For a few days earlier this season, Xander Bogaerts decided to stop wearing batting gloves. The idea was that if he felt the wood of the bat directly against the palms of his hands, it would break him out of his slump.
That the coaches went along with the idea spoke to how desperate everybody had become.
The home remedy didn’t work. Really, nothing has for the 21-year-old Red Sox shortstop. He has been abysmal at the plate since early June, his batting average dropping steadily along with the team’s place in the standings.
“It feels like a boxing match to me,” Bogaerts said. “You get hit and you get hit. But if you don’t give up, you can still knock the guy out in the 12th round.”
The fight is over, at least for this season. The last-place Red Sox threw in the towel on Bogaerts’s fellow rookie Jackie Bradley Jr., sending him back to the minors Monday, and only stubbornness seems to have kept them from doing the same with Bogaerts, who has hit below .160 for nearly three months.
So much more was expected. The Red Sox retooled the roster that won the World Series, deciding that Bogaerts and the 24-year-old Bradley were ready for the majors after only short stints with Triple A Pawtucket.
The personable rookies made for good copy. Bogaerts was on the cover of the Globe’s season preview section, and a headline inside described him as “completely prepared.” There was similar praise for Bradley.
Bradley was hitting .216 with one home run and 111 strikeouts at the time of his demotion. Bogaerts is down to .224 after going hitless in Thursday’s 2-0 loss to the Angels. A player once celebrated for his advanced approach at the plate has struck out more than three times as often as he has walked.
In a wider context, the numbers are startling. There are 87 players in the American League with at least 375 plate appearances this season, and Bogaerts and Bradley rank in the bottom 12 in batting average, on-base percentage, and slugging percentage.
Bradley’s .290 slugging percentage is the lowest in the league and the lowest for a Red Sox outfielder in the modern era of baseball.
“I’ve never struggled like this in my life,” said Bogaerts. “I’ve been told that everybody goes through this at some point, and I guess this is my turn.”
Bogaerts started slowly, then raised his batting average above .300 before opponents realized he would swing at breaking pitches off the plate. Bradley also started well before getting beat on a steady diet of fastballs that he either did not recognize or could not catch up to.
“I think people forget I am 21,’’ Bogaerts said. “I was playing good this year until I hit that bad stretch. I’m battling every day trying to get out of it.
“It’s not easy coming to the park every day. But once I get here, I try to enjoy myself. I’m trying to finish strong.”
A shift in organizational philosophy may be to blame. Bogaerts had only 60 games and 256 plate appearances in Triple A before he was deemed ready for the majors. Bradley had 80 games and 374 plate appearances before becoming a full-time starter. Third baseman Will Middlebrooks also was rushed, playing 40 games at Pawtucket before he was called up in 2012.
“When you look at a player’s path to the big leagues, they’re telling you based on their performance and play if they’re ready for the next challenge,” manager John Farrell said.
Bench coach Torey Lovullo, who managed in Triple A for four seasons, believes there are lessons there that need learning.
“All the concepts you learn growing up as a player get thrown at you all at one time,” he said. “It’s the last chance you have to worry less about winning a game and more about development.”
Dustin Pedroia had 733 plate appearances over two seasons in Pawtucket and then was the AL Rookie of the Year in 2007. Kevin Youkilis, Jacoby Ellsbury, and other homegrown position players also had longer minor league apprenticeships.
“The pitchers in Double A had more velocity,” said Pedroia. “But everything was way out of the zone, noncompetitive.
“In Triple A, the pitchers are always in the zone and they have a game plan. You see veteran guys who know how to pitch. That’s when you learn more things about yourself as a hitter.”
General manager Ben Cherington said the Red Sox are evaluating why their judgment was off.
“We’ve probably moved some guys quicker due to circumstance,” he said. “Looking back on it, is there is something we could have done differently? Yeah, maybe.
“I don’t think we ever had a hard-and-fast rule. But it is fair to say we typically we want guys to get some experience at that level before they get to the big leagues. We had some players who performed at a visibly high level offensively and that may have pushed the timing on it.
“Maybe that made us more aggressive than we have been in the past.”
