Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one singular question — sometimes specific, other times more general — for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go alphabetically one by one straight down the roster, and you can catch up with the series here. Today, we cover Xander Bogaerts
The Question: Was 2019 Xander Bogaerts’ peak?
As I was doing the research for this post, I was doing what I normally do, which is to look for some sort of flaw or outlier gain from the year before. Really just looking for some sort of interesting tidbit to expand upon in 750-1500 words. For most players, something will stick out to me very quickly. In fact, for most players multiple things will stick out and the challenge becomes choosing just one. As I was going through this process with Xander Bogaerts, the only thing that really stuck out to me was that I don’t know if I appreciated just how good Bogaerts was last year.
Obviously I knew he was great. I watched the games and saw all the dingers and other big hits. I saw the good-enough defense (no, I don’t agree with DRS calling him one of the worst infielders in recent memory. He’s fine) and I saw him perform as one of the best players in baseball and arguably the best on the team. But I don’t know that I appreciated that he was really good at everything and that he steadily improved basically across the board. There were no real weaknesses, nor were there major jumps in production that stood out in his numbers. So, the only question I had after looking through everything I could find was: Did we just see the best season Xander Bogaerts will ever have?
The first thing that needs to be said is that it obviously would not be a bad thing if Bogaerts ended his career however long from now and we look back at 2019 was his best season. The shortstop ended the season hitting .309/.384/.555 for a 141 wRC+. By fWAR, he was worth 6.8 wins above replacement, making him the eighth best player in the sport in 2019. There is a lot of room for him to fall and still be outstanding, and the vast majority of players who have played this game would look at that season as a career year. Wondering if we’ve seen peak Bogaerts is certainly not the same as wondering if he’s declining or is going to get bad or whatever else someone may be able to read into that. It’s simply asking where else he can improve?
I think if he is going to take another step forward, I think the most likely “big picture” area probably comes with plate discipline. That sounds absurd because Bogaerts is already outstanding here, but hear me out. He is coming off a season in which he struck out just 17.5 percent of the time while walking just under 11 percent of the time. That’s really good and was the 25th best BB/K ratio in the game. That said he did chase the ball a tiny bit more while also swinging less in the zone. I wouldn’t necessarily bet on him improving either rate — he’s been right around this strikeout rate for four years now — but he has improved his walk rate in each of the last four years. It’s not out of the question that he closes that BB/K ratio close to one.
If you want to look at a slightly more granular number, the real way Bogaerts improves upon his 2019 is by being better against left-handed pitching. When you see a righty put up numbers like he did in 2019, it’s usually fair to assume they mashed against lefties. That wasn’t the case here, though, as Bogaerts hit .291/.359/.552 for a 130 wRC+. Okay, thats pretty good, I’ll admit. Still, he was better against righties (145 wRC+), mostly due to both his walk and strikeout rates being worse against southpaws. Bogaerts doesn’t face enough left-handed pitching over the course of a season where even a substantial improvement would have a massive effect on his overall numbers, but it’s a path to getting a marginal push forward.
There’s also a chance for him to improve against non-fastballs. One should certainly expect the shortstop to see more of these offerings in 2020, particularly with the increasing possibility that Mookie Betts will no longer be in the lineup, making Bogaerts’ bat even more important. The Red Sox shortstop has feasted on fastballs over his career, but he’s been worse against breaking balls and offspeed pitches. He took a big step forward against offspeed pitches last year, and if he can take a similar step against breaking balls there’s another level to his game. That said, he did outperform his expected metrics against those pitches last year, per Baseball Savant, so again the jump would have to be significant for him to really improve those overall numbers.
So, yeah. I think we might have seen peak Bogaerts, but it should be said again that this is far from a slight. Even if he regresses a little bit he’s still a six-win player, which puts him in the upper tier of players in the game. On the other hand, I wasn’t sure Bogaerts had this level in him before the 2018 season and I wasn’t sure he was going to even find another step prior to last season. So, ya know, he’s spent the last few years proving me wrong. Why can’t he do it again in 2020?