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Was Xander Bogaerts pressing last season?

Xander Bogaerts had a disappointing 2014. Was it because he was putting too much pressure on himself?

Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

I was bored the other day and couldn’t find anything to do, so I eventually found my way to the "splits" section of Xander Bogaerts’ Baseball-Reference page. As one does. We all realize that the young shortstop did not live up to the lofty expectations that were set for him prior to 2014. It was a disappointing year no matter how you slice it. Looking forward to 2015, a lot of people are calling for a breakout from Bogaerts this year.

I consider myself in that group, for what it’s worth. A big reason for that is simply having a full major-league season under his belt. Last August, I noticed that Bogaerts was struggling to hit the ball well the other way, and thought some of that may have been mental. Looking at some of his splits from last season, things are adding up towards his struggles being partially due to him pressing a bit too much.

I’ll get this out of the way at first. All of these numbers have some sample size issues, as will happen with any one-year split. It’s impossible to make any real conclusions based off any one split in any one year. I’d be uncomfortable writing this at all if there weren’t so many different numbers all pointing to the same conclusion.

*The Rest of this post will be using Bogaerts’ 2014 rank for various stats. This rank is out of the 209 players who accrued at least 400 plate appearances, and were found using Baseball-Reference’s Play Index

Base Situation
Base Situation OPS Rank
Bases Empty .749 T-70
Men on Base .535 209
Runners in Scoring Position .429 208
Bases Loaded .216 192

Starting off with how Bogaerts performed relative to the base situation, the results are pretty staggering. When nobody was on base, Bogaerts performed like a solidly above-average player.  That .749 OPS won’t win an MVP award or anything like that, but it’s close to the seasonal OPS of guys like Jacoby Ellsbury, Matt Capenter, Brett Gardner and Ben Zobrist. When players were on base, Bogaerts was worse than every other batter in the game. His OPS was even worse when runners reached scoring position, and only Gerardo Parra performed worse in these situations. What’s even more telling is that he OPS’d .889 with the bases empty and nobody out, and got progressively worse as more outs were recorded. This serves as a nice segue to our next section.

Number of Outs
Number of Outs OPS Rank
0 .746 105
1 .647 173
2 .569 194

Obviously, the pressure is going to mount progressively as outs are recorded in the inning. It’s a lot more nerve-wracking to bat with two outs compared to zero. Bogaerts’ OPS reflected that truth. Once again, he was just about average in the low-pressure environment, and sunk below with one and two outs.

Clutch Stats
Stat OPS Rank
2 out, RISP .445 199
Tie Game .577 190
Within 1 Run .581 200
Within 2 Runs .557 206
Within 3 Runs .607 199
Within 4 Runs .627 195
Margin > 4 Runs .888 **
Late and Close .684 108

The one number that stands out here is obviously his .888 OPS when the Red Sox were ahead or behind by more than four runs. Of course, that’s the lowest-pressure situation. For the tie games and all scores within four runs, Bogaerts was one of the 20 worst batters in the game in those situations. He was also in the bottom ten with two outs and runners in scoring position. To his credit, he performed solidly in late and close games (Plate appearances in the 7th or later with the batting team tied, ahead by one, or the tying run at least on deck.), but it’s not enough to outweigh the other numbers presented.

** Play Index is being dumb and not giving me a leaderboard here for some reason. I assume the ranking is quite good, but I can't get an exact number.

Leverage OPS Rank
Low .758 78
Medium .630 178
High .510 205

Here are the numbers that attempt to encompass everything I’m trying to cover in this post. As the at bats became more meaningful, Bogaerts’ bat became less impactful. He was above-average in low-leverage situations, and quickly fell off from there. These numbers are up to Baseball-Reference’s definition of what makes a "high-leverage situation," so they’re all debatable. With that being said, all of the 209 qualified batters were subject to the same rules.

So, we have four different sets of splits, with each containing more disappointing numbers as the pressure got greater. Does that necessarily mean he was getting in his own head? Of course not. Maybe it was just all bad luck, or maybe there was another outside factor I’m not considering. But, as they say, where there’s smoke, there’s fire. The signs point to pressure being a big contributor to Bogaerts’ down year.

Now, I want it to be perfectly clear that this is not meant to slam the young shortstop. He was 21 years old last season and had people expecting him to perform like a superstar in his first full season. On top of that, he was expected to be a big piece of a lineup trying to repeat as champions, all while shuffling back and forth between third base and shortstop. That’s a tough situation for anyone to be put in, no matter how old they are. As we look forward to this season, there is reason to believe this should turn around. He’s one year older, and is presumably more comfortable with this level. The lineup also has a couple of new presences that will push Bogaerts down to the bottom-third of the lineup, letting up some of the pressure. That, combined with the makeup that’s been praised throughout his minor-league career, makes him a promising breakout candidate. It’ll still be interesting to watch how he deals with the high-pressure situations early on this season, though.