Boston Red Sox: Xander Bogaerts can make the adjustment

BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 23: Xander Bogaerts
BALTIMORE, MD - APRIL 23: Xander Bogaerts /

Xander Bogaerts has been great, yet one down year is enough for some to write him off. Where has he been, and how can he get back to where he was?

In 2015 and 2016, Xander Bogaerts took home the American League Silver Slugger at the shortstop position. He posted a combined line of .307/.355/.434, good for a 109 OPS+. He batted third in one of the best Boston Red Sox lineups in recent memory, and most importantly filled a position long held vacant since the departure of Nomar Garciaparra.

Now, after a down year in 2017, we’re acting like the 25-year old shortstop is over the hill, washed up and can’t be counted on. Fact is, Bogaerts has been forced to adjust before, and he can do it again.

Let’s dive a little deeper into that. In his first 162 games (a convenient sample size), Bogaerts hit just .241/.299/.363. Granted, it came during his age 20 and 21 seasons, but he was clearly not ready for major league pitching.

The biggest issue was his two-strike approach. In 2014, 58% of his plate appearances featured a two-strike count, and in those plate appearances, he slashed .187/.246/.282.

Watch the way Bogaerts impatiently lunges at the down-and-away breaking ball. This is a sign of a hitter who is guessing, not one who is comfortable with two strikes. Looking at some heatmaps, notice how often pitchers would go to the down-and-away quadrant of the zone with a breaking ball on two-strike counts. Now look at the corresponding heatmap showing contact rate – Bogaerts had the lowest rate of contact in the spots where opposing pitchers threw the most.

Fast forward one season to 2015, and his slash line with two strikes was up to .259/.294/.346. The next year it was .230/.288/.372. Even in 2017, his line stood at .235/.290/.373. From 2015-17, Bogaerts ranked first in the majors in two-strike hits.

The turnaround was fueled by a fundamentally different approach when behind in the count. Compare these 2015 heatmaps showing pitch percentage and contact rate of breaking balls with two strikes to the ones from 2013-14.

All of a sudden, Bogaerts was hitting those pesky breaking balls away with his signature opposite-field, line-drive stroke. This all begs the question, did this trend continue into 2017? It seems there is a correlation between Bogaerts’ two-strike approach and his overall success, which makes sense given the rate in which he finds himself in two-strike counts.

Sure enough, pitchers continued their focus on the low-and-away region, but this time Bogaerts couldn’t make the counter-adjustment. His contact rate in that portion of the zone dips back near where it was in 2013-14. Combine that with the fact that he faced the highest rate of sliders and curveballs in his career (18.4 percent and 11.1 percent, respectively), and you get a dip in production much like what we saw.

But here’s the good news: this problem has been fixed before. As the evidence suggests, Bogaerts has successfully adjusted his two-strike approach in light of the same struggles he now faces. He did it before, there’s no reason to think he can’t do it again.

Here’s the better news: Bogaerts is starting with a much better base than he did going into 2015. Following the 2014 seasons, he was sitting at a 83 wRC+ and an accumulated 0.4 WAR after two full seasons. Even with the offensive struggles in 2017, let’s not forget the young shortstop was only a tick below league-average with a 96 wRC+, and his 3.2 WAR resembled a very productive Major League player.

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While we’re on the topic of defending Bogaerts, let’s talk a little about his defense. One of the more overblown storylines around the 25-year old is his perceived lack of range at the shortstop position and how it translates into poor defense.

It’s true that the defensive runs saved metric is not kind to Bogaerts – he’s been pegged for -21 defensive runs saved over the last two seasons. UZR has been kinder, with a score of -4.5 paints a slightly below average picture. But when talking about his range, let’s look at the expected probability on plays he’s made and where he falls in reality. For comparison’s sake, we’ll throw in arguably the greatest defensive shortstop of all-time, Andrelton Simmons, and arguably the worst, Derek Jeter (it’s always fun to bring that up).

Impossible (0%)

Remote (1-10%)

Unlikely (10-40%)

Even (40-60%)

Likely (60-90%)

Routine (90-100%)

2017 Xander Bogaerts

0.0% (15 chances)

0.0% (15)15.4% (13)61.5% (13)81.1% (37)

96.6% (388)

2017 Andrelton Simmons

0.0% (19 chances)8.7% (23)50.0% (8)50.0% (14)81.3% (32)

98.7% (446)

2014 Derek Jeter

0.0% (19 chances)

0.0% (19)

6.3% (16)

16.7% (12)

62.5% (24)

95.8% (287)

The numbers speak for themselves; his range isn’t all that bad. It’s a whole lot closer to Simmons than Jeter, and that’s all you can really ask out of a shortstop who will derive most of his value with the bat.

Next: Red Sox 2018 Free Agency: Four hitters to avoid on the market

Overall, here’s plenty of reason to be optimistic about Xander Bogaerts heading into 2018. The two-time Silver Slugger has some work cut out for him, but his high floor and even higher ceiling makes for some tantalizing potential. It may seem like he’s a grizzled veteran heading into his fifth full season in the majors, but this kid is 25 years old. The best may still be yet to come.