There’s something different about Xander Bogaerts’s batting practice.
There’s a level of physicality to it, brute strength. The ball sounds different coming off his bat, perhaps you can liken it to glass breaking. His line drives start at eye level then continue to rise, which speaks to the level of backspin he can generate when he connects.
It wasn’t always like that for Bogaerts. When Red Sox manager Alex Cora came over from the Houston Astros, he challenged his shortstop to be more aggressive at the plate. to not settle for grounders the other way, between the second and first basemen. Cora would accept a dip in batting average if that meant more doubles and homers. His shortstop counterparts — Francisco Lindor and Carlos Correa, for example — could do it, so why couldn’t Bogaerts? If Bogaerts wanted to be at the top of the shortstop class, he needed to provide more thump with his bat.
In 2019, Bogaerts put it all together and then some.
He set career-highs in OPS (.939), on-base percentage (.384), slugging percentage (.555), RBIs (117), homers (33), doubles (52), and extra-base hits (85).
You still there? There’s more.
The only shortstops in MLB history to hit more than 53 doubles in a season were Nomar Garciaparra (56, 2002), Mark Grudzielanek (54, 1997), and Alex Rodriguez (54, 1996).
Bogaerts’s 117 RBIs are the most by a Red Sox shortstop since Garciaparra knocked in 120 in 2002. Bogaerts and Rodriguez are the only shortstops in MLB history to hit at least 50 doubles and 30 home runs in the same season.
Bogaerts joined Garciaparra, Rico Petrocelli, and Vern Stephens as the only Boston shortstops with 30-homer seasons.
“Coming into the season, I tried to improve on what I did [in 2018],” Bogaerts said during the team’s final road trip of the season. “Last year, everything was coming together.”
You started to see the early stages of this version of Bogaerts in 2018. He hit what was then a career-high in homers (23), and also drove in at least 100 runs for the first time (103). While this might have been a surprise to some, it wasn’t to Cora. In fact, Cora believes there’s another level Bogaerts can reach.
“For him to buy into the concept of driving the ball, it’s been great,” Cora said. “I still believe he’s going to be better because he’s going to understand when to attack. He will do that with time.”
Bogaerts, 27, also emerged as the leader of the Red Sox, often showing his face the most when his team lost. He also was the bridge between players of different backgrounds since he speaks four languages.
“It’s something that came with time,” Bogaerts said. “Just being around here a lot and coming through the system and just feeling more comfortable. When you’re young and coming up you’re kind of worried about how to prepare yourself to be able to help the team.”
Bogaerts added that the team’s rough start in 2019 made it even more of an obligation for him to step up. The club played its first 11 games on a Western trip. The Sox got off to a 3-8 start and never quite recovered.
Bogaerts is preparing for the 2020 season by spending his time in Arizona this offseason working out at EXOS, a training facility.
There are strides that need to be made, specifically on the defensive end. Cora said during winter meetings that the Sox’ defense as a whole suffered last season. Bogaerts played a role in that.
His feet can sometimes be clunky, and last season in particular, his range appeared limited, primarily on balls up the middle. Bogaerts had a breakout year, but according to the eye test and the metrics, he must improve defensively. Bogaerts was -21 in defensive runs saved, the worst mark among qualified shortstops. His 1.1 ultimate zone rating was 11th, near the middle of the pack.
“I think the next step for Xander is to become a better defensive player,” Cora said. “For how sure-handed he is, I think his first step can be better. He’s that good of an athlete and that’s the next challenge.”
Shortstop is Bogaerts’s domain for the foreseeable future — and with his six-year, $120 million deal that now looks like a total steal for the Sox set to kick in next season — Bogaerts can continue to build on his legacy in Boston.
As for a backup, Jose Peraza could fill in for Bogaerts. C.J. Chatham, Boston’s best shortstop prospect, would be an option as a defense-first shortstop. Marco Hernandez is also in the mix.
The Sox have options, but the main man remains Bogaerts, who has put himself in the conversation as one of the best shortstops in baseball.
“I think I’m up there with one of the best in the game,” Bogaerts said. “Obviously, I want to be great. From an individual standpoint I don’t want to be like, ‘Oh, I have to be better than this guy.’ No, it’s just for your own, and knowing the type of person you are. [You] just [try] to be great for your team and yourself.”
Primary 2019 starter: Xander Bogaerts
Projected 2020 starter: Xander Bogaerts
Major league depth: Jose Peraza, Marco Hernandez
Prospects to watch: C.J. Chatham