(Photo by Keith Gillett/Icon Sportswire)
When you think of the Red Sox this year the first thing that may come to mind is MVP candidate Mookie Betts… or MVP candidate J.D. Martinez… or Cy Young candidate Chris Sale. While all of them are having fantastic years in-and-of-themselves, they tend to overshadow another player who is also putting up career numbers: Xander Bogaerts.
Xander Bogaerts does not lead the league in WAR amongst shortstops. His wRC+ isn’t top 3. His batting average isn’t even top 5 right now. His .283/.354/.523 slash-line doesn’t necessarily leave your jaw hitting the floor. However, under the hood, there are some very exciting things that are going on for the Red Sox shortstop. Let’s start by taking a look at some of Xander’s batted ball data.
In 2018, we’ve seen Bogaerts FB rate increase by 5%. We’ve seen his HR/FB rate more than double, too. The last time Bogaerts had a FB rate similar to his current 35% clip was 2016 when he hit his career high (for now) 21 home runs. There’s a reason that Bogaerts has a similar FB rate to 2016 but a far higher HR/FB rate: he’s hitting the ball a lot harder. Let’s take a look at some of Bogaerts Statcast data.
|Season||Barrel %||Exit Velocity||Launch Angle||Hard Hit%|
Bogaerts is now putting up career highs in barrel rate, exit velocity, launch angle and hard hit rate. He took his already impressive 2016 campaign and he added 2.5 mph of exit velocity to it. As a result, he’s already surpassed his career high in doubles – it was 35 in 2016 and is now 38 – and is primed to break his career high in home runs. He has more than quintupled his amount of barreled balls from 2017 and has almost halved his amount of weakly hit balls.
Bogaerts has also taken a step forward in every sort of positive contact that you’d want to see from a batter. He’s hitting more High Drives, recording more Value Hits, and making less weak contact. Bogaerts’ .311 BABIP is a shade below his .331 career numbers but his batted ball statistics support that this year’s BABIP is a good indication of his ability. Bogaerts has maintained his 20% LD rate this year but his GB rate has dropped 4%, his FB rate has gone up 5% and his Pop-Up rate is at a career low 17%. Virtually all of those numbers are now at league-average which would explain why his BABIP has regressed to a more league average .300. This regression would be worrisome to me if the results aren’t there but pair the league average BABIP with better, harder contact and you have a player whose ceiling is moving higher.
All of the above statistics support Bogaerts having a more successful 2018 campaign than 2017, but that isn’t quite fair. Last year in July, Bogaerts was hit on the hand by a Jake Faria fastball and he didn’t look himself for the rest of the year. To quote Alex Speier’s piece on Bogaerts from the beginning of the 2018 campaign, “He lunged at pitches in an effort to make one-handed contact as opposed to standing tall and synching up his legs, hips, and hands to create power.” Bogaerts himself said, “Once I tried to create a little bit of a lift angle, it hurt.” Speier goes on to discuss how Bogaerts was able to use both hands in spring training and how he worked with hitting coach Tim Hyers to stop lunging for pitches. The lack of lunging isn’t hard to find.
Here we see two examples of Bogaerts going against a change-up from CC Sabathia. In the first video from 2017, Xander has a more open stance and lunges for the change-up away (the commentator even ends the video by calling him out). A year later, the stance is more closed, his weight is back and while he whiffs, he’s far more upright.
Here we see three examples of change-ups from Blake Snell. In 2017, he once again lunges and whiffs but in 2018 his stance leads to more contact and then finally a hit that’s driven nearly up the middle.
This change in stance is having a positive effect on Xander’s plate discipline metrics as well.
Bogaerts is both seeing and swinging at fewer pitches outside of the zone and his chase rate is down to a career low 26.4%. The amount of contact he’s making in the zone has maintained at 90% and he’s swinging more at pitches in the zone than ever in his career at 61%. The lack of lunging has led to career high wOBA’s against four-seamers (.428) and sliders (.401). Bogaerts is also getting a bit more patient at the plate too as he’s sporting a career high 9.3 BB% with a first pitch swing rate at 15.7%, well below the league average 28.1% rate. His pitches per plate appearance have gone up each year and are currently close to his career high at 4.05. Bogaerts’ patience is helping him get ahead in the count more – he’s seeing more 1-0 counts than 2017 – but his most significant strides are actually when he’s behind. Bogaerts has increased his average when behind in the count from .229 to .264. So Bogaerts is both seeing more pitches, making better contact with those pitches and not struggling as much when behind.
Bogaerts isn’t the perfect player. He isn’t a top fantasy shortstop because he has taken steps back against left-handed hitting. As a matter of fact, Bogaert’s average against lefties has decreased every year since 2015 and is now sitting at .262. Southpaws seem to be going more four seam and change-up heavy to Bogaerts and while he’s having some success against the four-seam, he’s struggling to hit the change-ups. However, I do think there is improvement coming here. Since I began writing this, Bogaerts’ average against lefties has gone up 16 points. I think it important to note that a majority of the lefties Bogaerts saw early on were pretty dominant: Blake Snell twice, Cole Hamels, Sean Manaea and CC Sabathia. While I don’t think we’ll see Bogaerts hit .300 against lefties as he has in the past, I wouldn’t be surprised, with the changes he’s made in stance, to see his average against lefties climb up towards the .280’s.
2017 was a tough year for Xander Bogaerts. A wrist injury deprived him of a year in which he could’ve taken a big step forward in his development. If we disregard 2017 as a year lost to injury and compare Bogaerts 2018 numbers to 2016 we’re left with a picture of a player who is getting better. Bogaerts has grown more patient and drastically improved the kind of contact that he’s making with the baseball. If Bogaerts can stay healthy, this kind of success can be sustainable over long periods of time. Betts, Sale and Martinez may still get the spotlight but in the corner, Bogaerts is turning a potential top-5 shortstop.