Xander Bogaerts swinging

The Lasting Importance of Xander Bogaerts

Just a year ago, Xander Bogaerts was the next great Red Sox star simply awaiting his coronation. A furious rise through the minors had given way to an impressive 12-game stint during Boston’s run to the World Series in 2013, and an offseason of gushing praise over the young shortstop’s sky-high potential soon followed from just about every corner of the baseball-loving Internet.

Bogaerts began the 2014 campaign as everyone expected, batting .304/.397/.438 through the season’s first two months. From there, of course, the wheels fell off.

Over his next 67 games, Bogaerts hit .161/.206/.254 and showed neither the power nor the advanced approach that had characterized his dominance of the upper minors. Signs of recovery in September provided reason for hope heading into winter, but the end result was a disappointing first year in the majors, even if Bogaerts turned just 22 at season’s end last October.

That’s the trouble in analyzing Bogaerts’ struggles with any type of certainty. He is still one of the youngest players in MLB, and the prevailing notion just 12 months ago was that Bogaerts would be a perennial All-Star for years to come.

His start to 2015 has no doubt been a positive one. Bogaerts has at least one hit in six of Boston’s first seven games, and after going 2-for-3 with a walk Monday, his on-base percentage sits at .500. Still, a good portion of Bogaerts’ hits have been what one might label as “fortunate,” and even the most optimistic of fans have to admit he isn’t going to maintain his current .481 BABIP. Seven games is, after all, just seven games.

The one positive that bears watching is Bogaerts’ improved contact rate. After striking out in nearly 30% of his plate appearances a year ago, he has struck out under 10% of the time this season and seen a noticeable dip in his swinging-strike rate. Through Monday, Bogaerts has walked more than he’s struck out, which is a far cry from his performance in 2014.

The attention paid to the Aruban native last season has shifted over to Mookie Betts, who has quickly become the apple of most Red Sox fans’ eyes.

Heading into 2015, the disparity between all the buzz surrounding Bogaerts a year ago compared to now was hard to overstate. The attention paid to the Aruban native last season has shifted over to Mookie Betts, who has quickly become the apple of most Red Sox fans’ eyes. The expectations for Bogaerts have suffered in comparison to Betts’ continued excellence.

However, Bogaerts remains a vital part of the club’s hopes to contend. This fact makes the shortstop’s ability to improve in his second full campaign a crucial storyline, both for the present hopes that Boston invested in heavily this offseason and the team’s future outlook.

Were the preseason doubts surrounding Bogaerts’ potential yet another example of the manner in which we overanalyze the necessary growing pains of a talented youngster? Or were his scuffles last season a more ominous sign for the future?

In one way, Bogaerts’ 2014 struggles came in a curious manner. Even though he didn’t walk much, he certainly showed the type of patience at the plate the Red Sox are so renowned for. Among American League hitters, Bogaerts ranked 11th in pitches seen per plate appearance.

Given his extensive struggles against breaking balls, however, that willingness to get deep into the count didn’t end up aiding Bogaerts. According to Brooks Baseball, he hit just .177/.209/.204 against breaking pitches with a measly .027 ISO. As Bogaerts’ struggles wore on during the summer, opposing pitchers were able to exploit this weakness with increasing regularity.

But Bogaerts’ willingness to be more aggressive earlier in the count helped drive his recovery late last season. In 102 September plate appearances, he drew just two walks but began driving the ball with more frequency and finished the month with nine extra-base hits, including two home runs. A first-pitch homer off Baltimore’s Wei-Yin Chen on September 10 exemplified this new approach, with Bogaerts jumping all over a fastball Chen tried to groove over the plate for a strike:

However, neither Bogaerts’ September success in 2014 nor his positive start to this season make his improvement a certainty. In a way, he is the perfect illustration of the trouble Boston has had mixing in young talent at the MLB level, while also attempting to compete for championships year in and year out. The 2014 campaign serves as a sobering example of the potential roadblocks that are part of this approach, and Bogaerts’ sophomore campaign will be yet another test of the club’s ability to help a player make those final adjustments at the MLB level.

In a way, Bogaerts is the perfect illustration of the trouble Boston has had mixing in young talent at the MLB level.

Bogaerts’ strong start provides reason for optimism, but he looked like an All-Star for two months last year before a prolonged slump set in. What options do the Red Sox have if he is again scuffling in July? The arrival of Hanley Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval certainly helps ease the burden on offense, but Boston doesn’t have much in the way of a reliable replacement. Trusting Brock Holt to be a full-time shortstop is a bit of a stretch, and despite Deven Marrero’s strong defense, his output at the plate against major league pitching would likely be cringe-worthy.

Considering all the attention paid to Bogaerts being dropped one spot in the lineup after Opening Day, one wonders how much he’ll be scrutinized if he suffers another mid-summer swoon. What development steps can the Red Sox take if he is slumping mightily again three months into the season? What options exist if nothing clicks in 2015? These are questions Boston’s front office hopefully won’t have to answer, but they do exist within the realm of possibility.

All of which gets back to the doubts surrounding Bogaerts entering this season. He remains an elite talent, and the player the Red Sox want to hold down the shortstop position for years to come. Yet his performance this season is anything but a given, with any number of outcomes possible. At the very least, the Red Sox are in a far better position to handle the uncertainty surrounding the youngster’s production than they were a year ago.

But no matter which way you spin it, Bogaerts’ progress this season will have a large impact on Boston’s future. Supplementing the club’s older core with homegrown talent is a constant aim for the Red Sox, and getting solid production out of Bogaerts at the major league level will go a long way toward easing the organization’s long-term outlook on offense.

Given his first seven games, we can breathe easy for the time being, at least.

Photo by Kelly O’Connor, 

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