Welcome to the annual Over The Monster One Big Question season preview series. Over the next 40(ish) days, we will be running through every player on the 40-man roster and identifying a key question for them pertaining to the coming season. This should run us up to the start of the season, at least as it is scheduled now. We will go through the roster in alphabetical order. For the most part, these will run Monday through Friday every week running up to the week before Opening Day, though expect some weekend posts mixed in as well as the 40-man is expected to continue to be altered before the start of the season. You can catch up with every post by following this link. Today we take a look at Xander Bogaerts.
The Question: Can Xander Bogaerts become a better defensive shortstop?
There’s very little you can critique about Xander Bogaerts’s game. The Red Sox shortstop is among the best in the business at his job, so trying to find an area to criticize is a bit of a challenge. Bogaerts has won three Silver Sluggers in his career and he came in fifth in AL MVP voting in 2019. While he didn’t come that close to the award in 2020, he still put up nearly two wins above replacement in 56 games (he was on a five-win pace over 150 games) while slashing .300/.364/.502 with a 130 wRC+. On a Red Sox team that lost Mookie Betts, got a slow start from Rafael Devers and never really got much from J.D. Martinez, Bogaerts stood out as one of very few consistent offensive stars on the roster in 2020. He’ll be asked to fill the same role in 2021 and assuming he succeeds, he’ll certainly contend for more hardware.
However, for all his offensive accolades, Bogaerts has never been as big a difference maker on defense. That’s not to say he’s been a major detriment at the post. If he was, the Red Sox certainly would have found a way to shift him to another position. But there’s no denying that his defense has held him back just a bit. Since he made his MLB debut in 2013, Bogaerts ranks 26th among qualified MLB shortstops in defensive runs saved, which is a bit of a misnomer because his mark is in the negative range at minus 63. Now, shortstop is one of the most demanding defensive positions in baseball, so being in the negative range isn’t completely terrible in the greater context. After all, only 12 qualified shortstops since 2013 have a positive mark in defensive runs saved. However, even if we took those 12 out, the fact that more than a dozen other shortstops have better marks that Bogaerts in that time gets toward the problem.
Taking a look at his most recent performance in 2020, if we start with the basics, Bogaerts was fine last year. He committed five total errors and had a .974 fielding percentage, which tied for ninth in baseball among qualified shortstops. If we dive a bit deeper on those miscues, we’ll find that four of those errors were related to actually fielding the ball, while only one was of the throwing variety. That was a bit of a change from the norm, as Bogaerts has more throwing errors (42) than pure fielding ones (36) during his career.
Of course, looking at just error totals doesn’t tell us all that much, so let’s take a look at Bogaerts’ ability to cover the field. In general, his range has been perfectly acceptable, but far from elite. He ranked 13th among qualified shortstops in ultimate zone rating (UZR) last season and 16th in range runs above average. Interestingly, some of his range metrics had improved slightly in the two seasons prior to 2020, particularly in relation to UZR. He posted positive marks in the statistic in 2018 and 2019 after going negative in 2016 and 2017. However, in general, he has hovered around an even zero, with a career UZR of 0.2. For reference, the league average for shortstops last season was 2.3.
Going a bit further, we’ll find that Bogaerts is better at ranging to his left than his right, at least in terms of Outs Above Average. Since 2017, he has accounted for -13 OAA when ranging toward third base, which compares to -4 when he ranges toward first, according to Baseball Savant. More positively speaking, Bogaerts has proven to have some more success when he has to charge, as he has produced eight outs above average when coming in to make plays since 2017, according to Baseball Savant.
Getting back to lateral range, there’s at least some way to explain Bogaerts’ superior work going toward his left. Since 2017, Bogaerts has shaded closer to second base. The chart below plots Bogaerts’ averaging starting position prior to each play in 2016, 2017, 2018, 2019 and 2020, and as you can see, he is the furthest to his left in 2020.
Even though moving over has probably helped Bogaerts field grounders up the middle better, he has produced -7 OAA overall since 2017, and last year, he was in the bottom 11th percentile in the statistic. It’s unclear if lining up deeper in the hole would help, but it’s a possibility. However, moving to his left could already be a means to helping his range, so moving back could serve to make matters worse.
All of that said, there’s more to playing shortstop than just getting to the ball and fielding it cleanly. There’s also the transfer and delivery and much of that relies on a player’s arm. Unfortunately, there aren’t many metrics that provide a good measure of an infielder’s arm strength or accuracy. As with any deep dive into defensive performance, baseball statistics, as advanced as they may be, still have a ways to go on the defensive side of the ball. Based on the eye test, Bogaerts seems to be solid enough with his arm, but its difficult to give a complete evaluation.
In addition to throwing, shortstops also need to be good at turning double plays. For what its worth, Bogaerts was slightly above average when it came to that task last year, ranking seventh among qualified shortstops in double play runs above average. Once again, he wasn’t exceptional, but he was good enough.
Regardless of how much we have to rely on the eye test to evaluate Bogaerts’ defense, there are clearly indicators that he could be better in the field. What can be done to fix those issues is another conversation entirely, especially since pinpointing the exact shortcomings is a bit hazardous, but I trust that’s something more qualified people than me (including Bogaerts himself) can address. Luckily for the Red Sox, if the worst thing about Bogaerts’ game is being and average-ish fielder and not an elite one, then they have very little to be upset about. If he can make some adjustments and take things to another level up the ladder, then that would just be icing on the cake.