Xander Bogaerts is playing baseball at a very high level this season. No sane person could deny that. His defense is light years ahead of where it was just a year ago, and he’s piling up hits. All told, he boasts a 108 wRC+, better than all but four qualified shortstops. A big part of that has been thanks to him cutting his strikeout rate down from 23 percent to just over 15 percent this year. That’s all very good! Even if he never improves from here, he’s a good player who will play in this league for a long time.
Now, unfortunately, we have to (or I guess more accurately, I choose to) look at the negatives. For all of his success, his line is inflated by what is mostly an empty batting average. He’s currently hitting .319, a mark that’s boosted by an unsustainable .372 batting average on balls in play. I think it’s fair to say he can continue to be an above-average BABIP hitter in the future, but it’s unrealistic to think he can maintain a rate this high. One issue here is that he’s walking in just under four percent of his plate appearances this year, but that’s a story for another day. To go along with the poor walk-rate, Bogaerts’ Isolated Power also sits at just .097, 48 points below league-average and a mark that ties him with Jose Reyes and Ender Inciarte. Today, I want to look at that power output, or lack thereof.
The first thing that jumps out to me about Bogaerts is his approach, something that surely has an effect on his walk-rate as well as his power. Simply put, he’s not swinging at great pitches to hit.
There’s a lot of red off the plate on that zone plot, especially in on his hands and above the zone. It’s a trend that’s quite surprising given the strong approach at the plate throughout his professional career. Case in point: check out his zone plot from just last year.
Bogaerts shows much better plate discipline in that chart, limiting most of swings to pitches in the strike zone. The hard numbers back up this concept as well. According to Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers, he has been swinging pitches out of the zone at a higher rate than league-average, while swinging at pitches in the zone fewer than the average player. All in all, it’s not a great way to make the kind of contact that leads to extra base hits.
In what appears to be a direct result of this approach, Bogaerts is now hitting more ground balls than ever. This especially plays to the swings he takes on pitches in on his hands, as it’s really hard to get lift on those kind of pitches. The 22-year-old has hit 52 percent of his balls in play on the ground in 2015, a higher rate than all but 25 qualified players per Fangraphs. Most of the players who surround him on this particular leaderboard are speedy slap-hitters, something that Bogaerts has never projected to be.
Another direct result of his swinging at too many pitches out of the zone is being a defensive batter too many times. It’s been somewhat rare that he has found himself in a hitter’s count in 2015. Bogaerts has been a part of just four 2-0 counts this season (tied for 261st in all of baseball, per Baseball-Reference’s Play Index), while he’s been in twelve 3-1 counts (tied for 151st). While the second number (3-1 counts) is much less egregious than the first, it’s still a troubling trend. On top of that, Bogaerts hasn’t done much damage when he has found himself in these situations. To wit, the shortstop has an .079 ISO in 2-0 counts and an .083 in 3-1 counts. More generally, he has a .101 ISO when ahead in the count.
The next thing I looked at was where in the zone Bogaerts’ power was coming from last season compared to this year. Take a look at the following zone plots, showing his ISO in each part of the strike zone. The first is for 2014, and the second is for this season.
As you can see, he is clearly struggling to do as much damage on pitches in the upper-portion of the strike zone as last season. These aren’t huge samples we’re dealing with, so there’s a good chance some outside forces are affecting this, but it certainly jumped out to me when I was doing my research for this post.
The final thing I wanted to look at was where Bogaerts has been hitting the ball. Last season around this time, I again looked at the young shortstop’s offensive profile and found that he was playing as too much of a pull hitter. The good news is he is spreading the ball around the park much better than he was last season. The bad news is he may have taken the adjustment too far, as he’s turned into a bit of a slap hitter. To the spray chart!
At first glance, it’s very good to see that he’s spreading the ball all around the diamond. While that remains true, there needs to be a few more fly balls out to left field if he wants to get more extra-base hits. It’s great that he's no longer feeling so enticed by the Monster, but he can’t ignore it completely. As we all know, great hitters use it to their advantage. Of course, as I said, it’s good to see that he’s made the adjustment from last season, and it gives me much more confidence that he can make another slight adjustment before the start of the 2016 season.
I want to reiterate what I said at the start of this post. Bogaerts has had an incredibly impressive season, and on the whole has taken a huge step forward in his game. There’s no reason to be anything but excited about his future. With that being said, if he’s going to be the player we all envisioned he’d be, the power will need to come at some point. Right now, it’s being held back for all sorts of reasons illustrated above. Of course, there are plenty of other factors at play, and not all the information is out there for us. Whatever the case, his ability to adjust throughout his professional career gives me confidence he’ll improve upon this power shortage in the coming years. Right now, power is one of the only things holding Bogaerts back from being a truly great player.