Xander Bogaerts’ Defensive Bogeyman by Chris Gilligan November 17, 2022 Paul Rutherford-USA TODAY Sports It’s either a great or a terrible winter to be a shortstop. On the one hand, four shortstops – Carlos Correa, Trea Turner, Xander Bogaerts, and Dansby Swanson – figure to be among the offseason’s top free agent earners, making up half of the top eight in FanGraphs’ 2023 Top 50. On the other hand, those four have each other as competition, and differentiating oneself among the All-Star shortstops of four of the last six World Series champions can’t be easy. All four showed just what they’re capable of in 2022. Turner, Bogaerts, and Swanson each finished in the top 15 in position player WAR, separated by a grand total of 0.3, and Correa – if he raised any doubts by getting off to a slow start in Minnesota – slashed .370/.419/.613 over his last 29 games to finish first among all shortstops with a 140 wRC+. These players aren’t interchangeable by any means, and Swanson doesn’t have the offensive pedigree of the other three, but the teams showing interest in one are more than likely to at least take a look at the others. A year after Corey Seager, Trevor Story, Javier Báez, and Correa were among the top free agents available, this winter’s shortstop class is even more loaded. 2023 Free Agent Shortstops in 2022 Name Team G HR wOBA wRC+ Off Def WAR Xander Bogaerts BOS 150 15 .363 134 28.6 9.0 6.1 Carlos Correa MIN 136 22 .362 140 20.7 2.0 4.4 Trea Turner LAD 160 21 .350 128 29.5 7.1 6.3 Dansby Swanson ATL 162 25 .337 116 15.7 21.4 6.4 In the case of Bogaerts, the big question is how long his defensive abilities will allow him to remain in the category of “shortstop” at all. As evidenced by his five Silver Slugger Awards – the rest of the group has only one combined – Bogaerts is without a doubt one of the league’s best bats at the position. Since 2019, his 134 wRC+ and .374 wOBA are the highest among shortstops with at least 300 games played, and his 100.0 offensive runs above average trail only Turner, whose baserunning prowess makes the difference over that time. Not only does no other active shortstop have five Silver Sluggers, but none has as many as three. The only other shortstops in the Awards’ history with as many as five are Barry Larkin (nine), Cal Ripken Jr. (eight), Alex Rodriguez (seven), and Derek Jeter (five). His is the kind of bat that will make an immediate impact on any lineup. 2023 Free Agent Shortstops, since 2016 Name G HR wOBA wRC+ Off Def WAR Trea Turner 822 123 .360 125 157.4 36.6 31.6 Xander Bogaerts 946 136 .361 124 143.2 10.9 29.4 Carlos Correa 789 133 .356 129 116.4 44.8 27.8 Dansby Swanson 827 102 .315 94 -7.6 57.3 16.2 But defense has always been a weak spot in Bogaerts’ game – as much as his past managers have challenged that assertion – and through 2021, he rated as well below average by DRS and OAA, and modestly above average in UZR. His arm strength, which was measured at 82.1 mph on average this year, is below average for the position. While his bat has more than made up for his defensive deficiency over the course of his Red Sox career, Bogaerts is meeting the scrutiny of free agency for the first time this winter. At 30, he’s the oldest of the bunch, albeit by eight months, and both Ben Clemens and our crowdsourcing expect that his next contract could carry him to his 36th or 37th birthday. Exactly how many of those years he’ll be able to man the shortstop position is unclear. Xander Bogaerts Defensive Metrics at SS Season Inn DRS UZR OAA 2013 52.2 0 0.9 – 2014 880.0 -5 -3.1 – 2015 1360.1 -3 2.9 – 2016 1378.2 -10 -2.4 -16 2017 1310.1 -11 -0.7 2 2018 1183.1 -8 1.1 -4 2019 1368.0 -9 1.1 -9 2020 438.0 -4 0.3 -3 2021 1169.0 -5 2.3 -9 2022 1249.2 4 4.9 5 Total 10390.0 -51 7.3 -34 For Bogaerts, 2022 was an odd year, as lingering shoulder and wrist injuries sustained in a May collision with Alex Verdugo led to a weakened batted ball profile. His barrel rate dropped from 9.7% in 2021 to 6.5% in ’22, and he lost 1.5 mph on his average exit velocity. But ultimately, Bogaerts finished with a career-high 6.1 WAR in 150 games, his second-best career wRC+ at 134, a run at the American League batting title, and the AL Silver Slugger Award at short. Struggles aside, a banged-up Bogaerts, with some help from a .362 BABIP, was nearly as productive at the plate as ever, and given his track record, he’s a safe bet to continue hitting moving forward. Perhaps most importantly, Bogaerts turned in his best defensive season since he was 22, finishing with nine defensive runs above average. He was named as a Gold Glove finalist, and posted his first above-average DRS season with four and a career-high 4.9 UZR, good for fifth among major league shortstops. He leapt from the 1st percentile in Outs Above Average with -11 in 2021 to the 88th percentile with 5 OAA. Bogaerts has talked extensively about the changes he implemented, including an adjustment to his pre-pitch stance, which allowed him to come in on grounders more effectively, as The Athletic’s Jen McCaffrey wrote last month. This is borne out in the StatCast metrics – Bogaerts recorded 6 OAA on balls drawing him in, a jump from zero in 2021 and his highest mark since 2018. MLB.com’s Mike Petriello recently noted that Bogaerts rated as above average in terms of just getting to the ball, and UZR appears to agree – while UZR has been the friendliest defensive metric to Bogaerts over his career, the range component, RngR, has typically rated him as multiple runs below average. In 2022, he improved to nearly average at -0.4 RngR, his best mark since 2017. But some of Bogaerts’ success has been a product of positioning, which will have to change with the ban on shifts in 2023. According to OAA, much of his defensive value in 2022 came from the right-hand side of second base, as Petriello also noted. He was worth 5 OAA in 117 attempts on that side of the bag, compared