Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Xander Bogaerts.
The Question: Can Xander Bogaerts extend 2016’s first half performance over an entire season?
Xander Bogaerts just turned 24 this past October. It’s easy to forget that, but it’s true. The guy is just 24 years old. Despite his young age, he’s already undoubtedly an outstanding player. By Fangraphs’ measure, he’s better than a four-win player. By Baseball-Reference, he’s right around a four-win player. By Baseball Prospectus, he’s roughly a three-win player. Oh, and he’s only 24 years old.
The scariest part about this — at least for everyone sorry enough to not be fans of the Red Sox — is that he hasn’t even reached his full potential. We’ve seen that potential in bursts, and we saw it in bunches as he was coming up through the minors, but we haven’t seen it over the course of a full, major-league season. His 2016 was the best year of his career, but he was still inconsistent. We saw the best version of Bogaerts over the first half, and now we wait to see it over a full season. Perhaps, it can come this year.
While the young shortstop hit .294/.356/.446 over the full season, he looked like he was going to be an MVP candidate at the All-Star break. At that point, he was hitting .329/.388/.475 compared to his .253/.317/.412 mark in the second half. To be fair, most of his downfall was because of a putrid month of August, but he was also merely average at the plate in September. Either way, it’s the first half I really want to focus on. He put up a 131 wRC+ in that time, and if he can put up that kind of line over a full season, he’ll be in those MVP conversations we all hoped he’d be a part of.
The first difference one may notice when looking at his two half-seasons is the disparity in batting average on balls in play. During the first half, Bogaerts posted a .369 BABIP versus his .290 mark in the second half. For most players, the second half would be sustainable, but I’m not so sure that’s the case here. Throughout his major-league career, Bogaerts has been able to carry high BABIPs, and he backs it up with his secondary skills. Speed is certainly a part of it, as he’s quick enough despite not being the burner Tim McCarver insisted he was in the 2013 World Series.
It’s his batted ball profile that stands out even more, though. Bogaerts came up through the minors as a legitimate power threat, but he’s developed into a different kind of hitter. Instead, the righty peppers line drives and grounders all over the field for hits. It’s his success on grounders that stands out the most. In each of the last two years, he’s posted a batting average above .300 on grounders despite the league average coming in around .255. The bad news here is that he got into a bad trend of pulling over half of his grounders in 2016. If that continues into the future, he’ll start to see a lot more shifts and that will put a dent into his BABIP if he doesn’t make an adjustment.
If that’s the case and he sees a hit in his BABIP, it’s possible that he can make it up in the power department. As I said, this was thought to be his calling card when he was a teenager, but it’s never come to his major-league game in a big way. In fact, this was the one area in which he had more success after the All-Star break than before it. His .152 Isolated Power over the entire season was a career-high, and was paired with a below-average 11 percent home-run-to-fly-ball ratio. He should have enough raw power to get that rate to at least average, which would bring his overall power up without having to change his batted ball profile.
What stood out the most between his first and second half performances, however, was his plate discipline. And while he did walk a bit more in the first half, it was his strikeout rate that really stood out. Bogaerts struck out just under 15 percent of the time in the first half compared to his 20 percent second half rate.
The difference came down to Bogaerts’ approach against offspeed pitches, and specifically the changeup. This shouldn’t really be a huge surprise, since he always flails at the soft stuff when he’s going through his rough stretches. Last year, he swung through just 33 percent of offspeed pitches in the first half before seeing a ten percentage point increase in the second half, per Brooks Baseball. Looking at his zone plots, the issue becomes even more clear.
Simply put, Bogaerts did a great job of laying off changeups that were thrown away from him in the first half, and was less good at it in the second. It’s an adjustment he’s constantly making and losing, and one that he needs to keep through a whole season.
Bogaerts is already one of the best young players in all of baseball, and he hasn’t even really sniffed his ceiling over a full season. We did get a glimpse of it early in the year last year, though, and the pieces are there for him to keep it going over a full season. The biggest key will be laying off the offspeed pitches that are thrown to the outer portion of the plate. On top of that, he’ll either need to find a way to maintain his high BABIP or tap into some of that power potential we saw during his minor-league days. Only time will tell if he’ll be able to put it all together, but he’s got plenty of career left. Did I mention he’s only 24?