Winning the batting title isn’t what it used to be, and not just because some dude in New York is chasing some home run history and overshadowing just about everything. As baseball analysis has evolved since the turn of the century, batting average has been pushed far down the pecking order of metrics used to evaluate hitting. In a world with wins above replacement, wRC+ and wOBA, how good a batter is can no longer be summarized with just the first stat in their slash line.
However, while it may no longer be in vogue, batting average still holds a certain mystique, primarily because of its overly inflated importance throughout the history of baseball prior to the turn of the 21st century (and even some of the years beyond that). Batting .400 is still one of the great quests and the baseball world would be absolutely obsessed with such a chase. In addition, just anecdotally, there is still something pleasing about seeing a .3 instead of a .2 or .1 to start a batting line. Maybe that’s just my brain refusing to break the shackles of relatively outdated analysis, but I imagine I’m not alone.
We can also see batting average’s mystique alive and well to some degree because winning the batting title is still a thing. For the Red Sox, who have long since lost out on their chance to make the postseason, Xander Bogaerts’ pursuit of the American League batting crown is brightening an otherwise bland last few weeks of the campaign, kind of like when Eduardo Rodríguez went after 20 wins in a largely meh 2019.
As it stands now, Bogaerts is just behind the Yankees’ Aaron Judge (.316) for second in the AL in batting average at .315, with the Twins’ Luis Arráez just behind that at .314. Arráez had been the frontrunner for much of the year, with his average sitting around the mid .300s for a large chunk of the first half of the season. However, Arráez has allowed Bogaerts and Judge to pass him during the back half of the season, hitting a respectable but no longer title winning .277 since the All-Star break. During that same time, Bogaerts has hit at a .314 clip, nearly matching his first half average of .316, but he’s really turned it on this month, batting .377 across 62 plate appearances in September to lift his batting average up from .308 at the end of August to its current state of .314. At the same time, Judge, who is having one heck of a contract year and just hit his 60th home run last night, is hitting .372 in the second half, edging past Arráez to taking the lead in the batting title chase just last night.
But let’s get back to Bogaerts, whose recent batting average surge deserves a bit of examination, as does his overall body of work this season. Starting with more recent results, during the month of September, Bogaerts has been upping his contact quality, with an average exit velocity of 90.6 miles per hour and an 11.9 percent barrel rate. As great as he’s been over the years, Bogaerts has just a six percent barrel rate for his career and a 6.9 percent rate this season, which is actually down nearly three percent from last year. Meanwhile, Bogaerts’ career average exit velocity sits at 89.1 miles per hour, with a slightly lower 88.5 mark this season.
In addition to the sudden uptick in quality contact in September, Bogaerts is simply swinging more often. He is getting the bat off his shoulder against 45.6 percent of the pitches he’s seen this month and 69.1 percent of offerings in the zone. That second number is up more than eight percent compared with his career average and is also significantly higher than his season-long mark this year (66.3 percent). Such an aggressive strategy can backfire, but it hasn’t for Bogaerts, as his .450 batting average on balls in play this month shows how much he’s been rewarded for swinging as often as possible.
Such a strong finish to the season would be a nice bookend for Bogaerts, as he, much like Arráez, got off to a spectacular start to the campaign. In April, the veteran shortstop hit .375 across 86 plate appearances and despite a slower May (.279 in 121 plate appearances), he came back strong with a .337 batting average in June, helping him keep his overall mark in the .320 to .340 range through much of the first three months of the campaign. In July and August, however, Bogaerts hit a bit of a cold spell, if hitting .282 over 211 plate appearances can be called a cold spell. At the same time, Bogaerts posted a 121 wRC+, so he was more than fine offensively speaking, but the dip caused him to fall back in the race for best average in the AL. Luckily, batting titles aren’t won at the end of August, and Bogaerts has been incredible this month, helping to boost him right back to near the top of the league, with only a slight percentage disadvantage to Judge.
Bogaerts’ strong start and recent hot streak may be the pillars of his batting title campaign, but there is plenty more to delve into to explain why he’s in the running. We mentioned some of the things that have changed in September, both those outside of and inside of Bogaerts’ control, but what about the whole season?
First, there are some trends that have carried through the first five months of the season and into September. Bogaerts may not have a .450 BABIP for the whole year, but he is still at .376 in that regard overall. In addition, while he is swinging at a higher rate in September than the season as a whole, his overall swing rate this year is also up, albeit slightly, from his career average (45.5 percent vs. 44.5 percent), and his swing rate on balls in the zone has risen even more significantly (66.3 percent vs. 60.9 percent). In fact, if it holds or increases, Bogaerts’ swing rate inside the zone this season would be his highest since he got in 50 plate appearances during his debut season in 2013.
With an increase in swings, Bogaerts’ contact rates are unsurprisingly but not drastically down from his career marks. If you swing more, you’re bound to miss more, after all. What’s more important is what he is doing when he does make contact, and when Bogaerts has put the ball in play, he’s very often been successful. Some of that is luck, as high BABIPs are never entirely skill based, but Bogaerts deserves more credit than that. He’s made life tough on defenses by hitting to all fields and pulling the ball less. That’s worked out pretty well, as he is batting .402 on balls to right and .333 on balls to center, although he has had even better success when pulling the ball (.468). By more evenly distributing his hits, Bogaerts has also been relatively shift-proof, something that will prove even more useful when the new rule changes take effect in 2023. On top of the high batting averages to all fields, Bogaerts has an incredible .730 batting average on line drives and .358 on ground balls.
Bogaerts’ potential batting title is also being built on a pretty big split between his success against left-handed and right-handed pitchers. Bogaerts is hitting a very good .298 in 451 plate appearances against righties, but when southpaws are on the mound, he’s hitting .378 in 132 plate appearances, a major jump from his career mark of .311. Going beyond what arm is throwing the ball, when looking at what is actually thrown, Bogaerts has made remarkable strides in hitting most pitches this season, especially sliders, going from a .265 average against them last year to a .304 average this year. Such improvement has been particularly beneficial, as sliders are the second-most frequent pitch he’s seen behind fastballs (which he is also hitting better than a year ago), although his .230 expected batting average against sliders points to some regression to come. Bogaerts hasn’t just improved against fastballs and sliders either, with marked progress against curveballs (.308 this year vs. .163 last year) another highlight.
Of course, Bogaerts hasn’t just suddenly started hitting for a high average. He is a .292 career hitter and has finished a season at or above .300 three times before, including a personal best (so far) of .320 in 2015. However, none of those seasons came with the title of AL batting champ, whereas this year, Bogaerts has a very real shot at the crown. If he claims it, he’ll join a pantheon of Red Sox batting title champs that includes Mookie Betts, Nomar Garciaparra, Ted Williams and Carl Yastrzemski, among others.