Prior to his rookie season for the Red Sox, Xander Bogaerts was the definition of a can't-miss prospect. The bat, the budding power, the poised manner with which he performed during Boston's 2013 playoff run -- all this coalesced into near-unanimous belief that Bogaerts was headed for stardom. That Bogaerts entered his first full season as a precocious 21-year-old only made his eventual success feel that much more inevitable.
The only weakness in Bogaerts' profile, the only reason for caution when projecting his future, centered on his defense at shortstop. Indeed, many scouts questioned whether Bogaerts would be better suited for third base or a corner outfield spot. His offensive ability was without question, but where his ultimate position lay in the field was far more open for debate.
Just over a year into his big league career, the biggest question now facing Bogaerts is whether his hit tool will develop in the manner we all expected. His defense, on the other hand, has been surprisingly solid in 2015, improving by leaps and bounds from his rookie campaign with the Red Sox. To be sure, Bogaerts will never be a Gold Glove-level defender, but judging by his performance in the field so far this season, he'll be just fine at shortstop in the years to come.
Bogaerts didn't exactly perform well with the glove a year ago. Pretty much all the advanced defensive metrics graded him as a well below-average fielder. Going by defensive runs saved, Bogaerts cost the Red Sox nine runs when compared with an average shortstop, and neither FanGraphs' UZR nor Baseball Prospectus' Fielding Runs Above Average gave him any better marks.
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Just going by the eye test, Bogaerts' range seemed to be his biggest weakness in the field, with the youngster especially struggling to get to balls up the middle. He was also prone to the occasional throwing error and rarely looked confident at the position as his performance at the plate declined and the Red Sox shuffled him over to third base early after re-signing Stephen Drew in May.
That hasn't been the case this year, as Bogaerts has been a surprisingly sure-handed at shortstop. Trusting defensive metrics over a small sample can be a risky proposition, but the same advanced stats that reflected poorly upon his work with the glove a season ago indicate that he's performed at a roughly league average level in 2015, and he's doing a much better job with the eye test than a year ago as well.
According to FanGraphs' Inside Edge data, Bogaerts hasn't made any spectacular plays, but for the most part, he's made all the plays you'd expect from a major league shortstop. Bogaerts has made 100 percent of the plays that Inside Edge labels as "Likely" and converted 98 percent of the opportunities characterized as "Routine." His tireless work with third base coach and infield instructor Brian Butterfield appears to be paying off, with his throwing woes from the 2014 campaign nowhere to be found this season.
Beyond the advanced metrics, Bogaerts just looks better from an observational standpoint as well. He's getting to more balls up the middle and hasn't been prone to bad errors or any lapses in confidence.
Given his noticeable improvement at the position this season, Bogaerts' chances of staying at shortstop have increased mightily. If his bat develops, he'll just need to perform at a league-average level in the field to stick at shortstop.
But that's where the questions truly begin with Bogaerts at this point. In a strange twist, his bat might now be a bigger question mark than his glove, especially as he struggles to hit for power against MLB pitching. In 779 career plate appearances, Bogaerts has a career .362 slugging percentage and .118 ISO.
This is where the age-related caveat with Bogaerts needs to be mentioned. He is still 22 years old, and the fact his fielding has taken such a step forward should be viewed as more of a positive than anything else. His potential to be a middle-of-the-order bat is what made him such a hyped prospect, and it's why the Red Sox are so heavily invested in Bogaerts' defense at shortstop.
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Two months ago, many people viewed Bryce Harper as a disappointment and someone who would never reach his lofty ceiling. Now they're putting Harper in the same company as Mike Trout with a straight face. While Bogaerts was never projected at a Harperian level, struggles are part of just about every player's development, and improvement comes in a different manner and at a different speed for each youngster. Bogaerts was here sooner than most prospects, and because of that, we might need to wait a little longer while his development occurs in front of us instead of in the minors.
Perhaps Bogaerts never reaches the All-Star levels many expected of him at the plate. Perhaps the underwhelming start to his career on offense is a sign of things to come. Even if that's the case, the Red Sox need to give Bogaerts all the time they can for his bat to develop, especially now that his performance at shortstop isn't dragging the rest of the infield defense down.
A Xander Bogaerts who can carry his own weight at shortstop represents a player who is now that much closer to reaching his ceiling as a perennial All-Star. We might not be able to see any improvements from Bogaerts on offense, but he is developing into a better major leaguer. And, as Harper has shown, sometimes results begin to come quickly (and seemingly out of nowhere) for such precocious talents.
For someone whose bat drew universal praise a year ago, and who clearly works hard to fix his deficiencies, Bogaerts is exactly the type of player the Red Sox need to be patient with.