park helps fly balls to such an extent that you don’t need a ton of quantity to take advantage. What is concerning, however, is his high pop-up rate despite his low fly-ball output. That’s a bad combination. It’s not even his biggest issue, however.

Bogaerts’ fly-ball authority has plummeted this season, from an average of 90.0 mph (64 Adjusted Contact Score) in 2016 to 83.0 mph (35 Adjusted Contact Score) in 2017. That is a massive, massive drop, and is even more acute in Fenway. Fly balls at 90 mph are outs in most parks a high percentage of the time; in Fenway, however, they sometimes become Monster doubles. He simply hasn’t been able to tap into the huge Fenway fly-ball advantage that’s sitting there waiting for him. He’s been somewhat fortunate on all BIP types, with his Unadjusted Contact Score outpacing his adjusted mark on flies, liners, and grounders.

Looking for good news? There’s his typically low K rate, which affords him margin for error with regard to contact authority — margin that he’s unfortunately using. Also, he’s crushing his grounders, even more so than he has in the past. It’s very rare for a hitter to consistently hit grounders at a much harder velocity relative to average than fly balls. Melky Cabrera likely fits that mold best; Lorenzo Cain once did, but has upped his fly-ball authority a bit over time.

Bogaerts has actually been a bit worse than his 2017 numbers, so it’s fair to call his ultimate upside into question. That upside, though, is quite significant. If he gets a bit stronger and recaptures his previous ability to occasionally drive the ball in the air, Bogaerts would still be a force in Fenway. The chances of him reaching a superstar-level peak have diminished a bit. Put it this way: the 2017 season very likely represents his near-term floor. I can live with that.

Lastly, we have Story. He’s just not the same guy who busted onto the scene in the spring of 2016. His shortcomings are obvious: he gives away tons of free outs via the strikeout and the pop up. His K rate is actually up sharply from its already rarefied 2016 level. His average launch angle was high in 2016 (16.2 degrees) and is materially higher (20.0 degrees) this season. The reality is, there is nowhere for it go but down.

Those frequencies aren’t even his biggest problems. Story absolutely devastated the ball in the air last season, with an average velocity of 93.3 mph and an Adjusted Contact Score of 187. In 2017, those marks are down sharply to 90.6 and 103, respectively. Coors Field obviously makes fly-ball hitters look a lot better than they should, but it’s got a lot of work to do to pretty up this year’s version of Story.

Want an even bigger issue? Story has somehow recorded a .373 average and .407 slugging percentage on the ground despite being an extreme puller, an easy infield overshift decision. He would have been assessed an excessive grounder-pulling penalty if the contextual adjustment based on exit speed didn’t already do the job. Story could easily hit .100-.150 on the ground. What would his overall numbers look like then?

Story needs to make major adjustments to survive, let alone thrive. When you strike out as often as he does (plus the pop ups and the pulled grounders), you must destroy the baseball when you get it in the air. He did so last year, but not thus far in 2017. Adjusted for context, Story “should be” slashing .196/.273/.359. Those are sobering numbers.

So, I see Crawford as a steady, above-average all-around player in the early stages of decline, Bogaerts as an above-average player having a bad year, and Story as a guy who needs to make adjustments quick to remain a viable major-league starter. Their raw numbers might beg to disagree with those diagnoses, but the introduction of some BIP analysis into the mix helps us better see true-talent levels.

Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
6 years ago

So is now the time to consider an extension for Bogaerts? Seems like the Red Sox could get a much better deal coming off of this season than they could based on his 4.3- and 4.7-WAR previous seasons. Or are the questions about his ultimate upside so serious that the Sox would be better off going year-to-year, with an eye towards eventually letting him depart via free agency?

6 years ago
Reply to  Ryan21

They could probably lock him down for a 3-4 year deal slightly above market value and not blink an eye. Think that’s their best bet. Even at his worst he’s still a good shortstop with a decent bat.

6 years ago

I’m not sure he *is* a good shortstop. UZR, DRS, and FRAA all rate his defense poorly, which is consistent with his 2016 stats as well. It seems like a positional change will be necessary in a couple years, and the Sox for now at least don’t have an obvious opening. I’d say it’s best to go year to year and let him walk after 2019.