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The mysterious start to Xander Bogaerts' season

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Xander Bogaerts' overall numbers are fine, but there are some underlying concerns.

Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season, there weren’t many players who were singled out as a breakout candidate more than Xander Bogaerts. I know for me personally, he was the Red Sox player I was most looking forward to watching in 2015. The potential of a guy like Mookie Betts was obviously exciting, but seeing how Bogaerts could adjust after a rough first full major-league season was/is fascinating to me. So, here we are just 19 games into the season, and his numbers look pretty good. Are they really representative of how he’s been swinging the bat?

Looking strictly at the numbers that attempt to cover all aspects of offense, he’s been pretty good. In his first 68 plate appearances, he is hitting .279/.353/.377. He has a 106 OPS+, a 106 wRC+, and a .324 TAv. Those numbers aren’t great, but they’re much better than what we saw last year. Looking at just the baseline numbers, Bogaerts has taken a step forward.

If you’ve been watching the games on a consistent basis, though, there’s a good chance the eye test is disagreeing with the numbers. Many of his hits have been of the bloop variety, with soft contact resulting in singles. The batting average on balls in play backs that up, as it’s an above-average .327. By itself, that number wouldn’t scream "good luck." Plenty of great hitters can put up BABIPs like that without help from the baseball gods. With all of the weak contact we’ve seen, though, it’s safe to call it a lucky mark. So, we have some numbers saying he’s been fine, and others saying he’s been not so fine. Which ones are right?

We’ll start with the positives. In terms of plate discipline, Bogaerts has been much improved early on from where he was in 2014. His walk-rate is currently sitting at 10.3 percent, way up from the 6.6 percent mark he posted last year. On top of that, he’s not striking out nearly as much, with a 16.2 percent K-rate compared to 23.2 percent last year. He’s also whiffing just seven percent of the time, down from ten percent last year. In general, he’s shown much more of the patience that he was praised for in the minors. His swing rate is way down from last year, especially on pitches out of the strike zone.

Besides that, unfortunately, things aren't so bright. As I mentioned above, Bogaerts has been getting by on weak contact. This jumps right out at you with his power numbers, specifically his .098 Isolated Power. In 2014, the two players who put up that mark over the full season were Dustin Pedroia and Chris Johnson. It’s not just the ISO, either. The batted ball numbers are not falling in Bogaerts’ favor. These aren’t the most reliable numbers, but both Fangraphs and Baseball-Reference track them, and both agree that the Red Sox shortstop has had trouble here.

Fangraphs

League Average

(Fangraphs)

Baseball-Reference

League Average

(Baseball-Reference)

Line Drive Rate 12.0% 20.4% 16% 24%
Infield Fly Ball Rate 15.8% 9.9% 23% 13%
Home Run to Fly Ball Ratio 5.3% 10.3% 5.0% 7.2%

As you can see, Bogaerts has been worse than the average hitter in every area here according to both sites. Another measure of good contact we have at our disposal is average fly ball distance. Right now, Bogaerts’ average fly ball is traveling a distance of 250.03 feet. Among the 196 players who qualified for this, his total is lower than all but 17 of them. It’s also down a little more than 19 feet from his 2014 distance, though early-season weather could be playing a factor there.

The last thing I want to look at is where he’s hitting the ball. Take a look at the following spray chart.

A couple of things stand out here. First of all, the vast majority of his ground balls are going to the left side of the infield. Opposing teams have begun to notice this and are deploying huge shifts when he comes to the plate. The other thing is that the vast majority of his fly balls have gone to right and center field. This is clearly not how you succeed at the plate. It’s great that he’s using the whole field, but if he’s going to hit for more power, some of those fly balls have to make their way to his power alley. He’s also going to need to show he can beat the shift or he’ll watch his BABIP fall way down at the hand of the shift.

By the looks of things, Bogaerts has gotten by in the early goings of 2015 by the fortune of some good luck. His overall numbers look fine, but there’s been a fair amount of luck involved in that. Although he’s showing much-improved patience from last season, he’s also been showing too much weak contact. I still have high hopes for him as a breakout candidate in 2015, but he’s going to need to pull the ball with authority more, and just hit the ball harder in general, if he wants to reach those heights this season.