Brian Butterfield navigated the tunnel from the Red Sox clubhouse to the dugout about two and a half hours before Monday’s game. As he passed his shortstop, he stopped him.
“Quickness starts with what?” the infield instructor asked.
Xander Bogaerts hesitated, wondering if it was a trick question.
“Feet,” he responded, before seeing that Butterfield wanted more. A smile spread across Bogaerts’ face. “And anticipation!”
The two burst into laughter, with Bogaerts giving his infield instructor a hug on his way to the field to take ground balls. This small dialogue is part running joke, part battle cry in the making of a major league shortstop.
“It’s each day. He’s sick of it by now. I quiz him. ‘Quickness is that strength and conditioning program you went on this winter that has to go along with …’ And he answers, ‘Anticipation.’ If he doesn’t, I yell at him,” explained Butterfield. “I actually hadn’t asked him since early in the last road trip, so he might have thought I was going somewhere else with it, but then he quickly realized when I gave him my look.”
It is one thing to speak the language, quite another to act upon it.
* * *
In the top of the seventh inning of Monday’s game, the Red Sox trailed, 5-4, with two outs and a runner on third. Devon Travis grounded a ball into the hole between third and shortstop.
Bogaerts ranged to his right, grabbed it, and unleashed a comet to first base that sizzled into the glove of Allen Craig, an instant before the speedy Travis crossed the bag. It was one of the foremost displays of arm strength Bogaerts has ever offered.
“Cannon. Cannon,” Bogaerts laughed of his throw. “I would have made that play last year, too, but maybe I would have thrown it in the dugout. That’s the difference.”
An infield hit – or, if Bogaerts didn’t have the range to get to the ball, an outright hit to left – would have meant at least one insurance run for the Blue Jays. Instead, Bogaerts’ play allowed the Sox to tie the contest with a run in the eighth and then walk off with the victory in the ninth.
But the play wasn’t significant just because Bogaerts made it or even just because of what he showed with his arm. The element that commanded Butterfield’s attention was the way in which Bogaerts anticipated and responded to the rhythm of the game as the play unfolded.
At times, Bogaerts has sailed throws from the hole. As such, he’s employed a one-hop bounce, channeling a hint of the way that Omar Vizquel approached the position.
“He works on skipping the ball to first base when he goes in the hole when it’s tough for him to stick his foot in the ground and he knows he’s got to unload in a hurry,” said Butterfield. “He said, ‘Something told me I had to throw that thing in the air.’ He did. The ball had really good finish to it.”
“Once that ball was hit, I thought, ‘No chance if I bounce that ball,’” said Bogaerts. “I just said, ‘Get it in the air and get it over.’ Perfect timing.”
* * *
Bogaerts loves playing shortstop. He’s passionate about it, wants to be good at it, and is willing to learn and to work at it in pursuit of improvement. That much became evident in an offseason dedicated in no small part to that goal.
Prior to 2014, the 22-year-old had never taken part in a full, structured offseason program. He figured out what worked for him, sometimes running like a maniac on the beaches of Aruba in pursuit of fitness and conditioning. It worked for him as he flew through the minor league system.
But Bogaerts hit a wall in the big leagues in 2014. His tremendous start, the All-Star buzz that commenced as he excelled in May and floated near the top of the Red Sox lineup, didn’t merely fade. It was X’ed out by months of failure at the plate, the stretch from mid-June to the end of August in which Bogaerts not only didn’t get hits but looked like a player who had no idea how to reverse his fortunes.
During the run, he’d talk about how he’d recognize a pitch to drive – the belt-high fastball over the plate – and his hands simply didn’t fire in a fashion to permit him to demolish the pitch in the fashion he’d done in the minors.
In retrospect, there was a realization. Perhaps the grind of the big league season – particularly after a short offseason following a 2013 campaign that was two months longer than any he’d ever before experienced – caught up with him. As he wore down physically, he became mentally and emotionally drained while trying process failure.
A decision was made to counter that physical decline, to build Bogaerts for the long haul of a big league season, by sending him to EXOS (formerly Athletes’ Performance) in Phoenix, Ariz. He arrived in early November, stayed until just before Christmas, and after six weeks back at home in Aruba, returned for two final weeks entering spring training.
The program began with setting goals. Bogaerts, EXOS performance manager Eric Dannenberg was intrigued to note, had very specific baseball-oriented goals. He didn’t speak in terms of getting stronger or faster. He described a desire to improve as a defender, as a hitter, as a player.
“Xander in particular gave me three goals that he wanted to improve and they were all baseball-oriented,” said Dannenberg. “He wants to be able to contribute in more ways than he currently does. … They were really focused around him developing more aspects of his game and trying to be the elite, elite – wanting to be a top shortstop.”
So what were the goals?
“Maybe MVP?” Bogaerts joked. “Just kidding. [Baserunning and defensive] speed, power, maybe being an All-Star – probably those three.”
Goal-setting is part of what made Bogaerts a standout on his ascent to the big leagues, and it is something he feels is necessary to excel at the game’s highest level.
“Through the minor leagues, I’ve been to all-star games. You know you have that ability. It’s just on a bigger stage right now,” said Bogaerts. “As long as you can blend it all together, all your abilities, it will work.”
Bogaerts approached his work at EXOS with a determination to develop his skills and his routines to demonstrate that 2014 was an aberration and to wipe out the questions about his ability to play short. He was, Dannenberg said, coachable in a way that not all athletes are, a sponge for information, a worker.
Weight room work emphasized lower body strengthening and plyometrics to create more power and explosiveness. Then, there were shuffling and cutting training activities to improve the efficiency of Bogaerts’ movements, preparing him for the details of being a shortstop.
Yet as much as Bogaerts took to the instruction he was receiving from Dannenberg and the EXOS staff in Arizona, it was when he returned to Aruba that he offered, perhaps, evidence of his greatest gains. His training program wasn’t merely about black-and-white physical gains, but rather teaching Bogaerts how to take charge of his own physical development – with training and exercise combining with proper nutrition and sleep programs, among other elements – to sustain performance over the long haul of a baseball season and career.
“He came back here even better than what he left here at,” said Dannenberg, “which means he did his homework when he was not here.”
The Sox have seen the difference – not just in how he moves, but in how he approaches his work.
“You see a different guy when he comes to the park,” said Butterfield. “You see a different guy when he goes about his work.”
* * *
That’s not to say that the 22-year-old has been a defensive star at shortstop. But a year after he graded (by most advanced metrics) as one of the worst-performing shortstops in the big leagues, someone who (according to John Dewan’s Plus/Minus Grades) cost his team eight plays and nine runs at shortstop, Bogaerts is performing at a roughly league-average level – a baseline that gives him a chance to become a star if his offensive game develops as many believe it eventually will.
He’s not a finished product at short, but he’s clearly an improved one.
“He’s still a work in progress. There are times when you see good anticipation and good breaks to the ball. And there are other times, not as much,” said Butterfield. “It’s a tough road. It’s a demanding position. It’s a tough league, toughest league in the world.
“A lot of 22-year-olds and under are learning in Single A and Double A in front of small crowds,” said Butterfield. “He’s ahead of the curve as far as that goes. He’s learning on a big stage. I like where he’s at right now.”
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