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Red Sox Season Review: Xander Bogaerts

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Another second-half slide was not enough to keep Xander Bogaerts from taking a big step forward in 2016.

Division Series - Cleveland Indians v Boston Red Sox - Game Three Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

So here’s a strange question: Was Xander Bogaerts’ 2016 season more like 2014, or 2015?

The immediate gut response is to go with 2015. After all, 2015 saw Bogaerts break out offensively after a disappointing 2014 campaign. He hit to a 109 wRC+ which is certainly a whole lot closer to 2016’s 113 figure than 2014’s 81 is. Looking purely at production, 2016 looks like the sort of incremental step forward we’d all expect from a good young player getting another year of experience under his belt.

And yet...there’s a very real argument to be made that 2016 is 2014 done better, with 2015 something of an outlier.

Coming off of 2015, there was a very real reason to fear that we’d see some regression from Bogaerts. After all, if hitters regress towards their own personal BABIP averages, Bogaerts’ .372 figure seemed unlikely to be terribly sustainable going forward. And when you take away Xander’s super-high average from 2015, there’s not a whole lot left between a 4.9% walk rate and a .101 ISO. A season like that basically demands that Bogaerts contend for the batting title just to be particularly useful at the plate.

Well, Bogaerts didn’t hit to a .372 BABIP. His .335 figure in 2016 is still high, but not beyond the point of reason. It’s a lot more realistic to expect him to do that next year, and the year after that then to see .372 year-in and year-out. And if Bogaerts were still performing like he was in 2015, just without the BABIP, he might be in trouble.

But that’s not what happened. We saw a much more balanced Bogaerts in 2016. His walk rate jumped 60%, and perhaps most importantly, he brought some of the power to the table that was expected of him all along. Last year there was some talk of injury sapping his ability to go deep, but we were always going to need to actually see it happen before Bogaerts could really be given any credit for that. Bogaerts’ ISO is a bit closer to the 15-homer crowd than the other guys around 20, where he ended up (with 21), but either way it’s easy to believe that injury excuse now that he’s produced a decent power-hitting season like this.

All this sounds positive, and it is! But Bogaerts’ season was certainly not without its flaws. Hell, the entire second half kind of qualifies as that, which brings us back to 2014. In 2014, Bogaerts peaked on June 3rd with a line of .304/.395/.464. He would hit to a .531 OPS the rest of the way. It was ugly. In 2016, his peak was a good bit higher, but only a little later. On June 11th, Xander was hitting .358/.405/.529. The rest of the way? .253/.325/.392.

To those who watched 2014, Bogaerts’ second-half struggles were pretty familiar, too. Not just because they happened, but because of how they happened. Breaking balls low-and-away. Sound familiar? Bogaerts seems to love chasing after them, and it’s proved his undoing in both 2014 and now 2016 as pitchers have started to shy away from throwing him strikes.

The good news for Xander is that, this year at least, he didn’t let it completely undermine him. He had a really bad stretch in August, but even when he started chasing every slider on offer, it didn’t leave him quite as flummoxed against fastballs as in 2014. He wasn’t able to prey on them the same way he did to start the season, but he was still able to punish pitchers when they didn’t properly execute their game plan, or when he was able to lay off early and get ahead in the count.

It feels like if Xander can just do that last bit consistently, we’ll be due for the MVP-style season 2016 was shaping up to be for a while. It’s the last glaring gap in his offensive game if we accept that the power has arrived. The story defensively may not be quite as good—there were more notable gaffes in 2016, and the defensive metrics which were never quite as impressed with his 2015 season as fans and media were graded him rather poorly in 2016.

Still, if there’s room for improvement, it’s improvement on what is already a very strong profile—Bogaerts was worth either 3.7 or 4.7 wins this season depending on who you ask—and improvement that wouldn’t be too terribly surprising to see. It’s easy to forget since it’s been more than three years now since we first saw Xander in the majors, but he turned 24 a little under two weeks ago. He is far from a finished product and, at this point, should have a pretty good idea of what he needs to work on if he wants to erase one of the bigger weaknesses in his game.

So we’re still waiting on the full breakout season from Xander Bogaerts. But our wait hasn’t been without reward. Bogaerts once again put together a strong first half and a weak second in 2016, as in 2014. And his problems weren’t exactly surprising or new. But the difference in quality both in good times and bad between 2014 and 2016 goes to show how far Bogaerts has come. If he keeps moving forward like that, Mookie might find himself with some competition in a year or two.