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Xander Bogaerts’ Defensive Renaissance and How It Could Affect the Offseason

Xander Bogaerts is having an outstanding season at the plate, but that’s nothing new. It’s his noticeable defensive improvements that make him even more valuable.

Boston Red Sox v. New York Yankees Photo by Mary DeCicco/MLB Photos via Getty Images

Here is some brilliant analysis: Xander Bogaerts is one of the best shortstops in baseball.

Since his debut season in 2013, the four-time All-Star is second among all MLB shortstops in fWAR behind only Francisco Lindor of the New York Mets. He’s continued to play at such an elevated level in 2022. That’s not surprising for many reasons, including the fact that this is the final year before he can opt out of his current contract, something he is expected to do once this absolute drag of a season comes to a close. (More on that later).

The sustained excellence is also no shock since Bogaerts is still firmly in the prime of his career, as he is coming up on a decade in the bigs but still isn’t 30 years old. (He’ll get there Saturday. Happy early birthday, Xander. Welcome to the wrong side of 30!) As such, Bogaerts is sitting at 5.9 fWAR, which matches his career-high from 2019. With a little luck, he’ll surpass that number over the next week. Bogaerts is also chasing the American League batting title and is on pace to finish with a wRC+ of at least 130 for the fourth time in the last five years. (He was at 129 in the other season in that stretch. What a letdown.) Among qualified shortstops, Bogaerts is only behind Lindor and Atlanta’s Dansby Swanson in fWAR this season, while he only trails Minnesota’s Carlos Correa in wRC+.

None of what we’ve talked about so far is particularly surprising. As I mentioned, Bogaerts is one of the best shortstops in baseball; his offensive greatness has always been there. What has kept Bogaerts naysayers’ coffers full during his very strong first decade in the majors has always been his defense. While he is near the top of the ranks among MLB shortstops since 2013 in many offensive categories, he is closer to the bottom when it comes to fielding. In fact, since 2013, among qualified shortstops, Bogaerts is dead last in defensive runs saved (-53) and 20th (out of 23) in outs above average (-35). In fairness, FanGraphs’ Defense metric has Bogaerts ranked 12th over that time, but that’s still not great.

Defensive deficiencies haven’t kept Bogaerts off the field, or from earning the respect he deserves, but it has certainly held back his overall greatness a little. Sure, he can hit as well as just about any shortstop in the game, but at a position where defense is perhaps more important than anywhere else on the field save for behind the plate, Bogaerts has had some noticeable blemishes.

Or, at least he did before this season.

In 2022, Bogaerts has been a better fielder than ever before in his career. That’s an easy bar to clear given his previous work in this area, but Bogaerts hasn’t just been better for him; he’s actually made a positive impact defensively. Now, before we jump into the numbers, let’s clarify that Bogaerts hasn’t suddenly become a Gold Glover. But the improvements he’s made are noticeable, and when combined with one of his best offensive seasons, they’ve led to a fantastic campaign for a player to have before (potentially) testing the free agent waters.

Boston Red Sox v Cincinnati Reds Photo by Dylan Buell/Getty Images

Now, to those numbers. Bogaerts has accumulated two defensive runs saved and four outs above average in 2022, ranking in the 87th percentile in the latter metric, according to Baseball Savant. Those two marks put Bogaerts among the top 12 defensive shortstops in baseball, so, again, nothing earth shattering here, but a marked improvement. Don’t believe me? What if I told you that Bogaerts mark in DRS this season wasn’t just a career high but the first time he’s ever had a positive number at season’s end? That career best in DRS is just one of many for Bogaerts, who is also pacing better than ever in ultimate zone rating (4.6).

So what’s been behind Bogaerts’ defensive renaissance? Did signing Trevor Story motivate him? Is he being driven by a desire to cash in as much as he can in free agency? Those are pretty cynical reasons and difficult to prove. If we really want to find some rationale, a better tact, at least to start, would be to look at his positioning and how he is performing relative to different difficulties of fielding plays.

For much of his early career, Bogaerts played deeper in the hole than he does now, meaning he was further from second base. In 2022, he is playing just about as close to second as ever while playing a few steps back, on average, than he did in 2020 and 2021. Moving over might be helping him shore up plays up the middle, as Bogaerts is one out above average when going laterally toward first base, while he is two outs below average going toward third. He has marks of -18 and -25, respectively, in those stats for his career.

Aside from where he is starting each play, Bogaerts is also successfully converting a higher percentage of what Inside Edge categorizes as routine plays into outs (97.8 percent in 2022 vs. 97.2 percent for his career), but the real difference has been on the more extreme end of the scale, with Bogaerts converting 5.3 percent of what Inside Edge characterizes as remote plays into outs. That’s a stunning number because before this season, Bogaerts had never made a remote play before, with his career rate sitting at 0.7 percent even with this year’s surge. Much like turnovers in football, it would be foolish to put too much trust into this kind of mark as predictive of future success, but it is at least an interesting development, especially as his rates for all other types of plays (likely, even, and unlikely) have all gone down from last year.

Of course, defensive metrics are still far from perfect and one improved season does not mean Bogaerts can be labeled an elite defender. Remember, even with the improvements he’s made this year, he’s still in the 10-12 range among shortstops in terms of defense, rather than near the very top. Still, combining solid defense with his offensive profile makes Bogaerts even better than he already was. That’s where things get even more interesting.

Should Bogaerts choose to opt out of his current deal (and all indications say he will), it’s likely that the teams pursuing him in free agency will still be more interested in his offensive profile and unaffected by a single year of better defense. However, thanks to his strong defense in 2022, Bogaerts is having arguably the best season of his career, and any team planning to bid for his services should expect that to push his asking price up even more.

Editor’s Note: All statistics are from prior to games on Sept. 27.