The Bradley conundrum
The Red Sox have not lost faith in their treasured prospect, Bogaerts.
“This is a hard game — a really, really hard game,” Lovullo said. “If we all thought that we could just snap our fingers and have Derek Jeter on our hands, we were sorely mistaken.
“We knew that there would be some growing pains. But we’re not running from Xander. He’s going to be an outstanding player.”
Bradley is in a more precarious position. Cherington and Farrell said the Red Sox still view him as a starting player, but their actions spoke loudly.
That the Red Sox demoted Bradley while keeping Bogaerts in the majors was telling. At the same time, the team was pursuing center fielder Rusney Castillo, a free agent from Cuba.
There were suggestions by Farrell that Bradley was not incorporating the changes suggested by the coaches quickly enough, and Cherington spoke of him developing a better pregame routine.
“I was told I wasn’t as vocal as they wanted me to be,” Bradley said. “They want me to do a better job of talking things through. That has never been me; I’m more quiet by nature. But if that’s what they want, I can do that.
“Nobody better be implying that I don’t work hard. That is definitely not the case. I’ve had struggles in the past and I’ve worked my way out of them. I’ll do it again and everything will be back to normal.”
As a college player, Bradley helped lead South Carolina to back-to-back NCAA championships before quickly moving through the Red Sox system. He rejected the idea that he has somehow lost confidence.
“I’m tired of people asking me that question,” Bradley said. “Honestly, I can give a damn about what people think about my confidence. My confidence is unshook.
“I don’t know what anybody has said about my confidence but I’ll tell anybody straight up that my confidence had nothing to do with it. It was performance.”
Bradley then laughed.
“People say what did I learn? I have to play better — that’s what I learned.”
Hitting coach Greg Colbrunn has examined what he could have done better with both players. There are no ready answers.
“Looking back, with Jackie, we probably could have gotten to know him a little bit better during spring training and learned his swing,” he said. “With Bogie, that’s not it. We knew him from last year and everybody saw what he did. He had to get to know himself, what kind of hitter he is and how to make adjustments.”
The unraveling started in spring training, when the Red Sox believed their lineup was strong enough to overcome the slumps the rookies were sure to experience.
That cushion deflated early. Right fielder Shane Victorino started the season on the disabled list and played only 30 games before undergoing season-ending back surgery.
Pedroia has had a down season at the plate. The productive 2013 left-field platoon of Daniel Nava and Jonny Gomes turned ordinary. New catcher A.J. Pierzynski was a disappointment. First baseman Mike Napoli dislocated his left ring finger on April 15, an injury that sapped his power.
Middlebrooks remained unable to replicate the production from his successful rookie season, in part because of injuries. That led the Red Sox to sign Stephen Drew to play shortstop and move Bogaerts to third base.
Drew never hit and was traded after two months. The lack of production from the veterans turned a harsher light on Bradley and Bogaerts.
“I don’t want to put the burden of the season on them because that’s not fair,” Cherington said. “But it’s fair to say we haven’t fully succeeded in getting those guys to be contributors at the big-league level. But I think they still will be at some point.
“I think what we don’t know and unfortunately we’ll never know is the answer to the question of if the entire team had been playing better as a group — if I had made better decisions how to complement the team and we had better performance from a larger swath of the group — would that have allowed the younger players more freedom and space to get into the season?”
As the Sox faltered, more of a burden was placed on the young players. Bogaerts and Bradley also faced the challenge of breaking in at a time when offense is down across the game.
Factor in the high expectations of a market like Boston and it was a toxic mix.
“Particularly for a position player, breaking into the big leagues is harder than it was 10 years ago,” Cherington said. “It’s harder to hit now. Teams have more information now to exploit any weakness you have.
“And not just in Boston, but certainly in Boston, there’s no such thing as hiding in the background for a few months. You’re a headline the first day you’re here. That’s difficult.”
Rookie Mookie Betts has replaced Bradley in center field and is being touted as the next young star. He has 45 games of Triple A experience.
“What’s the right way to break a player in?” said Lovullo. “That’s a good question.
“I can tell you this: We’re talking about it every day after everything that has happened.”
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