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Xander Bogaerts’ plate discipline has him in the early-season MVP conversation

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The Red Sox shortstop is proving he is a superstar

MLB: Boston Red Sox at Baltimore Orioles Evan Habeeb-USA TODAY Sports

Note: All numbers are through Monday’s action.

Xander Bogaerts is currently getting a whole lot of love from Red Sox fans, and deservedly so. Given what he has done through the first two-and-a-half months of this season, there’s no such thing as too much love for Boston’s shortstop. Interestingly enough, it seems like he’s actually been a bit overshadowed for a lot of this year. While he has consistently been plugging away all year and producing from the start of the year to now, there has often been a guy outperforming him for spurts. Whether it’s Mitch Moreland or Michael Chavis or Christian Vázquez or Rafael Devers, someone has often been stealing the spotlight from the guy who has been Boston’s best player in 2019.

Whether or not he has gotten the spotlight he’s deserved is, ultimately, inconsequential. What actually matters is that Bogaerts has been phenomenal, and while it doesn’t really make sense to look at MVP candidates on June 18, he is right there if you want to do just that. By fWAR, only Mike Trout has been better among American League players this year. (The margin between them is 4.8 vs. 3.4, for what it’s worth. That is extremely significant.) Through Monday’s action, he is hitting .301/.392/.539 for a 142 wRC+, meaning he’s been 42 percent better than the league-average hitter. For context, he finished his outstanding 2018 season with a 133 wRC+. He’s been great at the plate and smooth with the glove, making the extension he signed prior to the start of the year look like a major win for the Red Sox.

It’s the offense I want to talk about right now, though, as it is clearly his most significant skill and the most eye-opening part of his season. A lot of what is working is simply continuing what he did en route to his breakout 2018 season. He’s hitting for big power with a .238 Isolated Power, right on par with where he finished last season. In that same vein, he’s launching the ball on a regular basis rather than sort of slapping it around the field like he has in the past. To me, though, it’s been the plate discipline that has been the story for Bogaerts in 2019.

This was a major factor in the shortstop’s breakout last year as well, which was well-documented throughout the season. One of the themes for the entire offense was aggression at the plate, and while Bogaerts is never going to be a trie attacker at the plate he was much more aggressive on hittable pitches last year than ever before. This season, according to Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers, he’s actually taken a step back in this regard. In fact, he’s actually swinging less than he ever has before. That’s bad, right?

Not necessarily! Well — *looks at his numbers again* — definitely not. The reason for this is that Bogaerts is swinging less, but he’s swinging less at the less hittable pitches. According to Brooks Baseball, the shortstop is seeing the three types of pitches (hard, breaking and offspeed) at roughly the same rates as last year, but his approach against the pitch types have changed. He’s still swinging at about 43 percent of hard pitches, which is essentially the same rate as 2018. However, after swinging at roughly the same rate of breaking and offspeed pitches last year, he’s dropped his swing rate on those pitches down to 35 and 37 percent, respectively.

That is where is relative lack of aggression is coming from. When we talk about attacking pitches and being aggressive at the plate, we are generally talking about not watching hittable fastballs go by early in counts. Bogaerts isn’t really doing that any more than last year. Instead, he’s laying off the hard-to-hit pitches with movement better than ever before. If you’ll recall the earlier stages of his career, these have been the pitches that have given him problems when he’s struggled, too.

The results can be seen all over the place. For one thing, Bogaerts is maintaining an 18 percent strikeout rate that is both well above-average and right in line with his career norms. At the same time, he’s drawing walks at a rate of nearly 14 percent, four percentage points higher than his previous career-high. The result is that nearly-.400 OBP for the season. Additionally, he’s making ridiculous contact right now. Per Fangraphs’ batted ball data, Bogaerts is hitting the ball hard 40.5 percent of the time. That’s certainly no bad, but it’s close to the middle of the pack among qualified hitters. What’s even more impressive to me is that he’s made soft contact only 9.3 percent of the time, which is the fourth-lowest rate among qualified hitters.

We often think of hard contact as the key to getting hits, and that’s not necessarily wrong. However, it can often be just as if not more important to not make weak contact. The way Bogaerts is hitting right now, largely because he’s waiting for hittable fastballs, he’s making the defense work basically every single time he puts the ball in play. He’s not giving them free outs with pop ups or weak, lazy fly balls out to the outfield. That approach has him in the way-too-early MVP conversation, but more importantly it has had him as the key bat in the middle of the Red Sox order all year long.