CINCINNATI – Brian Butterfield worked with Derek Jeter to help him go from a player who committed 57 errors as a 19-year-old to just 25 the next. He's helped players transition to new positions and become Gold Glove-caliber defenders.
Butterfield has been in the game for decades, and he's seen players take considerable steps forward. So he can compare the development of Xander Bogaerts at shortstop between 2014 and 2015 to some of those other advances, can't he?
"Truthfully, no," Butterfield said. "There's still a lot of room for improvement. There's still a lot of work for us to do. But to answer quickly, no. I think he's made a quantum leap. His understanding of what it takes to prepare up here, what it takes, understanding his pitching staff, understanding what we're doing with team defense, the things he's doing on his own to try to help us win games, it's been extremely impressive."
The Red Sox have just one All-Star this year in Brock Holt, a player whose arrival in Cincinnati attests to the power of determination, overlooked athleticism, and standout baseball instincts. But the most significant development of early 2015 – aside from the team's poor place in the standings – has been the emergence of potential cornerstone players in Bogaerts, Mookie Betts, and Eduardo Rodriguez.
In many respects, Bogaerts' rapid rise represents the most significant of all of them. After all, a year ago at this time, the 21-year-old looked overwhelmed in the middle of his first full big league season, unable to make sense of the first extended slump of his baseball career.
He was lost both in the field – where he felt like the proverbial fish out of water while playing third after a lifetime spent at short – and at the plate, unable to counter opposing pitchers' unrelenting attack on him low and away.
There were times last July where the question loomed: Was Bogaerts benefiting from being in the big leagues? Was the accumulating, crushing failure of the season going to help him to get better or did each hitless day in the big leagues push back his timetable to being a productive big leaguer?
The Sox wrestled with the idea. The dilemma was simplified, to some extent, by the fact the team didn't have a big league-ready infielder to replace him in the majors, and by the time his struggles reached critical mass at the end of July, the team traded Stephen Drew and moved Bogaerts back to short.
"Sometimes it's unfortunate that a guy has to grow at the big league level," said Butterfield. "It's OK if they make mistakes in the minor leagues. We don't look at the win-loss column in the minor leagues. We're trying to develop players who can become championship-caliber and help us win games in the big leagues. There's growing pains there. It just goes to show his mental toughness, his intelligence, as well as his ability to play through failures and come out on the other side. Now, it's fun to watch."
Indeed, Bogaerts has emerged as a smooth, reliable defender who has been among the better shortstops in the American League. Fangraphs pegs him as having saved 7.4 runs relative to an average shortstop (fourth-best in the American League), while Baseball Information Solutions credits Bogaerts as having been three runs better than average (third in the AL).
First baseman Mike Napoli said that the consistency of his throws has been "night and day" from a year ago, with his consistency in some ways approximating that shown by Drew in 2013.
"The things he's doing now, everything has a purpose to it," said Butterfield. "Other guys who come up to the big leagues, they're just trying to keep their head above water. That's normal. Now he understands that he can do this, and he knows he's going to continue to get better. The preparation has been above and beyond."
Offensively, Bogaerts has also experienced a breakthrough. The pitches that dominated him a year ago – the sliders and fastballs down and away that he kept chasing time and again – have now turned into line drives to right field, often in critical situations.
"In the minors, I always hit to right field. Last year, I kind of got out of that. I don't know why. Maybe I had too much going on upstairs that I just could not think about being myself," said Bogaerts. "This year, I'm back to being myself. If they throw away, I just go with it."
One year after his up-and-down year yielded a .240 average, .297 OBP, and .362 slugging mark, Bogaerts has achieved across-the-board gains. He's hitting .304/.338/.411, and he's gone from one of the worst hitters in the game with runners in scoring position to one of its best (.392/.403/.541).
He's on track to become just the fifth shortstop age 22 or younger to hit .300 in the last 30 years, joining Starlin Castro (2010-11 with the Cubs), Mike Caruso (1998 with the White Sox), Alex Rodriguez (1996-98, Mariners), and Derek Jeter (1996, Yankees). His at-bats most closely resembling Castro and Jeter at comparable ages.
"He's just doing things that he was capable of doing and everybody thought he was going to do in the future," said Red Sox assistant hitting coach Victor Rodriguez, who has worked with Bogaerts since he signed with the Sox in 2009.
Bogaerts' leap this season has him performing at the level of a star-caliber player, regardless of whether he's an All-Star. Fangraphs pegs him as having been worth 2.4 Wins Above Replacement, second-best among AL shortstops, while Baseball-Reference.com gives him a 2.7 WAR, tops among league peers at his position.
If he's capable of making this much progress in a short period of time, what might he be capable of three or five years down the road?
One evaluator imagined almost breathlessly what kind of player Bogaerts might be by, say, late-2016 or 2017, when his growing familiarity with the league and his abilities permit him to tap into considerable power reserves.
"It's tough to speculate and put pressure on him. I wouldn't want to say he's definitely going to be a great, great player. We're all hopeful of that, like we are for all players," said Butterfield. "The aptitude, the ability to do what he's done in a short period of time, we're hopeful that can keep elevating him over the next 10 years."
He wants to be great, a fact he'll state candidly, unafraid of setting an exceedingly high bar. In the offseason, when he worked out at EXOS, he wrote down as one of his goals a spot on the 2015 All-Star team. But even without fulfilling that completely, having fallen short in the American League's final vote, he can express satisfaction for the progress he's made.
"Even though I won't be recognized as an All-Star, I would view it as a success," Bogaerts said. "I just feel the comfort level of being out there, playing every day, knowing I'll be there – it's just been easier for me and I'm just having fun."
In a year where the Sox' success to date has been lacking, Bogaerts represents possibility going forward.
"Being an All-Star would be a great thing, but that doesn't diminish anything about what I think about Xander Bogaerts," said Butterfield. "I think it's very important to Xander to be a frontline shortstop, a championship-caliber shortstop. We're seeing a lot of effort and work from him to get better offensively and defensively, and I think we'll see that for the rest of his career."
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