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2021 in Review: Xander Bogaerts shines again

Xander Bogaerts was the same All-Star caliber shortstop he’s been every year. Consistency like that is nice to have.

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Championship Series - Houston Astros v Boston Red Sox - Game Four Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2021 Boston 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 2021. Every week day we’ll be deep diving into one player, describing the season in a sentence, looking at the positives from the year as well as negatives, looking back at our one big question from our season preview and looking ahead to the 2022 season. Today we look at Xander Bogaerts’ 2021 campaign.

2021 in one sentence

Despite a bit of a swoon in the summer, Xander Bogaerts turned in another fantastic season, proving once again that he is one of the best shortstops in baseball and one of the best offensive threats in the American League.

The Positives

Based purely on offense, there’s not much to dislike about what Bogaerts did in 2021. A stalwart of the middle of the Red Sox’s lineup, he produced at his usually high level, earning himself his third All-Star selection and ranking among the very best shortstops in MLB. If you’d like to get more specific, he settled into the fifth spot among qualified MLB shortstops in wRC+ (130) and fWAR (5.2). Such a performance continued Bogaerts’ incredible track record of consistent excellence. He has now produced at least a 130 wRC+ in each of the last four seasons and he has been worth at least 4.9 fWAR in three of those, with the lone exception 2020’s shortened campaign when he still compiled 1.9 fWAR.

Bogaerts didn’t match his power output from 2019 when he had 33 home runs, but he still slugged nearly .500, launching 23 homers and 58 total extra-base hits while posting a .295 batting average and a .370 on-base rate.

Although his overall body of work was what we’ve come to expect from the 29-year-old from Aruba, Bogaerts still managed to take some strides forward this past season. For one thing, he had more success with hitting the ball on a line while decreasing the amount he pounded it into the dirt. In fact, his 22.7 percent line drive rate this season was his highest mark since his debut in 2013 and his 40 percent groundball rate was his lowest since the 2014 season, putting him at least two percent better than league average in both categories. We all know that hitting line drives is a good thing, but Bogaerts really took advantage of those frozen ropes, producing a 410 wRC+ on line drives compared with just a 20 wRC+ on grounders.

Bogaerts also improved his walk rate in 2021, lifting it to 10.3 percent, making for the second-best mark of his career behind the 10.9 percent he recorded in 2019. He also kept his strikeout rate below the league average (18.7 percent vs. 23.2 percent).

Bogaerts was also pretty good in the playoffs, although not to the MVP level of guys like J.D. Martinez and Enrique Hernández, posting a wRC+ of 122 in 51 postseason plate appearances and giving us an absolutely iconic stare down of a no-doubt home run in game four of the ALCS.

The Negatives

For all the exemplary work Bogaerts put in at the plate, there were still a few holes in his offensive profile. While it didn’t lead to a huge increase in strikeouts, Bogaerts did chase pitches out of the zone more frequently this season. He ranked in the bottom 22nd percentile in MLB in chase rate, according to Baseball Savant, taking a cut at 31 percent of pitches that were off the plate. Of course, he also swung more often than he had in years, with a 45.7 percent swing rate, his highest since 2015, and even though he went fishing more than usual, he also made contact on 66.7 percent of the pitches he swung at that weren’t destined to cross the plate.

Elsewhere, in contrast to his increased line drive rate, Bogaerts’ hard-hit rate was closer to the middle of the pack than the Red Sox might have wanted from a cleanup hitter, a role Bogaerts played in 400 of his 603 plate appearances. While his maximum exit velocity was in the 90th percentile in MLB, his average exit velocity only ranked 55th.

Bogaerts also slowed down from his certified All-Star level of play in the later months. In the first half of the season, he had a 147 wRC+ and seemingly logged multi-hit games four or five times a week. In the second half, he had only a 105 wRC+, making him a slightly above league average hitter for the stretch run.

The final negative from Bogaerts’ season is one that may influence his future at his current position, but we’ll talk about that in the next section.

The Big Question

Can Xander Bogaerts become a better defensive shortstop?

Bogaerts did not prove to be an improved defensive shortstop in 2021. He’s never been a Gold Glove contender and has simply been serviceable at the position. He still was in 2021, for the most part, but that’s based mainly on the eye test. The numbers tell a much more drastic story, as Bogaerts was in the bottom one percentile in outs above average in 2021, continuing a downward trend that’s been going on since 2018. He also tied with Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson for 16th among qualified MLB shortstops in defensive runs saved (-5), although he did land eighth in ultimate zone rating. Defensive metrics are still far from perfect, but Bogaerts clearly isn’t at the same level in the field as he is at the plate.

2022 and Beyond

Barring an injury or an extended lockout, Bogaerts will be the starting shortstop for the Red Sox next summer. He has filled that role exceptionally for much of the last decade and with his offensive prowess, there’s no reason to except that will stop now. Of course, the Red Sox may start to look at shifting him to another defensive position eventually, but his spot in the middle of the lineup is secure. Of course, that’s if everything goes according to the Red Sox’s plan. Bogaerts agreed to a six-year extension in 2019 that started in the 2020 campaign, but that contract includes an opt-out option following the 2022 season and it looks like Bogaerts will use it. That doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed to leave Boston, but it’s a possibility. The more likely result, and maybe I’m just being optimistic and putting on my fan hat here, is that Bogaerts re-negotiates and re-signs with the Red Sox, but for someone who’s been so consistent year in and year out, it’s odd to feel any kind of uncertainty about his future with the team.