There’s an argument to be made — although it’s certainly debatable — that Xander Bogaerts is the best right-handed hitter in the majors right now. Sure, he doesn’t have the track record of a guy like Mike Trout, but you’d be hard-pressed to find any one player who is hitting baseballs at a higher level than the shortstop of the Boston Red Sox right now.
The numbers don’t lie either. He’s second in batting average in baseball, hitting .352/.401/.513, trailing just Daniel Murphy of the Washington Nationals. He leads the majors with 96 hits, topping the second-place Jose Altuve by five knocks. According to FanGraphs’ Off, a measurement that shows a player’s offensive value relative to league average, he ranks behind just David Ortiz, Mike Trout, Daniel Murphy, Jose Altuve and Josh Donaldson. And just to top it all off, he leads all players in baseball with 3.9 fWAR.
He may not be a unanimous pick for the crown of best right-handed hitter in baseball, but it’d be foolish to not mention Bogaerts as one of the most valuable players in baseball given his prowess offensively and defensively.
It’s a statement that’s somewhat surprising considering where Bogaerts was just a few years ago. The Aruban shortstop rose through the Red Sox farm system at Flash-like speeds and eventually made his way into the top tier of every prospect ranking. But when he finally got his first full-time opportunity following the 2013 World Series run, Bogaerts struggled mightily, hitting .250/.320/.354, flailing at every breaking ball thrown his way and becoming such a liability in the field that the team felt compelled to re-sign Stephen Drew to take over at shortstop and push the then-rookie over to third base.
Things have obviously changed since then for Bogaerts, but not necessarily in the ways that evaluators expected as he moved up through the minor leagues. The evaluation from ESPN’s Keith Law of Bogaerts from before the 2014 season represents an interesting touchstone to look back at now.
For all of Bogaerts’ tools — and he has many — it was his patient approach at the plate that stood out in the Aruban’s brief major league stint in 2013. Bogaerts has explosive potential as a hitter, as the ball comes off his bat exceptionally well, and the fact he sees the ball so well and makes good decisions as a hitter bodes well for his ability to adjust to major league pitching if he’s handed an everyday job in 2014.
He has quick and very strong hands at the plate, with moderate hip rotation that still projects to plus power because of the speed and force of his swing. He’s a natural shortstop, with soft hands and very good actions as well as plenty of arm for the left side of the infield. Although his frame could allow him to get too big for the position, he’s maintained his conditioning well enough to stay at short for the near future, and the possibility of a 25- to 30-homer bat with strong on-base skills at that position gives Boston strong incentive to leave him there.
He could be Troy Tulowitzki with a little less arm, and that’s an MVP-caliber player.
This evaluation is really interesting for a number of reasons, but also identifies the core reasons behind Bogaerts’ struggles in his rookie year. When pitchers identified that he could not hit the breaking ball on the outer half of the plate, giving him anything else to hit late in counts made no sense. The patience turned into passiveness, which killed him late in counts. This GIF of Bogaerts flailing at a pitch on the outer half of the plate from Felix Hernandez promptly sums up his 2014 struggles.
The patient approach at the plate that brought him success in the minors started to backfire. On those pitches, Bogaerts frequently found himself on his front foot with his weight unbalanced. This promptly forced him to swing wildly at a pitch he had no chance at driving to any part of the field. Part of this had to do with his proclivity for pulling pitches during his rookie season — evident from his 2014 spray charts — leading him to lose his all-fields approach at the plate.
That approach started to evolve in 2015, when Bogaerts made an effort to be more aggressive at the plate. In his rookie season, Bogaerts saw 4.11 pitches per plate appearance. That total dropped down to 3.86 pitches per appearance in 2015, when his average rose from .240 to .320, and has further dropped to 3.75 pitches per appearance in 2016, when he’s seen his average climb up to .352 as of Friday. He’s chasing fewer pitches outside of the zone while making sure he’s taking advantage of the pitches he’s been given.
That’s manifested itself in his spray charts, which has evened out to be less pull-heavy over the last two seasons.
But what has really propelled Bogaerts’ status as one of the most valuable assets in the sport is the somewhat unforeseen strides he’s made defensively. In his rookie season, Bogaerts posted a total of -4.8 in FanGraphs’ Def stat, which measures a player’s defensive value relative to league average, ranking 20th among 22 eligible players. It really did not look pretty.
Over the past two seasons, Bogaerts has become a much stronger defender, ranking fifth among 21 qualified shortstops in Def since 2015. Suddenly, Bogaerts was able to do this, which was unimaginable in just 2014.
The strides Bogaerts has made offensively combined with the surprising and dramatic improvement defensively (at one of the most difficult positions to the field, nonetheless) has turned the 23-year-old into one of the most valuable players in baseball this season. But what’s most interesting about his development has been the power, or the lackthereof. The comparison to Troy Tulowitzki that Law made was a common one when Bogaerts rose through the prospect rankings. Instead, Bogaerts has been a player who’s more reminiscent of his own hero, Derek Jeter, at the plate; spraying the ball to all fields and hitting for a high average with gap-to-gap doubles pop.
That doesn’t mean that the power isn’t there, though. There’s a belief among many Red Sox players that Bogaerts has as much raw power as just about anyone on the team minus David Ortiz and the power’s shown itself a few times, but as of right now, the prevailing thought is that Bogaerts is trading in a few home runs for a couple dozen hits.
The things that should scare teams the most about Bogaerts is his proven ability to improve and make adjustments really quickly. The strides he made both at the plate and in the field since his rookie season are awfully impressive and at just 23 years old, Bogaerts has emerged as one of the best shortstops in baseball. If Bogaerts finds a way to translate that raw power into in-game light tower dingers without losing a big chunk of his batting average, the ceiling might be infinite for Xander Bogaerts.