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2019 in Review: Xander Bogaerts

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The MVP of 2019.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day (minus a week in October where I’ll be mostly off) we’ll deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as the negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Xander Bogaerts.

2019 in one sentence

Xander Bogaerts built upon his breakout 2018 for an even better year in 2019, securing his place among the top shortstops in all of baseball.

The Positives

The 2019 season was an incredible season for Xander Bogaerts, and while the man who plays to his right will probably be remembered more for his season since it appears to be serving as a breakout for a bright future, this was Bogaerts’ team. Just about everything went right for the shortstop this past year, and the biggest positive to me is that he built very slightly upon almost every aspect of his game from 2018. Last season was a breakout of sorts for Bogaerts. He was good before that, of course, but he took things to a different level last year. Usually after a season like that you see slight steps back in just about every area of the game, but Bogaerts actually got a little better in every area. His walk rate increased, he struck out very slightly less, his power went up, his BABIP went up, even his defensive numbers went up on Fangraphs, though that wasn’t a consensus opinion. It all resulted in, again on Fangraphs, a full win of improvement in terms of WAR if we assume the same amount of playing time in the two seasons.

Getting down to more of the nitty gritty, in the last couple of these review series we’ve talked about players who disappointed (or seemed to disappoint) specifically in situations where they possessed the platoon advantage. The cause, or at least one of the causes, was that they struggled mightily against offspeed pitches. Those, mainly changeups of course, are the primary weapon for pitchers who are battling the platoon disadvantage. For Bogaerts, we saw the opposite. This was the biggest monumental change for the shortstop in 2019, at least in terms of quality of contact. He still whiffed about a third of the time against these pitches, but after putting up a rough .258 expected wOBA in 2018 against offspeed offerings, that mark rose all the way up to .370 in 2019. The actual wOBAs rose at about the same rate (.275 vs. .372) as well. As a result of this big gain, he put up a 130 wRC+ against left-handed pitching.

There were two big reasons Bogaerts stood out among all of the other Red Sox hitters, many of whom had extremely productive seasons as well. The first is that he was seemingly consistent all year while other players — even Rafael Devers — had noticeable stretches of down performances. Bogaerts, though, was well above-average at the plate in every month of the season. His bookends were worse relative to what we saw in the middle of the year, though, with a 114 wRC+ in April and a 119 mark in September. Those certainly don’t qualify as negatives, but they accentuate the positive that was the middle of his season. Over the middle four months (May-August), Bogaerts never had a wRC+ below 144 and over the entire stretch had a mark of 153. Among the 181 players with at least 300 plate appearances in that stretch (Bogaerts had 471), only ten were better at the plate by wRC+ than Bogaerts.

So, consistency was one part of the equation that stood out for Bogaerts. The other was an ability to come through in big situations. I talked about it a lot through the regular season, but for all of the good team numbers this lineup put up there were a lot of times where it just didn’t feel as good as the numbers indicated. That was because they’d get plenty of guys on base without knocking them in and did a lot of their damage with runners off base. Bogaerts was one of the few who did come to play in big spots. He was, of course, good in every situation, but his wRC+ was better with men on than with the bases empty (146 vs. 137) and on top of that it was at its best (150) with runners in scoring position. Similarly, in low, medium and high leverage situations his wRC+’s were 131, 150 and 155. These numbers aren’t disparate enough to really say he stepped up in bigger spots, but he undoubtedly did not get worse. Given his baseline performance, that is more than enough.

The Negatives

Honestly, you kind of have to stretch to find real negatives for Bogaerts in 2019. Fortunately, I’m flexible. (Narrator: He is not.) One potential weakness is with his defense, though that depends on who you ask. I’m not wild about defensive metrics, but there is a real disagreement between Defensive Runs Saved and Ultimate Zone Rating. By UZR, Bogaerts was a fine defensive player. By DRS, he was one of the worst in the game. I think DRS is too harsh, but I also think he’s probably average-at-best at the position. Bogaerts will make pretty much every play he should, but I don’t feel like he’s a guy who makes the other plays. Reasonable minds can and do disagree on this one. I don’t think he should be moved off the position or anything that extreme, but I also think if you want to stretch for a negative this would be a place to possibly start. Strong take, I know.

Similarly, Bogaerts hasn’t made the same impact on the bases he did earlier in his career. This is, of course, generally how aging works, but again we’re stretching here. Over the first few years he spent in the majors, he was a solid, double-digit steals guy. Last year he fell down to eight steals before swiping only four bags in 2019. Furthermore, his Baserunning Value on Fangraphs was once consistently close to ten runs per year, which is outstanding. That fell off a cliff and actually fell into the negatives in 2018 before recovering up to an even 1.0 in 2019. I think he’s a smarter baserunner than these numbers would indicate, but he’s clearly not the guy he once was.

The big, real negative for Bogaerts was his performance against breaking balls. He has always been something of a fastball killer, and as mentioned above he did extremely well against offspeed pitches this year. Against breaking balls, though, his expected wOBA was only .307, which was actually a slight drop off from last year’s .315 mark. Now, his actual wOBA was .350 against breaking balls, so he either got lucky or made poor quality of contact work. I would guess it’s mostly the first, though, and I will be interested to see if he sees a sharp increase in breaking stuff in 2020.

The Big Question

Can we expect Xander Bogaerts to maintain his power gains?

Uh, yes. Like, emphatically yes. Bogaerts saw his ISO go up 12 points from 2018, and while the juiced ball probably means that’s actually a slight drop off, but he was a legitimate power threat again. I don’t think there’s much else to say here. Bogaerts is a power hitter.

2020 Vision

There’s no question about where Bogaerts is going to be in 2020 or what his role will be. There is a zero percent chance he is on any team besides the Red Sox, and he will be playing shortstop, hitting in the middle of the lineup and serving as a clubhouse leader. That’s just what he does.