Welcome back to the One Big Question series here at Over The Monster. For those who weren’t around for last year’s series or simply forgot what it entails — there’s a lot going on in the world today, so don’t be ashamed! — here’s a brief reminder. Every day, Monday through Friday, for the next eight weeks we’ll profile a new member of Red Sox 40-man roster. Rather than simply going through a simple profile of their overall game and what they offer the team, we’ll focus on the one question that could very well dictate how their season will go in 2018. In order to keep the order objective and avoid side conversations like ranking the players on the roster, we’ll go straight down the roster in alphabetical order by position. In other words, we’ll go by how things are ordered here. If you miss any editions or would like to look back on some of last year’s, you can see all of them here. Today, we’re looking at Xander Bogaerts.
The Question: Can we truly expect Xander Bogaerts to totally transform his approach at the plate in 2018?
Most of the hype surrounding this upcoming Red Sox season seems to be with the offense. We mostly know what the pitching staff will bring — at least as much as we can ever know what any pitching staff will bring — but the offense is an enigma with so many players seemingly being poised for legitimate positive regression at the plate plus a new, elite hitter in the middle of the lineup. Perhaps no hitter on this roster is more interesting at this point than Xander Bogaerts, who many would choose as the hitter looking forward to the biggest jump forward in 2018. It’s been a strange start to his career for the 25-year-old, as he’s simultaneously been disappointing relative to the massive expectations from his prospect days while also being underrated by many who are too quick to compare him to said expectations. Regardless of all of the outside stuff, in a vacuum Bogaerts is still a very valuable player as an above-average hitter at the shortstop position with upside. That said, we’re still looking for the next level and it’s popular to look at him as the player who should benefit the most from a new coaching staff and a new presumed organizational philosophy at the plate. It makes sense, but I think it’s also fair to wonder if we are expecting too much change from the young shortstop in one season.
Before we look at the possible changes, though, let’s examine the baseline with which we’re working. Every Bogaerts season has been slightly different — it’s part of the reason he’s such a fascinating player to follow — but ultimately there are plenty of similarities. In total, the Aruban has come to the plate just over 2000 times over the last three seasons and in that time he’s hit .296/.352/.424 for a 107 wRC+, meaning he’s been seven percent better than the league-average hitter. For what it’s worth, the average shortstop in this time has posted a wRC+ in the high-80s or low-90s. What stands out for Bogaerts has been the lack of power in his game as he’s been more of a singles hitter who gets on base at a strong clip despite an average walk rate. His plate discipline is solid and slightly above-average on the whole, his contact skills are great and his power is below-average and disappointing. The whole package is fine, but it has limited upside and defies the expectations of a few years ago.
It’s strange that Bogaerts is still so young but has been around for a long time, but it’s not too difficult to remember back to 2013 when he was arguably the top prospect in the game and making a major-league impact at the end of that World Series season. At the time he was seen as a shortstop who would be fine in terms of contact skills but would become a star because those bat-to-ball skills would translate into legitimate, above-average in-game power. I wrote early last year that we should put aside those expectations and appreciate the player Bogaerts has become, and while I still feel that we are too hard on the shortstop I also think it’s fair to look for some improvements to get his game to the next level. There are clearly changes that can be made.
Specifically, there are two big changes that can be made in Bogaerts’ game and on an organizational level they are two things that have ostensibly been missing over the last couple of seasons. The first is with respect to aggression at the plate, as Boston has been stuck in the last decade with their patience at the plate. With teams more comfortable going to the bullpen early and there just generally being more talent in bullpens around the league, it’s no longer as valuable to focus so much on getting pitchers to increase their workload early in games. In 2017, Bogaerts swung at just 53 percent of pitches in the strike zone (per Fangraphs) compared to a league-average rate of just under 68 percent. If he’s going to hit the ball with more authority moving forward, being more willing to jump on hittable pitches early in the count will go a long way.
In addition to the aggression, Bogaerts could also benefit from a revamped strategy at the plate to get more lift on his batted balls. His groundball/line drive strategy has been great in terms of slapping singles all over the field, and there is still plenty of value in being able to threaten for a .300 batting average every year. That being said, we know there’s more power in Bogaerts’ bat and if he can get the ball in the air more he should be able to take better advantage of it. Over his career, Bogaerts has consistently hit the ball on the ground around half of the time he puts the ball in play, and if he can get that rate down by 40 percent he could see a drastic increase in power.
So, there are ways in which Bogaerts can finally become the player we all expected him to be, and I’m not really breaking any news with what I just said. However, I think we should all take a step back and realize how much easier all of this is said than done, particularly considering that he’s already had some success as is. Bogaerts has been this different kind of hitter for four years now, and it isn’t going to be as simple as a new coach talking to him to get him to totally transform his game. There are real adjustments that would need to be made, and those take time to implement. That’s not to say it’s not impossible for Bogaerts to take the step forward we’re all hoping for in 2018. I have no idea how likely it actually is and am not brave enough to put actual odds on it, but Bogaerts’ approach in terms of aggression and batted balls will be the most interesting part of the early regular season.