Xander Bogaerts erupted Friday in Baltimore, throwing his bat after getting called out on a borderline strike as a prelude to just the second ejection of his career. It was a sight unlike anything seen before in his 10 big league seasons.
But based on a 20-minute conversation one day earlier in the clubhouse at PNC Park in Pittsburgh, it didn’t come as a shock. The rising magma within Bogaerts was obvious. A slowly forming smoke plume shadowed a player who has seemingly spent his entire career exuding sunshine. And it started with his response to a simple question: How would he describe this year?
Bogaerts shook his head. He emitted a lengthy, exasperated sigh. He laughed.
“Oh, man. It’s been . . .,” he said. “Wow.”
Bogaerts’s frustration, a term he employed a half-dozen times, seems out of place when looking just at his numbers.
Bogaerts leads American League shortstops in batting average (.299) and OPS (.811) and leads all big league shortstops in on-base percentage (.370). He ranks 16th in the big leagues and sixth in the AL in WAR (4.2), which also leads all AL shortstops, according to Fangraphs.
Yet to Bogaerts, those measures are superficial, masking the reality of a season in which he has never felt like himself.
“It’s been unbelievable,” he said. “I feel like I haven’t had an ‘A’ swing this whole year. It’s very frustrating when you know what you want to feel, but for whatever reason [you can’t]. At night, when you put your head on the pillow, I feel like I did everything I possibly could working on stuff, but just … I don’t know. I don’t know what’s going on.”
The last time Bogaerts found himself in anything like this sort of year-long predicament was 2017, when a succession of hand and wrist injuries forced him to spend most of the year swinging with one hand and unable to drive the ball. Though he hasn’t had a severe health issue this year, Bogaerts did allow that his swing has not been right since he collided with Alex Verdugo in shallow left field while chasing a fly ball on May 20.
To that point, he was hitting .326/.388/.465 with 4 homers in 38 games. In 78 games since the injury, he’s hitting .286 with a .361 OBP, .429 slugging mark, and 6 homers.
“I’ve dealt with it a lot since that incident. I had to do what I had to do. I had to get a shot on both of them,” said Bogaerts, who received cortisone shots in his left shoulder and wrist to address the swelling and pain.
“I feel pretty OK. The messed-up part with that is you start changing your mechanics, where you want to swing to where you don’t feel any pain or you don’t feel much pain. Then your swing starts changing.
“Then when you feel good so you can get back, there are just so many bad habits that have been incorporated. That’s the frustrating thing. You can feel so good in BP and the cage, and as soon as the game starts, the first pitch you see, it’s like, ‘[Expletive], what the hell are you doing?’
“Your mind wants to do something but your body is doing something different. That’s also frustrating. There’s just so many bad habits.”
Bogaerts recalled wistfully what it was like to wake up in recent seasons — with the certainty of being locked in, with the bat speed and strength to drive the ball with power (he averaged 30 homers per 162 games from 2018-21), and with the capability of using his tremendous hand-eye coordination to fight off two-strike pitches and hit for average.
This year? He wakes up anticipating a daylong search. Showing up at the park, finding the swing he wants in his tee and cage work, then having it abandon him as soon as he steps to the plate. In a panic, he rushes back to the cage mid-game in search of a better swing only to find himself unable to replicate it once he gets back in the box.
“You’re just like, ‘What the hell?’ ” he said. “It’s very, very frustrating. It is. It is. It is.
“You know that you’re capable of a lot more. It’s just …”
Bogaerts trailed off without having the right word to capture unfamiliar sentiments. He found it similarly challenging to describe the context against which his performance has taken place.
Obviously, there’s uncertainty surrounding his future. Bogaerts, 29, is in the third season of the six-year, $120 million deal he signed in early 2019, which includes the right to forgo the final three years and become a free agent after the 2022 season.
He is all but certain to opt out after this season. The Sox’ tepid offer in spring training left him with the understanding that the 2022 season could be his last with the team that signed him out of Aruba in 2009.
Beyond that, the team’s decision to trade his close friend and teammate since 2011, catcher Christian Vázquez, was a gut punch. After conversations with chief baseball officer Chaim Bloom following the trade deadline, Bogaerts understands the team’s rationale, but that doesn’t change his feelings.
“I have a good sense of kind of why they did it,” he said. “In the end, I’m just here to … I play. I’m part of these guys in here.
“It just might hit me different because I’ve been through a lot of experiences with him — him and his family on and off the field. He drove me everywhere. I lived with him everywhere. So it is going to hit me different compared to most other guys.
“I’ll be all right. But it should sting. It should sting a little bit if that person has meaning to you. I think that’s the human part.”
These are the sort of emotions that have come with the 2022 season. It has been a year that has challenged Bogaerts like none other, particularly given the disappointment that the Sox have not been able to make a push into prime contender status.
“It’s been a hard one. It’s been a different one,” said Bogaerts. “I’m just going to use that word — it’s been a different one. The circumstances, the situation, all of that — it’s just been a little different.
“But I’m a professional. This is what you signed up for. You’ve got to deal with it. Some days might be tougher than others. Some days might be better than others. That all comes with everything surrounding this situation.”
An uplifting day
For Bogaerts, the weight of the year was evident in that conversation. Even so, he sounded determined to not get swallowed by his frustrations. He believes a turning point is within reach.
“You will not see any quit in me,” he said. “And I’m really looking forward to finishing strong and on a positive note. I know it’s in there.
“I’ve been one of the best players at my position for a couple years. It doesn’t happen by accident. It’s there.”
On Sunday night in Williamsport, Pa. — three days removed from the conversation in Pittsburgh, and two days after he got ejected in Baltimore — Bogaerts offered proof of that. He turned on a 99.2 mile-per-hour fastball from Orioles closer Félix Bautista and cleared the fence in left-center, his 10th home run of the year coming against the hardest-thrown pitch he’d ever hit out.
It was a rare “A” swing. One that, coincidentally or not, came on the same day that the heart-on-his-sleeve shortstop had a chance to mingle with Little Leaguers who, at least for one day, offered a change in outlook.
“I was going through a rough, rough period,” said Bogaerts, “but a lot of kids was coming up to me and being like, ‘You’re my favorite player.’ I was, like, man, I know I’m playing bad, but hearing something like that from the kids, it makes you feel proud of what you’ve accomplished so far and you’ve just got to continue doing it so you don’t disappoint them. It was very meaningful.”
Will that prove to be a catalyst in changing how Bogaerts feels about the 2022 campaign?
That remains to be seen the next six weeks.
Julian Benbow of Globe staff contributed to this report.