Think back to last fall, when Xander Bogaerts took over an everyday spot down the stretch and showed poise, confidence and ability that is almost unheard of from players his age. That, combined with the glowing reviews from basically every scout who watched him rise through the minors, gave fans big hopes for the now-21-year-old in 2014. Of course, things haven’t gone as smoothly for the Aruba native this season.
That’s not to say it’s time to write him off, or that he’s even been the most worrisome young bat (looking at you, Jackie Bradley). It’s just not unfair to call his season to this point a disappointment. Given his age, and the flashes that he showed early this year, specifically the first two months of the season, there’s plenty of reason to believe he can bounce back. To do so, he’s going to have to work on a few different things. On or near the top of the list has to be his ability to use the entire field effectively.
Bogaerts has racked up 448 plate appearances this season, hitting a paltry .233/.297/.350, good for a 78 wRC+. That puts him on the same offensive level as Atlanta’s Andrelton Simmons, who obviously is a bit better with the glove. There aren’t a lot of glaring issues with his batting line, but rather a combination of small problems. His walk rate is at 7.1 percent, just slightly below average. He’s striking out in 23.9 percent of his plate appearances, slightly worse than the league-average hitter. His Isolated Power sits at .118, compared the average rate of .137. He’s hitting a barely-below-average .294 on balls in play. On their own, none of these numbers are too startling. Together, however, they make for a disappointing batting line. While it wouldn’t solve all of his problems, hitting the ball the other way with more authority would certainly help those last two issues.
Back when Bogaerts was still a relatively new face in the baseball world, scouting reports raved about many portions of his game. One of the most common compliments was his ability to use the entire field. Take these to quotes from first-hand scouts, the first from Sox Prospects, the second from Chris Mellen of Baseball Prospectus.
Shows the ability to drive the ball to all fields with backspin and carry
There’s some length in the swing, but the righty has the loose hands to stay inside of the baseball and barrel pitches up in multiple spots, and he routinely drives the ball with backspin to all fields
Bogaerts himself has even commented on how important using the entire field has been for him as he's grown as a hitter. This quote in particular highlights that, from our own Joon Lee's fantastic piece from last October.
Since I was growing up, I always hit good to right field so I just worked a lot on hitting to the opposite field
Fast forward to the first few months of the year. Through the end of May, the Red Sox shortstop was hitting a very impressive .304/.397/.438. Around that time, Tim Britton had an interesting piece on Bogaerts and what may be one of the biggest reasons he's struggled so much going the other way this year. The jist of the article is that he was enticed by the wall in left field, and that forced him into some unfavorable habits that made him too pull-happy. While the tone of the article suggests it was a habit he was in the process of breaking, it doesn't seem like he's been as successful as he had hoped.
To illustrate this point better, let's look at some numbers. The following table shows Bogaerts' wRC+ when he pulls the ball, hits it up the middle and when he goes the other way, comparing it to the league-average wRC+.
Obviously, Bogaerts has been below-average to all fields, but the most startling difference is clearly when he is going to the opposite field. In fact, that 48 wRC+ when hitting it the other way ranks 151 amongst the 172 qualified batters. For a more visual representation of this, look at where Bogaerts' hits have been scattered around the field.
The spray chart illustrates the point that was made in Britton's piece. Look at the blue dots, showing Bogaerts' doubles. The vast majority of those are hit to left field, and right around where the Monster would be at Fenway Park. Whether he's doing it consciously or not, it's becoming increasingly clear that he hasn't stopped being enticed by the Green Monster.
As I said at the start of this post, it is far from the time to worry too much about Bogaerts' future. He is just 21 years old (the same age as Mookie Betts), and has the makeup and tools that make scouts drool. One down season in his first extended look at major-league pitching isn't enough to write him off. With that being said, he has some adjustments he has to make in the season's final six weeks and over the offseason, chief among them being to get his ability to use the whole field effectively back. For something that was such a big part of his game throughout the minors, it's alarming to see it almost completely disappear. Whether it's a confidence issue, being thrown off by the Monster, having trouble adjusting to major-league pitching, or a combination of the three, it needs to improve. And that improvement must be priority number one for his offensive work heading towards April 2015.