to zero in 448 attempts on the third base side. Part of his success was a result of more opportunities in a more favorable position – after implementing defensive shifts in less than a third of plate appearances against left-handed hitters just five years ago, the Red Sox did so in 70.7% of those plate appearances this year, the second-highest rate in the league. Bogaerts took 20.7% of his attempts from the right side, compared to just 9.2% from 2016-21. As a result, Bogaerts was a +8 OAA defender against left-handed hitters, and a -3 against righties. Xander Bogaerts 2022 Defense Field Position Attempts Success Rate Est. Success Rate OAA SS 438 75% 75% -1 2B 117 84% 79% 5 3B 10 100% 94% 1 Total 565 77% 76% 5 SOURCE: Baseball Savant Notably, this follows a years-long trend of better performance when shifted to his left – in just under 400 attempts from the right side since 2016, Bogaerts has 7 OAA. In over 3,000 attempts from shortstop positioning, he has -41. For what it’s worth, he’s at -2 in just 36 attempts from third base positioning. I don’t want to overstate the impact this effect had – Bogaerts did improve from a particularly bad -10 in the traditional shortstop alignment in 2021 to a much more serviceable -1 in 2022, and he likely owes much of that improvement to the work he and the Red Sox coaching staff have done. And given his bat, any team should be happy to have him play something close to league-average defense at short. But what his success in the shift does suggest is that Bogaerts’ defensive abilities are better suited to second base. Especially with the changes he’s made, he may prove to be quite a strong defender at the position. It’s hard to say how effective he would be at second base just from his experience shifting over – I’m hesitant to rely on a limited sample – but it is worth considering that even if he were to require a change in position, Bogaerts as an above-average defensive second baseman could be every bit as valuable as Bogaerts as a below-average defensive shortstop. This type of exchange of positional value for defensive value is not without recent precedent – Marcus Semien was a below-average defensive shortstop when he signed with the Blue Jays in 2021, and his improved defense at the new position was valuable enough to offset the loss in positional value as a shortstop. The next winter, he signed a seven-year, $175 million contract with Texas to play second base. Marcus Semien Fielding and Positional Adjustment Season Team Primary Position Fielding Positional Defense 2015 OAK SS -11.7 6.7 -5 2016 OAK SS -2.9 7.1 4.2 2017 OAK SS -8.3 3.8 -4.5 2018 OAK SS -1.5 7.3 5.8 2019 OAK SS -4.7 7.4 2.7 2020 OAK SS -8.5 2.3 -6.2 2021 TOR 2B 3.4 2.7 6.1 2022 TEX 2B 1.2 2.9 4.1 Starlin Castro experienced a similar shift when he was traded from the Cubs to the Yankees in 2016 – as an above-average defender at second, his overall defensive value went up despite his positional adjustment dropping from around three to five runs a year. Bogaerts, too, could see enough defensive improvement at second that he’s in fact more valuable there than at shortstop. Starlin Castro Fielding and Positional Adjustment Season Team Primary Position Fielding Positional Defense 2010 CHC SS -2 5.5 3.6 2011 CHC SS -7.5 7.2 -0.3 2012 CHC SS 3.4 7.2 10.6 2013 CHC SS -3.9 7.3 3.4 2014 CHC SS -0.5 6.1 5.6 2015 CHC SS -1.2 5.3 4 2016 NYY 2B 6.8 2.3 9.1 2017 NYY 2B 2.2 1.4 3.6 2018 MIA 2B 4.5 2.3 6.8 2019 MIA 2B 7.7 2.5 10.2 2020 WSN 2B -0.7 0.2 -0.5 2021 WSN 3B 0.5 1.3 1.7 For Bogaerts, the defense question makes him a bit of an odd man out among his free agent peers by adding a degree of uncertainty compared to the prospect of, say, slotting Correa in at short for the foreseeable future. Take his former employer – the Red Sox have indicated that re-signing Bogaerts is a top priority for their offseason goals, and have reportedly already made multiple offers to the infielder, but the team also hopes to extend third baseman Rafael Devers and committed nine figures to Trevor Story – asking him to switch to second base – last winter. If Bogaerts’ defense necessitates a new position in, say, 2025 – when, by the way, the Sox’ top prospect shortstop Marcelo Mayer could be expected – where does that leave the Red Sox in terms of roster flexibility? Then again, maybe being an odd man out isn’t such a bad thing in this market – the second base market is paper thin this winter (third base isn’t much better), and if Bogaerts is open to a move in a year or two, he could be the best second baseman available in hiding. Yes, the uniqueness of the skill set required is part of what makes a shortstop so valuable on the free agent market, but that skill set is less scarce in this year’s market than it normally is, and Bogaerts’ bat is so strong that it shouldn’t be hard for a team to get on board with him as a future second baseman. With MVP votes in each year from 2018-21, and likely some more to come tonight, Bogaerts’ value proposition is simple – he’s a reliably great hitter well worth the defensive uncertainty. Whether that leads to a new contract with the Red Sox, a reunion with former Red Sox and current Phillies boss Dave Dombrowski, or some other new home, his murky positional future shouldn’t keep him from commanding one of the largest contracts of the winter. Correa and Turner boast comparable offensive pedigrees and superior defense (though Turner, too, might be a candidate for a position change down the road), so they will likely be priorities across the market, as Ben Clemens and the FanGraphs crowdsourcing agree. Swanson turned in his best season offensively and defensively in 2022, but his track record at the plate won’t likely be enough to put him in the same tier. But teams don’t overlook a 30 year old with a bat like Bogaerts’, and a little positional flexibility down the road could be a win for both player and club.