Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts working to improve defensively

Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts makes a throw. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images)
Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts makes a throw. (Photo by Mike Stobe/Getty Images) /

Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts aims to improve his defense

Xander Bogaerts is undoubtedly among the top players at his position with the bat but his glove has always been more of a question. Defense is an aspect of his game that the Boston Red Sox shortstop has put an emphasis on improving this spring.

The eye test might lead the casual observer to believe Bogaerts is a solid defensive shortstop. He’s capable of making the occasional flashy play but more importantly, he’s fundamentally sound enough to make the routine plays. Bogaerts isn’t sloppy in the field and doesn’t pile up errors at an alarming rate. His career .977 field percentage places him in the middle of the pack among his peers at the position.

Fielding percentage is an antiquated way of evaluating defense and the advanced metrics have always been harsh in rating Bogaerts. Players generally aren’t charged with an error if they don’t get to the ball to begin with. The more modern metrics penalize Bogaerts for being a step slow to the ball or being out of position.

Red Sox manager Alex Cora believes Bogaerts is capable of being a good defensive shortstop but he’s still a work in progress. According to MassLive’s Christopher Smith, Cora provided some insight on what Bogaerts has been working on to improve this spring.

"“I think (he’s) working on a few things with his first step, certain angles going toward the ball,” Cora said. “It’s going to benefit him. He has a goal. And it’s very important for him to play better defense. I’ve always said he’s not a bad defender. I think he gets punished metric-wise on a yearly basis. But if you ask the people around the league, everything he touches turns into outs. There’s a few things that go into play as far as defensive WAR and everything numbers-wise. He’s working on it. He’s working on his relays. He’s working on his tags. Be more aggressive.”"

Bogaerts was near the bottom of the league at his position with -4 defensive runs saved in the shortened 2020 season, per FanGraphs. These metrics can be unreliable in small samples but expanding the sample does Bogaerts no favors. Since entering the league in 2013, Bogaerts has produced -50 defensive runs saved, by far the worst among qualified shortstops in that time frame.

Other metrics are more forgiving but still fall short of shining a positive light on his defense. Bogaerts owns a 0.0 UZR/150 for his career, a plainly mediocre rating that places him 12th among 26 qualified shortstops since 2013.

Statcast’s Out Above Average metric suggests Bogaerts was only slightly below average with -2 OAA last season. The rating is a bit more concerning when you realize he was tied for 30th at the position and rated higher than only four major league shortstops.

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Reacting with a quicker first step and taking a better angle to the ball will prevent a grounder from rolling through the infield for a base hit. Getting to the ball a split second sooner gives him more time to make an accurate throw. His footwork around the bag and the transfer from glove to hand can be sharpened to shave fractions of a second from the time it takes to turn a double-play. It might not seem like much but it can make the difference between a safe or out call.

Failing to execute these steps might not result in an error but it can still prove costly if it doesn’t end in an out on a play many shortstops would have made. This is a significant reason why most metrics, aside from the traditional fielding percentage, rate Bogaerts below average or worse.

A sore shoulder delayed his spring debut and Bogaerts was limited to designated hitter duties when he finally joined the lineup but he has since made his way back on the field. He’s playing shortstop in Tuesday’s game and he’s expected to play the position at least once more this week.

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The Red Sox have taken a step back defensively with the departures of several key players in recent years and they need to make it a priority to improve with the talent they have available. It starts with Bogaerts, the leader of the team who plays a premium position up the middle. Bogaerts is already on the cusp of being in the elite tier at his position but in order for him to truly leap to that level he needs to be able to produce on both sides of the ball.