Xander Bogaerts Changes, Really Remains the Same

Everything Xander Bogaerts did well in his breakout season last year, he seems to be doing better this year. More power, more patience, more contact, and better defense — he’s basically equaled last year’s full-season WAR figure already, and there’s three-fifths of a season left to go. He’s leading the league right now!

Of course, WAR isn’t your traditional counting stat: Bogaerts could hypothetically put up negative wins going forward, were he to regress in one way or all of them. But since he gave us such a great preview last year, it’s tempting to believe in all of the improvements he’s made. He’s really the same guy, just a little better.

At the center of his improvement has been how hard he hits the ball, the angles (both vertical and horizontal) of those batted balls, and his defensive range. He didn’t think much had changed about those particilar variables when I asked him, though. Just a few minor tweaks.

The people around Bogaerts know that he hits the ball hard, even as they suggest that it’s not a priority. “We see power in there,” Red Sox manager John Farrell told Nick Cafardo recently. “He’s got good plate coverage and that’s what he’s striving for. That [power] will come in time.”

Only nine players added as much batted-ball velocity in the second half last year as Bogaerts, who was squarely above average and even outstanding at moments late in the season when judged by exit velocity alone. But he hits the ball into the ground a lot, too. And it’s his choice.

“This is the player I want to be,” Bogaerts told me. “Sometimes people want you to be someone else, but it’s not up to them.” So, instead of the full-scale revamp of his launch angle that has lead to power breakouts for people like J.D. Martinez, Bogaerts has chosen to stay the same. “It’s what I like, I’ve had success doing it, so why change it,” he continued. “If it comes, when it comes, that’s okay, but it’s not something I want to go start changing.”

So Bogaerts is hitting for more power this year, but it’s by hitting the ball harder, and slightly changing things, instead of big changes. He’s only subtracted 1.7 percentage points of ground balls — placing him nowhere near the top of the leaderboard in that department– and even new-fangled angle analysis says he hasn’t changed much (26.6% in ideal angles this year, 24.9% last year). The key is that he’s added 5 mph in ideal angles this year, good for the ninth-best improvement in baseball since last year.

Now Bogaerts has the 94th-best exit velocity in the ideal launch angles, better than the velocity produced by Marcell Ozuna and Matt Adams. He’s the same guy, but better.

If you wander over to his horizontal angle — his pull versus opposite field percentages — you might be tempted to say that you’ve found real change. Or, at least, he’s pulling the ball more than last year. Ends up, that might be a function of where he’s getting pitched. Take a look at his fastball (top) and changeup (bottom) heat maps, with last year on the left and this year on the right.

Bogaerts FACH 1516

“Yeah a lot more curveballs, offspeed, fastballs inside,” Bogaerts confirmed. And that lines up with the map.

But it’s worth asking how much pitch location determines the outcome of the pitch. Andrew Cashner once told me it was foolish to pitch differently with the shift on behind you because “pull hitters are going to pull it,” no matter where you throw it.

Thanks to Jonah Pemstein, we can see what the league does on average. Here’s horizontal spray angle by pitch location for right-handers, with red representing more pull. Cashner is right, to some extent: there are pull hot spots all over the place. But there’s also an extreme pull tendency inside off the plate, and if Bogaerts is getting pitched more inside, he’s seeing some of those, too.

Pull pct by location - righties-2

And, as it turns out, Bogaerts is actually also very skilled at… going the other way with pitches on the inside. When he says “sometimes you get pitched in, and you get jammed,” he’s intuitively referencing the fact that he’s among the five best players at going to the opposite field on inside pitches.

Pemstein will have more on that going forward, but Farrell’s comments can once again give us a guide. His player’s priority is plate coverage, and he’ll pull it or push it, but he wants to make hard contact on pitches both inside and out. This year is just more of the same — more reacting to where the pitcher is throwing it. “You prepare in the cage,” Bogaerts told me. “I can’t control if they are going to throw me in or outside, all I can do is try to be on time and ready. It depends on where he throws it.”

As for the defense, the player wasn’t going to help us find the tweak that has helped him improve. “Range is the same since I came up, but I might be a little quicker now that I know what to do, where to go,” he said, agreeing that anticipation of the ball in play is now better.

There’s one thing he has changed in the field. “I always had a problem throwing. I just had to figure out what it is I had to do to get it over there well instead of all over the place,” he said. But what that was, he wasn’t going to say. “It’s something different. I know what I do, but I don’t really like to talk about that piece. I just know what I have to do to get it over there in a good area now.”

Apologies to Xander, but I had to look. My guess is that he’s changed his arm slot. If you look at this error against the White Sox that lost the game, you can see he sidearms it into the ground. And then looks sad.

That was 2014, and even the “great play” highlights depict him throwing sidearm. Now, in 2016, his throws generally look different. On a very similar throw to the one he blew two years ago, his throws specifically look like this:

He’s over the top there. And looks like he’s more over the top in general. Who knows why he wouldn’t want to tell us this. Maybe those sliding into second would be less intimidated by a possible low sidearm throw if they thought he always goes over the top. Who knows. But it looks like a real change, even if it’s a real change that has allowed him to be the great defensive shortstop that he was supposed to be.

And that might be one of the few substantial changes we can detect. Most of what’s happening this year for Xander Bogaerts is just the result of “Working, trust and confidence,” as he put it. “It’s just me,” he concluded. In this case, “just” him is pretty glorious.

With a phone full of pictures of pitchers' fingers, strange beers, and his two toddler sons, Eno Sarris can be found at the ballpark or a brewery most days. Read him here, writing about the A's or Giants at The Athletic, or about beer at October. Follow him on Twitter @enosarris if you can handle the sandwiches and inanity.

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6 years ago

In regards to his defense, I think UZR is overrating him a lot. He’s got a 0 DRS on the season, yet his UZR/150 is 12.9. His error rating is 2.9, and yet in roughly the same amount of plays and innings he’s made one error more than Lindor and Crawford who have 1.9 and 1.5 error ratings.

He already has 3 throwing errors listed which is half of his total last year. Although he is much better than 2014.

6 years ago
Reply to  ryancc

It depends on the weights. His range has been very good this year, which is probably what UZR is so excited about. His arm has alternated between spectacular and erroneous, which is likely why DRS is less excited.

Also remember that error scoring is sometimes a very deceptive thing. At least one of the throwing errors was on a play that a more experienced first baseman would have picked (and I vaguely remember one of the others being the same, but I’m not sure). Bogaerts is *trying* more edgy throws than he tried last year, and so some of them aren’t going to work out as well. I think that’s probably an overall net positive.