A reminder looms a few lockers from Xander Bogaerts in the clubhouse at JetBlue Park.
“My idol,” Bogaerts beamed about Hanley Ramirez. “Him being close to my locker, just being around him and in his batting practice group, ridiculous.”
As a young shortstop in Aruba, Bogaerts first had his imagination fired by Derek Jeter. But Ramirez’s electrifying skill set, once on display with the Marlins, soon commanded the teenager’s attention.
“Once Hanley came [to the big leagues],” noted Bogaerts, “he kind of took over.”
In the 6-foot-2-inch Ramirez, Bogaerts saw a bigger shortstop who impacted the game in all sorts of ways. Interestingly, it was Ramirez whom several Red Sox evaluators and officials used as a point of reference — an athlete with a chance to stay in the middle of the field, and with the bat to hit in the middle of the order — when scouting Bogaerts before signing him as a 16-year-old in 2009.
Given those comparisons, it’s notable to recall where Ramirez’s career stood as a 21-year-old. That 2005 season was labeled a disappointment for the top Red Sox prospect, as Ramirez hit .271 with a .335 OBP and .385 slugging mark in 122 games with Double A Portland — roughly in line with an average player in the Eastern League. He committed 22 errors, 19 at short and three more in just five games at second base.
One season later, after the Red Sox traded him to the Marlins as the centerpiece for Josh Beckett and Mike Lowell, Ramirez exploded onto the big league scene, winning Rookie of the Year honors while hitting .292 with a .353 OBP, .480 slugging mark and 17 homers. He was 22 — the same age that Bogaerts is entering the 2015 season.
That fact offers some context for Bogaerts’s struggles in a difficult 2014 season. As a 21-year-old, he hit .240 with a .297 OBP, .362 slugging mark, and 12 homers in 144 games. The marks portray a player who may have been over his head at times, but given that Bogaerts was performing two levels above where Ramirez played at the same age, perhaps that struggle should come as something other than a shock.
For Bogaerts, the idea that a player can leap forward from an age 21 struggle to major league excellence at age 22 is inspiring.
“Two-thirds of [Ramirez’s career path] would be pretty good,” Bogaerts said with a smile. “But I just want to keep working to become a great player. I really want to become great. I know it takes a lot of time and effort. I’ll definitely put in the effort, that’s for sure.”
Bogaerts has had time to process what transpired in 2014. The thumbnail: After emerging as a key lineup member in the Sox’ World Series run in 2013, he gradually shifted into high gear, and two months into the season (and two games into his shift from shortstop, where he’d shown considerable progress in May after a tough April, to third base) he was hitting .304 with a .395 OBP and .464 slugging mark. He looked like a Rookie of the Year candidate and emerging star.
Then came a drought so severe, so horrific that it would be an injustice to call it a slump. For nearly three months, he hit .147 with a .193 OBP and .212 slugging mark, numbers among the worst in the majors for a half-season stretch.
He looked lost at the plate and in the field.
“If you really look at it, I had two bad — not bad, terrible — months,” he said. “That was the reason for my season, those two bad months.
“I’d never struggled before. Honestly, I didn’t know what to do to get out of it, because I’d never struggled in my life before — especially to that extent.
“Mentally, I just got tired and then it wore on me physically. I just got drained down. Who wants to be failing always? No one in this game, but it’s a game of failure.”
Bogaerts accepted that fact and recognized the need to move beyond it down the stretch. Over the final four weeks of the season, he hit .320 with a .324 OBP and .500 slugging mark. That finishing kick was the building block that Bogaerts carried into the offseason.
He recognized that, in his first exposure to the big league demands of daily games and cross-country travel, he’d hit a physical wall around the time that he began slumping. So he spent a total of eight weeks in the offseason at EXOS (formerly Athletes’ Performance) in Arizona, with the goal both of preparing his body for the rigors of a full big league season and of improving his first-step quickness at shortstop.
Bogaerts reported to spring training at 214 pounds, with the expectation that he’ll open the year around his preferred weight of 210. While he entered last year at the same weight, however, he suggests that he’s in a very different place, with more of his weight made up of quick-twitch muscle.
“Just getting physically stronger, quicker, faster — I don’t think I’ve ever felt like this before,” said Bogaerts. “After last year, I really felt like I needed to get a lot stronger. Almost halfway through the season my body started wearing down.
“I knew I just had to get a lot stronger, especially because that was my first time in a big league season. I went to Arizona and I really know that’s what I needed. I’m excited for a new season.”
The difference extends beyond physical preparedness, Bogaerts said. A year ago, he was a Red Sox focal point as he prepared for the unknown world of his first full big league season. Though he’d tasted success on the biggest of stages in the 2013 postseason, he realizes in retrospect that he didn’t know what awaited him.
Now, he understands the landscape. And he remains mindful of what is possible.
Though Bogaerts has managed to avoid the spotlight in the initial weeks of spring training at a time when Ramirez and Pablo Sandoval represent the shiny new baubles, the same precocious gifts that made it impossible for him to play in obscurity or even normalcy a year ago remain present.
Meanwhile, his ambition in the wake of the severe challenges of 2014 remains uncompromised.
“This year, I’m coming in in great shape physically and mentally,” he said. “Going through what I’ve been through last year, I know at one point I will struggle and I’ll definitely need to work to get out of it, but you preach to yourself that you’re a good player. I never used to do that.
“You’ve just got to keep battling and having confidence in yourself. That’s one thing I never had a lot of, confidence, but coming into this year, it’s sky-high.”