Ordinarily, Xander Bogaerts would have commanded a considerable spotlight by dropping a single into left field to extend his hitting streak to 24 games. But on Tuesday in Baltimore, the shortstop’s steady, consistent barrage of hits over nearly four weeks was overshadowed by a singular display of brilliance by teammate Mookie Betts, who clubbed three homers.
For the Red Sox, however, that either/or construction isn’t one that they have to consider — much to their delight. In Bogaerts and Betts, the Sox have a pair of 23-year-olds, born within days of each other in October 1992, who are both accomplishing extraordinary feats at an age when players often haven’t even arrived in the majors.
When Travis Shaw was 23, he spent the entire year flailing in Double A waters, two years from his big league debut. There, he was teammates briefly with Bogaerts until the young shortstop zoomed past him en route to Pawtucket, the big leagues, and the World Series.
“He was the youngest player in the league,” said Shaw. “It was like, ‘Whoa.’ And he’s developed so much since he’s gotten [to the majors], especially defensively.
“He’s special. He’s a special talent. It’s crazy to think he’s already on this path, already won a Silver Slugger, 23 years old. He’s unbelievable.”
Jackie Bradley Jr. was in over his head in the big leagues as a 23-year-old in 2013, two years from his first productive season. In 1999, David Ortiz spent most of the season in Triple A (a somewhat inexplicable decision by the Twins) before finishing the year with an 0-for-20 performance in the big leagues.
Not everyone on this Red Sox team was years away from a productive big league career at Bogaerts’s age. Hanley Ramirez was in his second year as an elite shortstop. Dustin Pedroia was amidst his Rookie of the Year season.
“When I was that age, we were winning a World Series,” Pedroia smirked. “We’ll see [with them], right?”
Still, in backing up his .320/.355/.421 line of 2015 with an even better performance (.350/.401/.516) to this point in 2016, Bogaerts is forging credentials as one of the best pure hitters in the game, in a way that commands historic perspective.
Barring an injury, Bogaerts will blow past 500 career hits sometime this year.
There are 75 (non-active) players who amassed 500 career hits through their age 23 seasons. Of those, nearly half (36) are in the Hall of Fame; 47 of them (62 percent) collected 2,000 career hits.
Bogaerts is hitting .350 for the season. If he hits .320 or better this year on the heels of his 2015 performance, he would become just the 20th hitter since 1901 to achieve that trick in consecutive years through his age 23 season.
It’s an impressive list: Of the 19, 14 are in the Hall of Fame (including the two Red Sox on it, Tris Speaker and Ted Williams).
“You look at him and think he plays like he’s 26 or 27 years old,” said bench coach Torey Lovullo. “You have to slow things down and say this is even more remarkable because of how young he is.”
The same, of course, can be said of Betts. With his three homers Tuesday, he’s on pace for 37 this year, giving him a realistic shot at joining Mel Ott and Willie Mays as the only players age 23 or younger with a listed height of 5 feet 10 inches or under to reach the 30-homer plateau. (More on that here .)
It cannot be overemphasized: Rarely in baseball history has a team featured two players who are so good and so young. Last year, Bogaerts and Betts became the third set of teammates (Johnny Bench and Bernie Carbo with the 1970 Reds, Donie Bush and Ty Cobb with the 1909 Tigers) to post WARs of 4.0 or better (as calculated by Baseball-Reference.com) by their age 22 seasons.
This year, both are on pace to post WARs of 7.0 or better. No team has ever had two position players age 23 or under reach such lofty marks in the same year. Only the 1957 Braves (Hank Aaron, Eddie Mathews) and the aforementioned 1909 Tigers featured two players who posted 6.0 WARs by that age.
The last time the Red Sox had anything close to two players of such accomplishment who were 23 or younger was 1987 (Ellis Burks, Mike Greenwell). Before that, 1975 featured three exceptional young talents (22-year-old Jim Rice, and 23-year-olds Fred Lynn and Dwight Evans) as did 1967 (Tony Conigliaro before his tragic beaning, George Scott, and Reggie Smith), and the early-1940s Red Sox paired Ted Williams and Bobby Doerr.
For the last century, that’s about it — and of those groupings, none featured two players with the all-around skill sets of Betts and Bogaerts, who are emerging as what may well be a once-in-a-generation tandem.
“You don’t see young players like that very often,” said Red Sox president of baseball operations Dave Dombrowski. “It’s just phenomenal to have two young players like that in the organization at the same time.
“You have a chance to see them play for a long time, what they’ll accomplish. It’s not like they’re 29. They’re 23. They’ll get better and better.”
That concept is captivating for the Red Sox, terrifying for their opponents. Betts and Bogaerts are still finding their way as big leaguers, yet as they do, they are able to perform at the level of stars.
“Thank God they’re my teammates,” grinned Shaw. “They’re superstars in the making.”
Follow Alex Speier on Twitter at @alexspeier.