Back in May, our fearless (or something) leader Ben Carsley asked all of us on the BP Boston staff a simple question: If you were starting a major-league baseball team, would you prefer to build your team around Xander Bogaerts or Mookie Betts? It was an interesting question, pitting two outstanding young players with somewhat different profiles against each other. I wound up choosing Bogaerts because I saw him possessing a higher ceiling on offense and playing the most important position on the diamond. In fact, I didn’t really see the competition being all that close. If you asked me that same question today, with a few more months of experience under each of their belts, I’d give you the same answer. In short, I really like Bogaerts and the potential player he can become.
If you’re reading this, there’s a pretty good chance you’ve watched a significant amount of Red Sox baseball in 2015, which means you’ve watched a significant amount of Xander Bogaerts in 2015. Seeing him play on an everyday basis, it certainly appears as though the 22-year-old is having a breakout season. After a disappointing first full season in 2014, he has made some strides on the offensive side of the ball (and certainly the defensive side of the ball as well, but that’s a story for another day) this year. Even with that being the case, is it possible that his “breakout” this season is being exaggerated?
Looking at his primary numbers at the plate, Bogaerts is certainly having a very good season. Through his first 573 plate appearances, the young shortstop is hitting .320/.351/.413 with a .263 TAv, a massive improvement over his .246 TAv from a year ago. Amongst the 32 shortstops around the league with at least 300 plate appearances in 2015, his overall offensive production ranks 11th. Factoring in the aforementioned improvement on defense, this is very good! Unfortunately, things become slightly less encouraging with a deeper look into the numbers.
The first thing when you look over Bogaerts’ numbers is his lack of power, specifically with respect to home runs. I’ve written about his lack of power this season before, so I won’t rehash it all, but it’s worth summarizing quickly. Right now, his ISO stands at .093, which is a bit jarring for a player with the power potential he displayed in the minors. There have been 256 players who have come to the plate at least 300 times in the league this season, and only 31 of them have a lower ISO. Bogaerts’ .093 mark is tied with Nori Aoki, and is worse than such players as Jace Peterson and Carlos Sanchez, neither of whom are exactly known as sluggers.
It’s not just the power that’s concerning about Bogaerts’ line, either. For a player of his age, a single deficiency is not a huge issue. However, when this kind of lack of power is combined with a lack of walks, things become a bit more discouraging. Long known for his patience coming up through the farm system, it appears that Bogaerts has made some change to approach at the plate, leading to a low 4.3 percent walk-rate. Comparing him once again with the players with at least 300 PAs, that walk-rate is lower than all but 24 of the 256 players, tied with notorious free-swinger Adam Jones.
Looking at his plate discipline numbers on his BP player page, it’s pretty clear why this is happening. Bogaerts is simply swinging at more pitches. After being almost too patient last season, it appears that he is overcompensating this year. His overall swing rate has risen about 4.5 percentage points. A big part of that is swinging at more pitches in the zone, which is a good thing. Unfortunately, he’s also chasing a lot more pitches out of the zone. This kind of approach hurts his power numbers as well as his walk numbers. Instead of whiffing on these bad pitches he’s swinging at, he’s making contact on 69 (nice) percent of them, leading to weaker overall contact.
When you put all of this together, you have a player who is relying heavily on batting average. While players have had success with this kind of profile before, it is somewhat uncommon. We’re far past the point of BABIP being viewed solely as luck, but there is still a large amount of luck involved at the extremes, where Bogaerts’ .372 mark clearly lives. Only eight players have had a higher BABIP in 2015, and it’s reasonable to expect that number to fall next year, leading to a much less satisfying overall line if the power and patience remain constant.
After being almost too patient last season, it appears that Bogaerts is overcompensating this year.
Things become especially jarring when you start to put Bogaerts’ season in context with other players who have performed like him. The obvious comparison is with Jose Iglesias, who was once in competition for Boston’s shortstop of the future. In 2015, Iglesias has a slightly higher walk-rate than Bogaerts, with a slightly lower ISO and a TAv of .252. Bogaerts has been the better hitter this year, but it’s a lot closer than many would think. More importantly, they’re producing similar overall production in almost the same way, which no one could’ve seen coming.
The next thing I wanted to look at was what other players have had this kind of season in the last decade. So, I looked at all of the individual seasons since 2006 and sought players who had walked less than five percent of the time while maintaining an ISO below .100. The results were not hugely encouraging, and you can look at them in full here. The players who join Bogaerts in this club are overwhelmingly slap hitters who rely on speed like Dee Gordon and Billy Burns. While these can be good players, they are not exactly who we expect Bogaerts to be. The other important thing to point out is that almost none of these players have been able to evolve into more well-rounded hitters.
None of this is to say that Bogaerts has been bad this year, or that there’s no hope for improvement. He’s shown off a new approach that has led to a better batted ball distribution and a ton of hard contact based on new exit velocity numbers. Those numbers are still too new to base huge conclusions on them, but hitting the ball hard can’t be a negative. He’s also revamped his swing from last year, which is extremely encouraging for such a young player.
The point here is that, in this writer’s opinion, we’re still waiting on Bogaerts’ breakout. He’s made steps in the right direction, but this is far from the finished product we’re all dreaming on. If a different name was attached to this line, I suspect we’d have a different view on the performance. With all of that being said, I still have a tremendous amount of confidence in his ability to breakout soon. If anyone can evolve from the type of hitter he is now, it’s Bogaerts. Given his minor-league track record and makeup that have drawn rave reviews from scouts for years, he’s exactly the kind of player who should continue to progress his game. We’re just still waiting to see it.
Photo by Bob DeChiara/USA Today Sports Images