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2018 in Review: Xander Bogaerts

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The breakout happened

World Series - Boston Red Sox v Los Angeles Dodgers - Game Three Photo by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Xander Bogaerts.

The Season in a Sentence

Xander Bogaerts had the big breakout we’ve all been waiting for since his days in the minors, proving to be a legitimate run producer in the middle of this Red Sox lineup.

The Positives

As you can probably tell from the sentence above, the positives certainly outweighed the negatives for Bogaerts in 2018, and you can’t start talking about his positives without talking about the power. His overall .288/.360/.522 line was great and his 133 wRC+ was 21st in baseball between Jesus Aguilar and Nolan Arenado. Everything was good, but the power was next-level. As you probably remember, there was some concern that it was never going to come, but it showed up in a big way in 2018. By the end of the year, Bogaerts had posted a .234 Isolated Power, beating his previous career-high by 82 points and finishing 25th in baseball between Travis Shaw and Miguel Andújar. We’ll get more in-depth on this topic a little bit later.

The power was obviously phenomenal and stands out the most, but I think what was most impressive about Bogaerts’ season was that he became this new power hitter but didn’t lose what made him good before that. Before the season if you had found out Bogaerts was going to add all that power to his game, it would have been fair to assume he was going to strike out a lot more and/or his BABIP was going to go down if he sold out for fly balls. Well, that wasn’t the case. In terms of plate discipline, he walked more than ever — unsurprising since pitchers wanted to avoid throwing to him more and more — but he also kept his strikeout rate steady. At a rate of 17.6 percent, he was still being set down well below the league-average rate and stuck right around his career norms.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox - Game Two Photo by Elsa/Getty Images

In terms of batting average on balls in play, he did see a bit of a decrease, but that was more because he was coming from such high level. In 2018, Bogaerts still ended up hitting .317 on balls in play. Unsurprisingly, most of that simply comes from hitting the ball hard. According to Fangraphs, he hit the ball hard about 38 percent of the time (a 6.5-point increase over last year) while hitting the all soft 16.5 percent of the time (a three-point decrease since last year). If the balls in play are being hit with that kind of consistency, they are going to find holes at a high rate.

If you ask the coaching staff and his teammates, I would expect most to agree that Bogaerts’ top quality was simply that he always seemed to come through when the team needed him to. As we know, for much of the regular season the Red Sox lineup was very top-heavy, and at times he was the line of demarcation separating the top from the bottom. In other words, the team needed Bogaerts to come through. When he was needed, he performed. His performance got better as the stakes rose, with his wRC+ going from 118 to 150 to 189 with the bases empty, runners on and runners in scoring position, respectively. He also hit for a 142 wRC+ in high leverage situations and he hit three grand slams on the year.

Finally, there’s the defense. This is never going to be the carrying card for Bogaerts, and among the top young shortstops in the game he doesn’t fit with many of them with regards to his defense at the position. That being said, he continues to make strides and is solid there. He needs to be on a team with good positioning to maximize his skillset, and he could work on turning double plays more quickly, but ultimately this isn’t a guy who will be moving off the position any time soon. That in and of itself is a testament to his growth as a player. It hasn’t all happened on the offensive side.

The Negatives

Much like with the other players we’ve profiled so far — side note: The Red Sox have an inordinate number of good players whose last name starts with “B” — there aren’t a lot of negatives here for Bogaerts. There are some areas in which he could probably improve, though honestly they all have small sample issues. For example, he was actually a little disappointing against left-handed pitching. The team as a whole always felt like it should have been better against southpaws, and Bogaerts was part of that. His wRC+ was 118, which was fine, but we know he has the potential for more. For what it’s worth, Blake Snell singlehandedly brought down the team’s numbers versus left-handed pitching, so it stands to reason he did so against Bogaerts as well.

Bogaerts also wasn’t as good away from home, though that’s obviously normal for a player. We often think of that being the case with extreme stadiums like Coors Field and Yankee Stadium, but everybody is more comfortable at home. There’s more to it than park dimensions. Still, Bogaerts had a 118 wRC+ on the road compared to 142 at Fenway. The normal factors along with not having the Monster to abuse in left field plays a role, but if he could continue that production more on the road he’s a legitimate MVP candidate.

World Series - Los Angeles Dodgers v Boston Red Sox - Game One Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Finally, the postseason wasn’t great for Bogaerts, and he seemingly got worse as October wore on. He was one of the players who was around for the other two postseason runs in previous years, and he struggled in both of those. This October, he was pretty good in the ALDS against the Yankees, but after that it started to go down hill. He got on base quite a bit in the ALCS, but the power disappeared, and then he posted a .422 OPS in the World Series. It didn’t end up mattering, and his regular season performance was a huge reason they were historically great, but he was largely absent by the end.

The Big Question

Is it really fair to expect Xander Bogaerts to completely transform as a hitter?

So, this one didn’t age well. My position on Bogaerts coming into the year was that he certainly had the potential to break out still — he just finished his age-25 season — but it had been a few years of the same good hitter but one that was different than our expectations. Alex Cora had come in talking about changing approaches, and I wasn’t sure we could really buy it. Silly me. Bogaerts changed his approach as much as anyone. He was significantly more aggressive on strikes, more selective on pitches out of the zone, and hitting the ball in the air much more often. He was a totally new hitter, and while Bogaerts deserves the most credit the coaches got him to buy in and helped him apply the changes. That’s no small feat, and it transformed the lineup.

The Year Ahead

Next season is going to be a very interesting one for Bogaerts and the Red Sox. He’s obviously going to be the everyday shortstop, and he’s going to be right back in the middle of the lineup behind J.D. Martinez. The interesting part is what happens after. Bogaerts was the first member of this young core to reach the majors, and now he’s set to hit free agency after this season. He’s going to get paid wherever he plays in 2020, and there’s no reason to expect him not to have a massive year ahead of his free agency.