FORT MYERS, Fla. — Xander Bogaerts was walking gingerly out to his car when he was asked about coach Brian Butterfield’s footwork drills Tuesday morning.
“My feet are killing me,” said Bogaerts, who worked along with newly acquired Jonathan Herrera in the drills. “It’s really intense. Butter really believes that the first two steps are the most important steps. He believes in explosion with those steps, so it’s been pretty tough with the drills, but I believe I’m going to be better as a result.”
Butterfield’s 2014 camp mantra is footwork. He hopes to improve it with every infielder on the Red Sox roster. And no one — not even three-time Gold Glover Dustin Pedroia — will be exempt. Butterfield’s infield played superbly last season, but he believes it can be better. He believes if you have explosion with your first movement toward the ball, then good things will happen.
Pedroia, of course, has superb range at second base, but when he’s got his feet right “he’s got double great range,” said Butterfield.
The 21-year-old Bogaerts will work at shortstop exclusively, at least for the time being, according to Butterfield, who received word from manager John Farrell that they don’t want to overload Bogaerts by trying to have him play two positions.
While the team remains in touch with Stephen Drew and still would enjoy having him back as its shortstop, which would move Bogaerts to third base, right now Bogaerts is at short.
“He’s done a tremendous job in the drills,” Butterfield said. “He’s really taken to it. He’s such an outstanding athlete.”
And a growing one.
Both Butterfield and Farrell noticed that Bogaerts looks even taller and thicker than he did at the end of last season, when he played in 18 regular-season games and then helped the Sox win the World Series. But neither believes it precludes him from being a starter at shortstop. Butterfield, in fact, raved about Bogaerts’s arm strength, another reason for his footwork to be right so he can be in good position to make strong, accurate throws.
Before his work with the shortstops, Butterfield was out at 7:30 in the morning working with third basemen Garin Cecchini and Will Middlebrooks. Butterfield was impressed with Cecchini’s footwork and his general skill at the position. He feels with better footwork Middlebrooks could take advantage of his large body and large wingspan to cover more ground.
Butterfield is considered one of the top infield instructors in the game. He’s right there with the Marlins’ Perry Hill as infield coaches who make a difference in the performance of the fielders. Look at Boston’s infield last season. Butterfield took Mike Napoli, a novice at first base, and made him one of the best fielders at the position last season.
“I’m looking to get better,” Napoli said. “With Butter, you’re always looking for improving certain things. He brought me to a certain level last year and I’d like to get to the next level this year. I enjoy working with him. It’s hard work, but he gets the most out of you.”
After a Butterfield workout, a player is gasping for air.
Even Butterfield walked off the field after several hours in the hot sun a little bit the worse for wear. But it pays off.
“When you work with Butter, you come away being a better player,” Napoli said. “He’s an impact coach. It’s not easy, but it’s worth the time and effort because he thinks of things that other people don’t think about in making you better.”
Ask Derek Jeter.
When Jeter was a young shortstop in the Yankees minor league system, Butterfield took a raw talent who was making 50-plus errors a season and made him into a strong, stable, and fundamentally sound fielder. It was the first major sign that Butterfield was a special infield instructor, and he continued that through his tenure in Toronto and now Boston.
Farrell, who inherited Butterfield as a coach in Toronto, was amazed at Butterfield’s instructional techniques and how noticeable the improvement is.
The Red Sox have some interesting infielders coming up. Deven Marrero is said to be the shortstop of the future in Boston and Butterfield worked with him after Bogaerts and Herrera. Marrero, he said, is fundamentally sound and has excellent instincts in the field. But it doesn’t mean Butterfield can’t make him better.
“I love working with young infielders,” he said. “The biggest issue is the footwork. And it’s not their fault. It just hasn’t been refined. The right technique and the right way to do things can make a world of difference in getting to the ball.”
Each session had a lot of give-and-take with the infielders. Herrera was especially animated and Butterfield was loving every minute of it. After the session there was a discussion about what had taken place, Butterfield allowing the shortstops to offer their take on what was emphasized.
“Had you ever done that drill before?’ Bogaerts was asked.
“Yeah, yesterday,” he smiled.
He’ll be doing it again. And again. Butterfield will be his worst nightmare and his best friend.
It was easy to see the positive energy between Butterfield and the players. With each “explosive” step that Bogaerts took toward the ball that Butterfield was hitting he was getting that much closer to being a major league shortstop.
“It’s all good,” Bogaerts said. “It’s hard work and that’s what I’m here for. I want to get better. I don’t know everything. I’m learning a lot.”
And Butterfield will teach Bogaerts. Until his feet hurt.Nick Cafardo can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo.