CLEVELAND — As Xander Bogaerts rose through the minors and emerged as one of the top prospects in baseball, he often left onlookers in awe. The young Red Sox shortstop featured a rare mix of athleticism with an easy ability to drive the ball to distant realms.
He hit 16 homers in half a season in Single A Greenville as an 18-year-old in the South Atlantic League, then hit 20 in High A Salem and Double A Portland as a 19-year-old in 2012.
“His batting practice was ridiculous,” recalled Astros reliever Ryan Pressly, Bogaerts’s teammate in Salem in 2012. “When he sits there and tells you he’s 19 years old, you’re like, ‘Wow. You’re 19 and this good already?’”
Tim Hyers became the Red Sox minor league hitting coordinator in 2013, giving him an opportunity to track the young hitter’s progress in Portland and Triple A Pawtucket as a 20-year-old. Hyers witnessed obvious star potential — even though Bogaerts didn’t seem ready to tap into his fullest capabilities at that young age.
“I felt like he had potential to be special. . . . I really believed in the power. I just remember seeing him at a young age taking batting practice, and the ease hitting balls [over the fence] to all fields,” said Hyers. “But he didn’t want to do that [in games]. It was, take a couple strikes, take a two-strike approach, and hit my line drive to the opposite field, which worked for him.”
Indeed it did. Bogaerts became a difference-maker in helping the Red Sox win the 2013 World Series, then after a difficult first big league season in 2014, won a Silver Slugger as the top hitting shortstop in the American League in 2015 while posting a .320 average thanks to his ability to shoot the ball to all fields.
But in 2016 — a year in which Bogaerts was named a starter in the All-Star Game, and in which he’d eventually win another Silver Slugger award — that all-fields approach had gone by the wayside. Bogaerts had gone from someone who was spreading the field with balls in play in equal measure to someone whose pull rate had shot up to roughly 44 percent.
That wasn’t him. Bogaerts expressed concern. He wondered what his numbers looked like when pulling the ball as opposed to hitting it to the opposite field. Especially his batting average. Bogaerts craved hits, suggesting he didn’t sleep well on nights when he’d go 1 for 5.
The answer surprised Bogaerts. He was hitting roughly 200 points higher (.479 to .278) with significantly more power when pulling the ball as opposed to spraying it to the opposite field. Still, at the time, he wasn’t quite ready to believe those numbers. Hitting the ball to all fields had propelled him to that point of his young career, and he wasn’t going to abandon the approach.
“I hit .320 my second year . . . but with no power,” Bogaerts said. “It was little bloops to right field. At that time, I remember I was seeing just a big hole up the middle, and I just wanted to get a base hit up the middle. I don’t think now that even crosses my mind.”
Bogaerts has changed his offensive outlook drastically in the last two years. He is no longer the hitter whose goal is to take advantage of his ridiculous plate coverage by flicking a two-strike single to right. In the parlance of manager Alex Cora, he’s now looking to do damage, hunting pitches he can drive in the air while rattling or clearing fences.
The convergence of Cora, Hyers (who, after two years as the Dodgers assistant hitting coach in 2016 and 2017, returned to the Red Sox as their big league hitting coach prior to 2018), and J.D. Martinez helped Bogaerts to understand his strengths and how he could most dramatically impact the game.
If, instead of meeting the ball, he kept his swing on the plane of the pitch and drove his bat through it, he would start pulverizing pitches, given what Hyers called the “incredible explosiveness he has with his body.” He had powers, they told him, that he could harness into something more.
That message, Bogaerts said, “made me change a little bit into trying to launch a little more. I don’t like real launch, like pop-ups. I hate pop-ups. I like launching with more of a line drive.”
There was no explicit instruction to pull the ball more, and indeed, Bogaerts remains gifted at spoiling two-strike pitches and using right field to salvage hits. But with the concept of driving the ball in the air and using his legs to generate more power ingrained in the 26-year-old’s mind with more favorable counts, he naturally started to crush the ball to left and left-center — the parts of the field where he does the greatest damage.
He’s been doing just that with great frequency, allowing him to return to the All-Star Game in 2019 as a very different player than the one who broke out in 2015 and got his first All-Star nod in San Diego in 2016. This year, he’s hitting .294/.384/.535, his .919 OPS tops among all AL shortstops, his 46 extra-base hits second most in the American League, and his 17 homers bringing him within arm’s reach of his career-high of 23 set one year ago.
He has emerged as a power-hitting force at a premium position who also makes an impact on the bases. His 3.7 Wins Above Replacement (in the calculations of Fangraphs) rank third in the American League (behind only Mike Trout and Alex Bregman) and sixth in the big leagues at the All-Star break. He is a drastically different player from the very good shortstop he’d been in 2015-16.
“When he hit .320, he only hit seven home runs,” said Mookie Betts. “Now he’s using his tools. He’s a solid shortstop, obviously his bat is amongst the best of all shortstops. I think he just needed to believe it, believe he could do it. He’s not just trying to get base hits. He’s trying to drive the ball. He knew it would change some. I don’t think he was ready initially, but now that he’s taken that big step forward, he is who he is.”
Yet his emergence has been, perhaps, underappreciated nationally. In 2018, he had an elite year, posting 4.9 Wins Above Replacement (24th in the big leagues), yet was overshadowed dramatically by Betts and Martinez. This year, even as his impact has surpassed that of his teammates, he became an All-Star only as an injury replacement.
No matter. Bogaerts took considerable satisfaction in the fact that he’d made it to Cleveland, regardless of the path.
“For me, if you make it in the beginning or make it in the end, I think it’s still something special,” said Bogaerts. “It’s a matter of if you deserved it or not. I’m thankful that I got invited, thankful to be a part of this.”
Yet while a second All-Star selection suggests a career body of work and sustained performance, the Red Sox are thrilled about the emergence of Bogaerts as the star whose future had glimmered so brightly on his ascent to the majors. Hyers and others who have watched the shortstop’s career arc have seen a succession of light bulbs flicking on, the combined wattage dazzling with the luminosity of a true star.
“I remember a conversation with Alex Cora before . He was like, ‘This guy can be special. This guy is really good. We’ve got to help him believe that and make him a little more aggressive in the batter’s box, and I think a lot of things will fall into place,’ ” said Hyers. “It’s fun watching him. I’d been around him a long time in the minor leagues, and I knew his potential, and I knew that there was a lot in there that was going to come out. It was just a matter of time.”
That time has come.