Welcome to our 2020 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 2020. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2021 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we are exploring how 2020 was for Xander Bogaerts.
2020 in a sentence
Xander Bogaerts did what he was supposed to do this year, which was anchor the lineup and just generally be the best player on the roster.
Just generally speaking, the biggest positive for Bogaerts was, well, his overall game. As I said above, he was the best player on the roster, which was the expectation heading into the year. The shortstop got off to a bit of a cold start, but by the end of this shortened year he had a .300/.364/.502 line for a 130 wRC+, meaning he was 30 percent better at the plate than the league-average hitter. That was the best mark in the lineup, and he got there while playing the most valuable non-catcher defensive position on the field. That’s an easy All-Star caliber season if that was a thing, and if the Red Sox were good he’d probably get some love in MVP voting as well.
If we want to get a little deeper, I think the positive development this year that stood out the most to me was how in control he seemed to be of the strike zone. This is not exactly a new thing for Bogaerts, as plate discipline and working tough at bats each and every time has been something of a calling card for him throughout his career. He took things to a new level this year. Per Baseball Savant, he swung at 64 percent of pitches that hit the zone while chasing just 24 percent that were out of the zone. Both of those marks were the best in his career going back to 2015, when Statcast started tracking this.
This is something of a process versus results argument, to be fair, as Bogaerts actually struck out slightly more and walked slightly less than each of the last two seasons. However, I would suspect things would even out if these trends held over a sample larger than the 225 plate appearances he got in 2020. And, moving forward, we certainly would like to see this kind of plate discipline and pitch selection continue.
The vast majority of Bogaerts’s success this past summer was against the fastball, which has become something of a career trend. He’s more fine than good against breaking balls and offspeed pitches, but he’s a monster against fastballs. Again per Baseball Savant, he had a whopping .438 wOBA (which is on the same scale as OBP) against fastballs. He was a top 40 hitter in baseball on a rate basis against heat this past year according to FanGraphs’s pitch value metrics, and going back to last year he’s in the top 10. When you’re as disciplined as Bogaerts was last year, at a certain point pitchers will have no choice but to throw fastballs to get some pitches over, and this is where he strikes.
While Bogaerts was the best player on the team and just generally a really good player, he also took a step back at the plate compared to his previous two seasons. Granted, it wasn’t a big one, but there were some notable differences. The first was that he was swinging through more pitches than ever. The first big portion of a batter’s profile is to swing at the right pitches, which Bogaerts did as we discussed above. After that, though, they need to do something with it. Granted, we’re not talking about a Michael Chavis/Bobby Dalbec kind of whiff rate here, but Bogaerts did strike out 18 percent of the time, his highest rate since 2017. On pitches out of the zone, things weren’t really all that difference. His contact rate there was lower than in 2019, but it was in line with his career norms. However, he was swinging through more pitches in the zone than ever. I hesitate to read too much into this in a shortened season, though, and I’d note that he was trending in the right direction at the very end of the year.
In addition to the whiffs, we also saw a mild power drop off for Bogaerts this past year. Now, some of that is due to stuff out of his control, specifically the baseball. It seemed the balls were flying a bit less in 2020 than they had the past couple of years. That said, it wasn’t all circumstance that caused his Isolated Power (SLG - AVG) to fall to .202, a 44-point drop from 2019 and a 32-point drop from 2018. Along with the change in baseball, we also saw Bogaerts hitting the ball on the ground more. By Baseball Savant’s tracking, he hit 45 percent of his batted balls on the ground, a rate more in line with his pre-2018 career than his recent breakout years.
Finally, there’s always going to be the defensive component of Bogaerts. Generally speaking I am among the higher people on his defense in that I don’t believe he’s in need of a switch off the position any time soon. That said, there are deficiencies here that will keep him average-at-best for a long time. I think he makes enough of the plays he should make to keep the job, but it does hit his overall value a bit. This past year he graded out negatively by Defensive Runs Saved and Outs Above Average, while he was basically exactly average by Ultimate Zone Rating.
The Big Question
Did we just see Xander Bogaerts’ peak?
This was my question coming off his big 2019 when he finished with a 141 wRC+, and it wasn’t really meant as a bad thing. If we look back at his career in 20 years and that 2019 was his best season, I don’t think that’ll count as a disappointment. And with another (albeit shortened) season under his belt, I think the point stands. There were signs like the plate discipline that show me he’ll be productive for a long time, but I also don’t know that I’m betting on him besting that 2019 season moving forward. Granted, I wouldn’t fall out of my chair in shock if it happened, but I think a long run in the 125-135 range by wRC+ is the future for Bogaerts, which we will surely take.
Looking ahead to 2021
There’s really not much to say here. Bogaerts will be at shortstop and in the middle of the lineup. The question is whether they’ll get an extension done before he’s able to opt out following the 2022 campaign.