Red Sox: Evaluating the defense of shortstop Xander Bogaerts

Jun 10, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts (2) leaps to throw out Detroit Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias (1) to end the game during the ninth inning of their 11-3 win over the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports
Jun 10, 2017; Boston, MA, USA; Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts (2) leaps to throw out Detroit Tigers shortstop Jose Iglesias (1) to end the game during the ninth inning of their 11-3 win over the Detroit Tigers at Fenway Park. Mandatory Credit: Winslow Townson-USA TODAY Sports /
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Advanced defensive metrics indicate that Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts is a poor defensive player. Is that what our eyes tell us?

The battle between the old school scouting reports and new wave of analytics wages on throughout baseball attempting to find appropriate ways to evaluate talent. An example of the disparity between the two sides an be found in Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts.

The All-Star shortstop comes with the pedigree of a former top prospect expected to develop into an outstanding all-around player. Bogaerts has lived up to the hype at the plate, proving capable of delivering a high batting average while also showcasing some pop during his big league career. His bat has proven worthy of a couple of silver slugger awards already, but what about his glove?

As a prospect, scouts expressed some concern over whether or not Bogaerts would stick at the shortstop position in the long run. Some felt he’d outgrow the position when his frame filled out, although he was always expected to break into the big leagues as a shortstop. He possesses a strong, accurate arm and displays proper footwork. All the tools that scouts use to predict future success.

When you watch Bogaerts in the field he doesn’t appear to be a defensive liability, yet many advanced metrics disagree. His -8 defensive runs saved ranks as the second worst in the majors among shortstops.

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The six errors that Bogaerts has committed this season isn’t an alarmingly high number, although it does put him inside the bottom 10 in the majors at his position. His .973 fielding percentage ranks 17th out of 25 qualified shortstops, yet it’s not that far off from the 10th ranked Orlando Arcia. The Milwaukee Brewers shortstop has the same number of errors but owns a higher fielding percentage because he’s fielded more chances. Based on error totals and fielding percentage, one would conclude that Bogaerts is at least close to average defensively rather than a butcher with the glove.

Here’s the thing about fielding percentage though – you can’t be charged with an error if you never got to the ball to begin with. Which brings us to Range Factor. Bogaerts owns a 3.73 RF/9 that ranks as the fifth worst in the majors among players who have spent at least 30 games at the shortstop position. The Ultimate Zone Rating metric used by FanGraphs is a bit more kind, with a -0.1 UZR that seems only a bit below-average. It still rates as only 18th in the majors at his position though.

Relying only on fielding percentage and a few highlights on Sports Center is the reason Derek Jeter “earned” a handful of Gold Glove awards that seem comical in retrospect. Bogaerts has flashed some leather on occasion and has even mastered Jeter’s patented jump-throw. Despite those thrilling moments Bogaerts still rates poorly by defensive metrics, just like Jeter.

This is where the eye test doesn’t match the metrics. We’ve seen examples of Bogaerts making spectacular plays ranging to either side. Look no further than Sunday night’s game when he made a trio of highlight worthy defensive plays.

It’s clear that Bogaerts has the physical ability to make these types of players. He’s just not doing it consistently. What’s less clear is why he can’t do this more often. He can show great instincts in one moment, then a lapse in focus the next.

Later in that same game against Detroit on Sunday, Bogaerts committed an error that can only be viewed as a mental mistake. It was an easy ground ball that he fielded cleanly, only to sail the throw high enough to pull Mitch Moreland off the base.

Bogaerts makes difficult plays look routine and turns routine plays into an adventure.

Is this a matter of effort or an issue with maintaining focus in the field? Either way, the same lapse in judgement that leads to errors like this may also be responsible for his poor range metrics. Bogaerts has the physical ability to make tremendous defensive plays but even the slightest loss of focus can result in him being a step too slow.

As long as it’s not due to a lack in physical ability, there’s no reason to believe that Bogaerts isn’t capable of being a better defensive player. He’ll never be considered a wizard with the glove, although league-average doesn’t seem like too much to ask. Bogaerts has shown flashes of brilliance, now it’s simply a matter of putting in the work to be able to maintain consistency.

Next: Red Sox draft pitcher Tanner Houck

Our eyes tell us that Bogaerts isn’t as brutal in the field as the defensive metrics claim. The truth is somewhere in the middle. Advanced stats help us understand flaws that common metrics such as errors and fielding percentage overlook. What they can’t do is account for a player’s effort and focus. That’s on Bogaerts to overcome.