The 2017 Red Sox will undoubtedly be different than their 2016 brethren in numerous ways, but now, from our viewpoint here in mid-February, there are two that stand out. The 2016 Red Sox had David Ortiz but not Chris Sale, while the 2017 Red Sox have Chris Sale but not David Ortiz.
From a pure WAR perspective this looks to be roughly a push. Baseball Prospectus’ PECOTA projects Sale for 4.2 WARP this season while they have Ortiz (yes they have Ortiz) at 2.9 WARP. When you factor in that Sale is replacing a relatively capable pitcher in the rotation like Eduardo Rodriguez while Ortiz’s replacement is Mitch “Em and Em” Moreland, the end result is about a wash. Your mileage may vary, but the point is the “trade” of Ortiz for Sale doesn’t alter the Red Sox’s projected record by more than a win or so, if at all. But this team is supposed to win a World Series! That one was too, of course, but this one really is. I mean, how many more prospects can Dave Dombrowski trade?
The point of all this is something has to further separate the 2016 Sox from the 2017 Sox, if indeed the 2017 version is going to make the waves they hope to make. That wave machine just might be Xander Bogaerts.
Since being called up late in 2013, Bogaerts’ performance has been all over the map. He was unbeatable (and lucky) in 2013, entirely beatable in 2014, much better if completely different in 2015, and both excellent and just decent in 2016. In the minors, Bogaerts was a power hitter who took walks but who wasn’t a lock to stick at shortstop. In the majors, Bogaerts is a slap hitter who doesn’t take walks but is a consistent if generally unspectacular major league-caliber shortstop. All together now: what?
There have been any number of articles this off-season dissecting Bogaerts’ time in the majors and especially his 2016 season, chopping them into bits and looking for trends and evidence of what the future holds. I may even have written one or two myself. But how do you reasonably make sense out of a performance like Bogaerts’? Hey Maria, how do you solve a problem like Bogey?
It’s even worse because of how stark the two halves of Bogaert’s 2016 season were. During the first half he was the Colorado version of Troy Tulowitzki and then during the second half he was the Toronto version (minus the contract, thankfully). Woof. The thing is though, baseball is a game of adjustments and thus contrasts. Get a hit and you’re batting 1.000, but strikeout and you’re batting zero. That’s a contrast! At least as far as this metaphor is concerned though, we get closer to the truth by putting the two at-bats together than we do by separating them. The larger our sample is, the more it can tell us. Trouble is, when you examine Bogaerts’ entire sample, you’re just left shaking your head.
So, the number I fall back on with Bogaerts isn’t his BABIP or his ground ball rate, but his age: 24. Corey Seager of the Dodgers will be 23 this season. He has 800 plate appearances under his belt. If he manages a full season he’ll be at about 1450 plate appearances by age 24. Bogaerts has over 2000, and that doesn’t count the 50 more he’s had in the post-season. Bogaerts has grown up in the majors, and unless you are Mike Trout (Hi Mike!) that can make for a jumpy start to a career.
The latest edition of the Baseball Prospectus Annual (which you should totally buy just for the Angels comments alone) lists Troy Tulowitzki as the most comparable player to Bogaerts at his age. When Tulowitzki was 23 he played in 101 games, hitting .263/.332/.401. It was his third year in the big leagues and his OPS+ had gone from 53 (100 is average) to 109 to 85. Then in 2009, his age 24 season, the same age Bogaerts will be this season, Tulowitzki hit .297/.377/.552. That’s an OPS+ of 131. That was also the first of a run of six seasons that saw him reach an OPS+ of 130 five times.
Bogaerts probably isn’t Tulowitzki, but it isn’t the worst comparison. They’re both big-bodied shortstops with power and patience who dominated in the minors to such an extent that they made the majors in their early 20s. Both also came up and were immediately thrust into post-season runs, Bogaerts eventually as the starting third baseman for the 2013 World Series champs at age 20, and Tulowitzki as the starting shortstop for the 2007 Rockies team that laid waste to the NL (before getting swept by the Red Sox) at age 22.
What does all that mean? Maybe not much. Maybe Bogaerts’ batted ball profile is more relevant here than what his most comparable player did at a similar age. To me though, while you can qualify aging curves for players, each individual player is different. Bogaerts, for whatever reason, has shown himself to be one of the most different. If we’d dug into his batted ball profile in 2013 we’d never have predicted his 2014 season, and similarly so his 2015 and 2016 seasons. He’s sometimes slow to adjust and occasionally he loses his swing for months at a time. The power he had in the minors (and started to show last year) is still there though, even if he never gets quicker at making those adjustments or better at maintaining his swing over the long season.
Through all that though, it’s not hard to look at Bogaerts through the lenses of age, history, and similarity, and see a player whose skills are still growing, and as such is still coming into his own on the field. He may never be the middle of the order power threat we all yearned for when we saw what he could do to Double-A pitchers as a 19 year old, but he still might be! Look at the guy and tell me you would be shocked if he hit 28 homers this season. Look at what he did to Double-A pitchers as a 19-year-old and tell me you’d be shocked if he hit 28 homers this season.
The 2016 Red Sox were swept by the Indians in the ALDS. Game Two of that series was a non-competitive 6-0 loss, but Games One and Three were one run affairs. I keep coming back to Game One though. In retrospect, that’s the one the Red Sox had to have. In that game Bogaerts came up four times and made four outs. Most notably, he came up twice following doubles, and struck out both times. The first was with one out and Hanley Ramirez on second in the fourth inning. He struck out against Trevor Bauer. The second was with Ortiz on second in the eighth and two down, and he struck out against Bryan Shaw.
Chris Sale is a fabulous pitcher, but he isn’t going to get a hit with a runner on second in a playoff game. Ortiz did countless times, but now he’s gone. The difference between 2016 and 2017 will ultimately be more than a few different names on the backs of the uniforms. If there is a difference it will come from the improvement of players already on the roster. The now David Ortiz-less 2017 Red Sox can improve on their immediate predecessors here. Forget exit velocity and batted ball profiles and squint with me. Do you see it? I do. It’s the season of Xander we’ve been waiting for.