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Amid a disaster season, Xander Bogaerts is still shining

There’s at least one positive here on the year.

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

Basically everything about this 2020 Red Sox season has been a disaster. I don’t think I’ll get many arguments on that front. The play on the field has been almost unfathomably incompetent, the starting pitching has been perhaps literally the worst the league has ever seen — that depends how much adjusting you want to do for era — and the bullpen hasn’t really been better, they lost one of their best pitchers to Tommy John Surgery and another to complications after fighting through COVID. Even beyond what’s happened with the Red Sox, this season has just been wacky for baseball fans with bizarre new rules and a schedule that has constantly changed. And all of that is without all of the things happening in the real world that we don’t really need to get into.

The point is, things are bad. And when things are bad, as a fan it is hard to focus on anything else, particularly if you are still watching every game. The badness is just so overwhelming it masks everything around it, like honeydew in a fruit salad. Because of that, it is understandable to miss some of the good things that have happened with the Red Sox, particularly those good things to which we’ve become accustomed. That includes Xander Bogaerts, who continues to do Xander Bogaerts things, and in some ways is actually getting better.

Coming into this season, there was little doubt that Bogaerts was the best player on the team. There was some hope that maybe Rafael Devers could take the leap, but Bogaerts plays the more premium position and was coming off two seasons that were better — speaking only of the offense, too — than Devers’s breakout 2019. That’s less a knock on Devers than it is pointing out that Bogaerts had been so good in 2018 and 2019. This season, he’s taken a bit of a step back in terms of overall offense, putting up a 125 wRC+. That’s 16 points lower than last season and eight points lower than two years ago. The big difference is with the strikeout and walk numbers, with his strikeout rate coming in at his highest rate since his first full season in the bigs (2014) and the walk rate coming in at the lowest rate since his second year in the majors (2015).

Toronto Blue Jays v Boston Red Sox Photo by Billie Weiss/Boston Red Sox/Getty Images

And yet, like I said, there are reasons to be even more encouraged than ever by Bogaerts’s season. For one thing, you almost have to expect some sort of drop off in a season like this. For one thing, we’re talking about a shortened season, so while there are only a few weeks left in the season it’s also been just about a quarter of a normal season. It’s been a weird concept to square in my brain. There’s also the fact that nothing about this season is normal and players are dealing with some of the same existential angst as many other people in the country and world (obviously not all, most notably financial). And I think there’s something to the idea that it’s really hard to get yourself up to play for a team this bad. All of that is to say the drop off from last year probably isn’t as steep as the 16 points in wRC+, even considering that the 125 mark this year is still fantastic.

And, like I said, there are even some areas in which Bogaerts is actually more impressive than previous years. It starts with the power, where’s he posting a .248 Isolated Power, which would be the best of his career. It’s only a two-point improvement over 2019, but consider that the league-average ISO has dropped this year. Power isn’t created equal every season in this age of ever-changing baseball, so him actually getting better in this area as it becomes more difficult around the league is notable.

It mostly comes down to his continuing focus on getting the ball in the air. That process started in 2018 when his ground ball rate (per Baseball Savant) fell from 48 percent to 43 percent. It then dropped to 42 percent last year, and this year it’s all the way down to 39 percent. That has been combined with less soft contact than ever and a few more barrels (on a rate basis) compared to last season.

The most interesting jump that I noticed, weirdly enough, was with the plate discipline. It’s strange because, as I noted, Bogaerts is striking out more and walking less than we’ve seen in a very long time. Based on these numbers, however, I’m inclined to think it’s at least partially a sample size thing and it’d even out over 162 games. Again according to Baseball Savant, the Red Sox shortstop is being more aggressive than ever on pitches in the zone, swinging at them 65 percent of the time, a nearly ten percentage point increase from 2019. At the same time, he’s chasing pitches out of the zone less than ever, with a chase rate of 22 percent. That comes in roughly five percentage points less than last season. Now, it should be mentioned that his contact rate is down, particularly on pitches in the zone (81 percent compared to 86 percent in 2019) but the approach is there. It’s one of those things that we can never really know, but like I said above I do think that approach would lend itself to the overall strikeout and walk numbers evening out over a normal sample.

There’s not really a whole lot to be happy about watching this Red Sox team, and it’s particularly difficult to find the good things amid the bad. But Bogaerts has certainly been one of them, just barely sliding behind Alex Verdugo on the team fWAR leaderboard (1.4 to 1.2). There was speculation of trading the star shortstop before the deadline, but thankfully it never appeared to be close. Even on a bad team in a shortened season, Bogaerts continues to show that he is a player to build around, not without.