For a while there, it seemed like the healthy version of Troy Tulowitzki was the best shortstop in baseball. That’s the guy the Blue Jays wanted to trade for, but Tulowitzki has entered a decline period, vacating the positional throne. And now things are kind of complicated. It doesn’t actually matter in any real way who you rank No. 1, among shortstops, but there’s plenty of competition. Last summer, I wondered aloud if Carlos Correa was already deserving of the label. More recently, August suggested it could be Francisco Lindor. There’s probably an argument for Brandon Crawford. There’s definitely an argument for Manny Machado, if you consider him a shortstop. Young shortstop talent is seemingly everywhere, but in Boston, now Xander Bogaerts is making his case. He’s doing so by blending all of his skills.
For Bogaerts, in one way, it hasn’t been smooth. That dreadful slump in 2014 raised several legitimate questions about his future. In another way, this was how it was always going to go. Rookie Bogaerts showed some skills. Sophomore Bogaerts showed different skills. Now the skillsets are being combined, and pitchers are running low on ways to get Bogaerts out.
Prospect Bogaerts was a promising power hitter. And so, to an extent, was rookie Bogaerts. Bogaerts presented himself as a decent threat to put a ball off of or over the Monster, but while that’s good for any hitter, there were clear vulnerabilities. Bogaerts was one of the worst hitters in the league to the opposite field, and when pitchers discovered that weakness, they exploited it. The productivity tanked, and the strikeouts soared.
So Bogaerts underwent a significant transformation. The hitter he was in 2015 bore little resemblance to the hitter he was the year before. Though some power was sacrificed, Bogaerts trimmed his strikeouts by a third, and he introduced himself to right field. He adopted an up-the-middle and opposite-field approach, and he went from batting .218 the other way to .385. One of the worst opposite-field hitters in baseball suddenly became one of the better ones, and that brought Bogaerts to a fork, of sorts. He could, in theory, maintain that approach. Or he could put it all together.
It would appear he’s putting it all together. The Xander Bogaerts in Boston now is still plenty capable of going the other way, but he’s also choosing more moments to turn on the ball. Better yet, there are hints of improved discipline, and the strikeouts haven’t picked up. Bogaerts has shown contact, and discipline, and power, and a spray ability. I’m not even touching on his visibly improved defensive work. (He has visibly improved his defensive work.)
Here’s Bogaerts going the other way, in wRC+:
- 2014: 26
- 2015: 126
- 2016: 175
No step back. Actually a step forward! He still doesn’t have power over there, but that’s fine. Here’s Bogaerts pulling the ball, in wRC+:
- 2014: 178
- 2015: 147
- 2016: 263
There’s some authority. And this isn’t just Bogaerts having more success around the field — there’s also the matter of his distribution. Bogaerts over the years, in pull rate:
- 2014: 47%
- 2015: 34%
- 2016: 41%
This year, so far, he’s split the middle. He’s not trying to pull the ball as much as he once did, but he’s choosing his spots, because that’s where the extra-base hits are. Success the other way? Check. Success to the pull side? Check. More balls to the pull side? Check. All that’s left, really, is the difference between strikeouts and walks (K-BB%):
- 2014: 17%
- 2015: 11%
- 2016: 8%
There you go. That’s everything. Maybe this hasn’t been presented in the most visually engaging way, but it’s all simple enough, and it’s plenty telling. It’s taken a few years, but Bogaerts is looking like the player he was supposed to become, back when he was a top prospect. That doesn’t mean this is automatically his new level, now, but this is the most encouraging development yet. This is the strongest sign that Bogaerts is indeed blossoming into a star.
Playing around with a little Statcast data, Bogaerts is hitting the ball harder, relative to last season. That’s true to the pull side, and that’s also true the other way. Bogaerts has always been strong, with quick hands, so I don’t think he’s gotten stronger — I think he’s just gotten more consistent, having found his timing and balance. Here’s a good sign. Last year, he ranked in the 68th percentile in terms of swings at offspeed pitches. This year, he’s down at the 20th percentile. He’s cut that swing rate by 10 points, and what that tells me is that Bogaerts has gotten better at identifying non-fastballs. He doesn’t always get it right, but look at this balance, against a slow curveball from Wednesday:
That followed consecutive fastballs, but Bogaerts was right on the pitch, staying back. That’s a pretty swing. Compare that to this swing against a similar, albeit lower, curveball from 2015:
Bogaerts did come away from that with an RBI double, which is a credit to his wrists. But his balance was worse, and he was out in front. Bogaerts didn’t give himself as much of a chance to see the pitch before committing, and that’s what can lead to worse discipline and worse contact. Again, by and large, Bogaerts last year was an offensive success, but this year he looks more capable. He’s better able to read and react, as opposed to just reacting. He’s therefore better able to turn on the power.
The adaptability is there, and so is the plan, and the plate coverage. Bogaerts now doesn’t have many weak spots, and though it’s a virtual lock that he’s going to end up with fewer singles dropping in, he’s plenty good to survive that regression. Bogaerts is blending his prospect power with his sophomore spray ability and contact. I don’t know what else you could want. That whole Red Sox offense is insane, but don’t let that distract you from what Xander Bogaerts has become.
Jeff made Lookout Landing a thing, but he does not still write there about the Mariners. He does write here, sometimes about the Mariners, but usually not.