PHILADELPHIA – Two games represents the baseball equivalent of a blink of an eye on the path to 162. And yet . . .
Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts is 1-for-7 with two strikeouts. It’s a minuscule sample. And yet . . .
The evidence of spring training and the first game of the season (in which Bogaerts went 0-for-3 with a walk) proved sufficient for Sox manager John Farrell to opt for a subtle lineup shuffle, dropping Bogaerts to eighth in the lineup below catcher Ryan Hanigan. Asked about the decision prior to the Sox’ 4-2 loss to the Phillies, Farrell opted for candor.
“I’ll be honest, hitters kind of tell you where they hit in the lineup. It’s not based on anything other than how guys are going at the time,” he said. “Profiling to certain slots in the order is one thing but guys are going to tell you where they’re going to hit in the lineup.”
Wednesday offered little improvement. Bogaerts did drill an RBI single down the left field line on a Ken Giles slider, but he looked, in the words of an American League scout at the game, “lost ... like he’s caught in between” in his other at-bats. That notion proved most evident in a five-pitch fifth-inning at-bat where Aaron Harang struck him out with nothing but fastballs and then a ninth-inning, three-fastballs-and-goodbye strikeout against Jonathan Papelbon to end the game.
The Sox saw Bogaerts struggle toward the end of spring training, with Farrell characterizing him at the time as jumpy. He spent ample time in the batting cages with hitting coach Chili Davis in the waning days of camp working to iron out the issue, producing progress but not yet a complete solution.
“He’s still working on things we were addressing in spring training,” said Farrell. “We’ve got to stay patient and continue to give that opportunity to take hold in game.”
At its best, Bogaerts possesses a swing that can be a thing of beauty, a mix of ease and fluidity as it flies through the strike zone. But the swings and misses he showed against Harang and Papelbon did not offer that signature effortlessness.
Instead, those two at-bats made it seem as if Bogaerts was trying to conjure more bat speed to catch up to fastballs, regardless of velocity. Harang’s five pitches en route to a check-swing strikeout registered at 86-89 mph; Papelbon’s three pitches were all 91 mph, with Bogaerts fouling off the first two before whiffing on the last.
“I’m still working a little bit on that. But I feel way better compared to spring training. That’s for sure,” said Bogaerts. “I feel good. That last at-bat [against Papelbon] was the one I really wanted. I saw the ball really good. Sometimes you see the ball too good and you can’t catch up to it. That was kind of one of those at-bats. You know he wants to get ahead in the count so he can get his offspeeds later, so I got that first one, missed it, and he just kept climbing the ladder after that.”
Davis said that Bogaerts’ foul balls straight back have suggested a hitter who’s not far from having his timing. Yet the hitting coach still noted that further improvement continues to be sought.
“He’s still a little jumpy, but not as bad [as in the spring],” said Davis. “The jumpiness is not really bad. It’s just when he goes to land, there’s a little jar that sometimes I think might speed the ball up and give it a little life that I don’t think it has. But it doesn’t bother him. He says he sees the ball well. I’m just trying to help him be more precise when he makes contact. … It’s just something that if we catch it now, take care of it – we tried to do it throughout the spring, it’s going to help him have a much better year offensively.”
The Sox need Bogaerts to do just that offensively. A year after his season of drastic ups and downs – two-plus standout months, nearly three months amidst one of the most extreme slumps in recent memory, then an impressive September en route to a .240 average, .297 OBP, and .362 slugging mark – the Sox remain committed to him at shortstop.
Yet in that commitment comes some risk. The Sox have exceptional depth at a number of positions. Right now, shortstop is not among them.
Brock Holt represents the alternative on the big league roster. It remains to be seen whether his electrifying first half of 2014 (.327/.371/.463) or his second-half struggle (.219/.278/.271) more accurately portrays who he can be as a big league regular. In the farm system, Deven Marrero – while a defensive standout – needs time in Pawtucket to prove that he can handle Triple A pitching, let alone big league competition.
The Sox didn’t acquire an established veteran alternative to Bogaerts this offseason, someone who might force him to look over his shoulder at the first sign of a slump. The organization believes in not only the idea that he possesses enormous potential but also that he remains close to tapping into it. Others see the same thing.
“I still think he has a chance to be a special player,” said the AL scout. “He’s still only 22. I have to keep reminding myself of that.”
On the one hand, the fact Bogaerts is still just 22 screams for patience. He was the fifth youngest player in an Opening Day lineup this year, still a half-year younger than Dustin Pedroia when he made his big league debut (and struggled) in 2006.
On the other hand, the Red Sox’ commitment is based on the expectation he’s ready to adjust, adapt, and produce.
“You can’t let age be an excuse,” said a second AL evaluator.
The Sox built a lineup meant to take heat off Bogaerts, whom they felt was asked to assume too great a burden last year. The middle of the order is such that the team can live through some growing pains without derailing the offense.
Time remains on Bogaerts’ side – for now. Two games is not enough to prompt a team to cast doubt on what it believes a player to be.
Still, the fact that Farrell dropped the shortstop in the lineup in the season’s second game (to be sure, a move made in part as a credit to Hanigan’s quality plate appearances) suggests that the team’s patience is not limitless. Even small samples can suffice to form a bubbling curiosity that floats through a team’s thinking.