The Red Sox offense is a mess right now. They have certainly shown some flashes suggesting they are ready to break out of this team-wide slump, but more often than not the results have been the same. That is, they have been bad. It’s not just one batter, either. It’s everyone. As I said last week when I wrote about Andrew Benintendi’s slump, it’s feasible to do feature-length stories on just about everyone in the Red Sox lineup to examine what the hell is going on. With that being said, to me it feels like there’s one guy in particular whose struggles do a good job of representing what the offense as a whole is. That’s probably an oversimplification and others could probably name different players to fill this role, but for me Xander Bogaerts is the personification of this lineup’s overall demeanor at the moment.
For most of the season, Bogaerts was one of the better hitters in the lineup, even if he wasn’t the power hitter that we’d always hoped he’d develop into. Using a line drive approach and utilizing the entire field, he was among the premier shortstops in the American League. Then, July happened. This month has been a disaster for the Red Sox shortstop. Over 80 plate appearances (not including Sunday) in July, Bogaerts is hitting .153/.225/.222 for a 14 wRC+. In other words, he has been 86 percent worse than the league-average hitter this month. Among the 263 players with at least 50 plate appearances this month, only eight have been worse than Bogaerts at the plate. (For what it’s worth, Mitch Moreland is one of those hitters.)
Although this might be the worst we’ve ever seen Bogaerts at the plate, it’s certainly not the first time we’ve seen him struggle. His career has been something of a roller coaster, although I’d argue it’s been more good than bad. However, stretches like August of 2016 as well as June and August of 2014 stand out as other frustrating stretches. With those experiences in mind, we know what it looks like when Bogaerts is in a bad way. There’s one simple tell for when things just aren’t going well for the young shortstop. When he can’t help himself from chasing breaking balls and offspeed pitches out of the zone, particularly down and away, we know he’s in an awful slump.
Sure enough, that’s exactly what’s happening here and it’s resulting in a ton of weak contact and a big uptick in strikeouts. According to Fangraphs’ batted ball data, Bogaerts spent most of this year making hard contact over one-third of the time. Since the start of July, he’s made hard contact just barely over one-fifth of the time. Furthermore, after being above-average in terms of avoiding strikeouts all year, he’s striking out a full quarter of the time in July. This has, of course, demolished his overall production. Here’s a visual representation of how his season has gone compared to how often he’s swung at pitches out of the zone.
This is a graph showing every 15-game sample from Bogaerts’ 2017 campaign. The blue line shows how often he’s swung at pitches out of the zone, the red line shows how often he’s hit line drives and the yellow line shows his wOBA, which is a measure of overall offense. The dotted lines are league-averages. Anyway, the trend here is pretty clear. His production at the plate goes as his plate discipline goes. When he’s swinging at pitches out of the zone, he has no hope of getting going offensively.
Of course, the elephant in the room with respect to Bogaerts’ is his health. The shortstop has been hit in the hand this year and there is a lot of speculation that this is sapping into his production at the plate. It’s really hard to argue with that logic. That being said, whether or not his hand is feeling good shouldn’t have this much of an effect on his pitch selection. I could certainly buy — hell, I probably believe — that his hand is having some effect on the quality of his contact. Still, simply laying off more offspeed and breaking pitches — and these are the pitches he is swinging at more -- certainly wouldn’t hurt. There’s also the fact that we’ve seen him do this before without a hand injury, so it’s clearly not 100 percent to blame.
At the end of the day, we pretty much just have to hope that he gets a little more confidence at the plate. A healthy hand will certainly help some, but the injury is not the only thing that is hurting Bogaerts right now. We’ve seen him struggle like this before with a healthy hand. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly what’s going on here, but it seems likely that he’s pressing and the worst things get the more pressure he puts on himself. Whatever the issue, as long as Bogaerts is unable to lay off these offspeed pitches out of the zone he’s going to struggle to make any noise at the plate.