Xander Bogaerts’ Rookie Struggles

Coming into the year, the Boston Red Sox were riding high after the 2013 title in which they’d gone from worst to first. Just about everyone with a worthwhile opinion thought that’d they at least be in contention for the playoffs again this year, and it wasn’t uncommon to see people picking them to repeat in 2014.

One of the few questions people did haveabout the team was how would they integrate their two young players, Jackie Bradley, Jr. and Xander Bogaerts, in their first full seasons as starters. Of these two players, Bradley was the one that people seemed most concerned about. This made sense, since he was less regarded as a prospect than Bogaerts (number 2 overall on most prospect top 100 lists). But while Bradley has been a complete zero with the stick (57 wRC+), his defense has carried him to 1.5 fWAR so far this season. Bogaerts, on the other hand, has a wRC+ of 82, which combined with mediocre defense has left him hovering around replacement level.

Now, there’s no doubt that people are disappointed by Bogaerts’ season, and they have every right to be. Bogaerts was hyped as the rare prospect with superior skills and a significant amount of polish, and he showed why when he played like a veteran down the stretch in last year’s playoffs. Nobody was expecting him to be replicate Mike Trout’s rookie season, but a league average regular was probably a reasonable expectation. Obviously Bogaerts has underperformed relative to that standard.

Guys like Trout, Yasiel Puig and Manny Machado have essentially ruined the kind of expectations we now put on guys going through their first full seasons. Do you know how many batting-title-qualified rookies have had an OPS lower than Bogaerts’ current .650? 311! And of that 311, 283 of them were older than Bogaerts’ current 21 years of age. Bogaerts is struggling, but that’s what rookies do. There’s no greater jump in professional baseball than the one to the majors.

Bogaerts is actually hitting pretty well against fastballs and changeups. The crux of his issues this year have been against breaking balls. And there’s really no way to sugarcoat it. He’s been terrible against any and all spin, hitting just .143 and slugging .167. Unfortunately, opposing pitchers have noticed, and Bogaerts has only seen more breaking balls as the season has progressed.

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As the rate of breaking balls has gone up against Bogaerts, his numbers have gone down. The Red Sox shortstop was actually a well above average hitter heading into June (119 wRC+ in March/April, 149 wRC+ in May), but then everything fell apart. Bogaerts posted an almost unthinkable .426 OPS in June, a number less than half (.897) of what he posted the month before. He followed that up with a much improved, but still terrible July (.595 OPS) and continued to struggle in August.

Bogaerts’ struggles with breaking balls coincide with the part of his game that has perhaps regressed the most as his season has progressed: his plate discipline. After working 25 walks through the end of May, Bogaerts has been told to take his base just seven times since. A large part of that has been the decline of his ability to discriminate between a breaking ball thrown for a strike, and one thrown for a ball.


As you can see in the graph above, Bogaerts has stayed fairly steady against fastballs and changeups, but his ability to recognize breaking balls has completely melted away. As for why this has happened, that’s difficult to say. Maybe Bogaerts has always struggled against breaking pitches. But the most likely answer is that he’s a rookie struggling to adjust against pitchers capable of taking advantage of his weaknesses. Nevertheless, it’s at least been a prolonged slump, and one that Red Sox fans have to hope isn’t a glimpse into continual struggles for their youngest player.

Then, putting aside things that we can actually measure, there’s the possibility that Bogaerts is simply in his own dead right now. As a ballplayer, he’d probably tell you he’s trying to do too much. There’s certainly something to that side of the argument. It can’t be easy to fail so spectacularly after being hyped as the next face of one of the most prestigious franchises in the game.

There’s also an argument to be made that some responsibility for Bogaerts’ struggles can be set at the feet of his manager, John Ferrell. There have been rumors that Ferrell was the person in the organization pushing the hardest for the Red Sox to resign Drew, which they ultimately did in late May. Drew, who had never played any position but shortstop in his big league career at that time, would be forcing Bogaerts over to third base, the position he played down the stretch of the 2013 title run. Bogaerts expressed some disappointment at time as a result, and an argument can be made that the team’s decision to resign Drew shook his confidence. Before Drew joined the lineup on June 2nd, Bogaerts was batting .296/.389/.427. Since then he’s hit .169/.201/.279. You might say that those dates are arbitrary and coincidental, and you can make of them as you wish. I will say that confidence is a huge part of succeeding in this game, and it should not be overlooked.

Overall, Bogaerts probably won’t look like he belongs back in AA forever, though we may have to wait until 2015 to see the player we were all hoping for. We got that player in the first couple months of this season, but pitchers’ adjustments, along with Bogaerts lack of adjustment to those adjustments, have torpedoed what was initially a very promising rookie year. That said, young players with Bogaerts pedigree and polish often turn into solid players at the very least, and I’m still as excited as ever about his career going forward. He’ll figure it out.