Wednesday afternoon offered an unusually bright disposition to the Red Sox, the sun-splashed field an appropriate setting for a display of star potential.
While Eduardo Rodriguez offered a dazzling display, he was not the lone 22-year-old in the Red Sox’ 6-3 win over the Twins to deliver a hint of enormous possibility. Behind him, though relegated in some ways to supporting-cast status, was Xander Bogaerts, a player who looks very much at home right now and whose toe may be tapping quietly at the threshold of something very impressive.
With good reason, there’s a sense of caution in the Red Sox organization about making such pronouncements. It was only a year ago, after all, that Bogaerts was carrying a .304 average, .395 OBP, and .464 slugging mark. Then came the spiral — a 63-game stretch in which he hit .147/.193/.212, not only smothering any conversations about emergent stardom but also raising questions about his ability to perform at the big league level.
Now there are plenty of signs that he’s getting to a very different place on the field.
At shortstop, Bogaerts’s comfort level is strikingly different from where it was a year ago. According to Baseball Information Solutions, he’s made three more plays than the average big league shortstop this year, tied for ninth-best in the majors. Other metrics, such as Fangraphs’s UZR, peg him at roughly league average or slightly below, but close enough to average — at the most demanding position on the field — that the questions about his defensive ability have subsided.
It was last June 2 that Bogaerts moved from shortstop to third base when the Red Sox re-signed Stephen Drew. He grins with a note of protest at the thought.
“[I want to] stay right here. Stay right here, you know?” said Bogaerts. “It’s been going good so far. I’ve been playing pretty good out there. It’s just comfort level – it’s something I’ve done my whole career.
“I just feel so comfortable over there. At third base, reads, hops, angles, it was tough for me going there, but you’ve just got to play wherever the team needs you.”
Right now, there’s no reason for the Red Sox to consider having him play anywhere else.
“The game is slowing down,” said infield/third base coach Brian Butterfield, the man with whom Bogaerts works daily in pursuit of refinement. “I think his teammates notice the work that he puts in. They notice the things he’s gotten better at.
“They also know that there are still things for a young shortstop to get better at. That’s the direction he’s headed. He’s pleased with it. The coaches are pleased with it. His teammates are pleased with it.”
Tapping into it
The fact that he’s turned himself into a solid shortstop has opened up the possibility of Bogaerts being a player of considerable impact. After all, he emerged as a top prospect on the strength of far-reaching offensive potential. Now, roughly a year and a half into life as an everyday big leaguer, he’s delivering reminders of why he became so highly regarded. On a team that has offered few signs of offensive promise, Bogaerts represents an exception, someone whose progress is apparent.
On Tuesday, for instance, Bogaerts stepped to the plate in the seventh inning of a 0-0 game against Mike Pelfrey and the Twins. He expected Pelfrey to attack him with off-speed stuff. He fouled off a first-pitch slider, then on an 0-and-2 pitch crushed a splitter through the teeth of the chill and off the wall in center field for a double that set in motion a game-winning rally.
Hitting coach Chili Davis saw that at-bat — the anticipation and ability to execute — and nodded approvingly, seeing a player whose feel for what’s happening at the plate is starting to align with the speed of the game. Yet as much recent promise that he’s seen with the all-fields approach, Davis remains somewhat measured.
“I’m not going to give him too much praise right now because we’re only starting to see the beginning,” said Davis. “He’s becoming a better player. He’s starting to move in the right direction right now.
“He works at it every day. He’s 22. We all keep using that, but it’s a great time for him to be 22. He’s learning a lot, and he’s showing it day in and day out. He’s making adjustments.”
He’s making them at a pace that separates his performance from last year, when he could not pull himself out of a months-long slump.
On the recent road trip, for instance, he went 0 for his first 16. After recording an out in his first at-bat Sunday, he recognized that his timing was slightly off. He reintroduced a toe-tap that he’d used coming up through the minors and found himself back in sync.
Bogaerts delivered hits in his next three plate appearances, and followed that with a 2-for-3 game Tuesday and a 3-for-4 performance (with hits off a Phil Hughes curveball, fastball, and then cutter) in the first game of Wednesday’s doubleheader before going 0 for 3 in the finale.
“I’m a guy that goes off feeling,” said Bogaerts. “I know the feeling in my head, but sometimes you don’t get it.
“My toe-tap is where it clicked in. I was doing something different. When I went back to the toe-tap, everything kind of followed.
“I felt about 90 percent the same as I felt in 2013 when I got called up. I never felt that at all last year. I started off the year pretty good last year, but it was not the same. [Tuesday] was probably the closest night that I’ve felt since 2013.”
Noticing the numbers
Bogaerts leads all American League shortstops with a qualifying number of plate appearances in batting average (.287) and OBP (.332) while ranking third in slugging (.391). (Jose Iglesias doesn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify; if he did, he would lead the pack, though Bogaerts has been closing the gap.)
One year after he whiffed in 23.2 percent of plate appearances, Bogaerts has trimmed that number to 13.2 percent, and since May 6, he’s struck out just six times in 91 plate appearances.
“With two strikes, he isn’t panicking,” said assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez. “With two strikes, he was putting together good at-bats, especially with men in scoring position.
“That’s a big difference from last year. He’s really slowing things down and being comfortable with men in scoring position and putting together good at-bats.”
|Strikeout rate (%)||23.2||13.2|
|Runners in scoring position||.153/.211/.218||.303/.294/.515|
|With two outs||.133/.212/.233||.333/.333/.667|
Bogaerts hasn’t performed at star-caliber level, but when considering his age and position, it becomes clearer that he might be close to tapping into something special.
Bogaerts’s OPS+ was 103 after Wednesday. No Red Sox player since Jim Rice in 1975 has had an OPS+ of 100 or better at the age of 22 in a full season. In the last 100 years, the short list of Sox players who performed at such a level at Bogaerts’s age (or younger) is limited to names like Rice, Carl Yastrzemski, Tony Conigliaro, Bobby Doerr, and Ted Williams.
In the last 50 years, there have been just 11 shortstops who, at the age of 22 or younger, posted an OPS+ of 100 or better. It’s a who’s-who of offensive excellence at the position, a group that includes Cal Ripken, Robin Yount, and Alan Trammell, as well as more recent standouts such as Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Troy Tulowitzki, and Hanley Ramirez.
“He’s trying to be like me,” chuckled Ramirez. “No doubt, he can hit. The thing about Bogey is that he works hard every day. No matter whether he’s going good or going bad. He does the same thing every day. That’s how you become a successful player — consistency and dedication.”
It remains to be seen whether Bogaerts sustains his performance, and how he might build upon it. Still, the fact that there’s obvious progress is enormously promising for the Sox. There are no guarantees about what he can achieve, but a player who stumbles in the big leagues as a 21-year-old and then steps forward as a 22-year-old is capable of achieving considerably more.
“Last year was probably a year in which lack of consistency became lack of production, lack of putting together good at-bats,” said Rodriguez. “He’s going to go through struggles, but I think now he knows what it takes to get out — to simplify things and get back to basics, instead of searching and trying to do other stuff.
“That guy, in the minor leagues, took advantage of a lot of mistakes. In the minor leagues, they make a lot of mistakes. At times, he was not as good as you would like to be, but every mistake they made, he took advantage of that.
“Now, here, the mistakes are less. That means he’s better. He’s a lot better than what we saw in the minor leagues. And he’s going to continue to get better.”
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