O Xander, Where Art Thou?

Coming into this season, the Boston Red Sox had high hopes. Obviously, they were coming off a World Series title, and they had every reason to expect that they could contend again. Jarrod Saltalamacchia was gone, but he could be replaced by A.J. Pierzynski; the drop-off there wouldn’t be too large. Ryan Dempster was gone, but the Red Sox’s rotation of Jon Lester, John Lackey, Clay Buchholz, Jake Peavy, and Felix Doubront was what they had gone with during last year’s stretch run anyways. Jacoby Ellsbury was gone, but Jackie Bradley Jr. (and Grady Sizemore!) should have been able to play well enough to make his departure bearable. And Stephen Drew was gone, but uber-prospect Xander Bogaerts was ready to take over the Red Sox’s shortstop position and dominate the league.

Needless to say, none of those really worked out like the Red Sox and their fans had hoped or planned. Boston currently resides in the AL East cellar, all but certain to go from first to worst just the year after they had done the very opposite. And perhaps no individual part of that failure this season has been a bigger disappointment than Bogaerts. Instead of being the hitter he was supposed to be, he has struggled mightily at the plate, to the tune of a .223/.293/.333 slash line — good for a 74 wRC+ (as of September 1) and a major contributor to his negative WAR.

Where do we start in trying to assess the reasons for Bogaerts’s struggles? Well, time-wise, we can place a pretty neat cutoff point at June 4: That is when Bogaerts started to slump (I think I cursed him). For the first two months of the season, actually, Xander was quite good: he had a 140 wRC+ through April and May, and that figure would have been higher if not for a mini-slump that came towards the very beginning of the season. He was drawing walks roughly 11% of the time (above average) and striking out at a clip a shade below 22% (not much below average). And then came June. It started out OK — he went 4-for-13 in his first 3 June games. But after that, for the rest of the month, he recorded a mere 9 hits and 3 walks in 88 plate appearances. July was better, but not good: Bogaerts managed just a .228/.253/.342 line, and now through most of August he has been even worse than he was the previous two months, with a paltry .123/.195/.164 triple slash.

His wRC+, by month:

March/April 120
May 151
June 11
July 60
August -3

Yeesh. Not the way you want to be trending. So what happened? Well, the easy answer is to point to BABIP:

March/April 0.364
May 0.421
June 0.149
July 0.286
August 0.170

This looks right, right? His best month by wRC+ was his best month by BABIP. His worst month by wRC+ was his worst month by BABIP. And the same can be said for every month in between. But that, of course, doesn’t tell the whole story. Why is his BABIP from the first two months so much higher? What can he do to fix it? Will he fix it? Can he? Let’s explore.

A .364 BABIP like Bogaerts had in April is unsustainable. The .421 BABIP he had the following month is way too high for even the best players to keep up. So naturally, we would expect some regression from him. But his batted ball profile did suggest a decent BABIP – high line drive rate and low popup rate. The only thing overly suspect was his 17.1% infield hit rate in June. Nothing there would suggest such an outrageously high BABIP for the first two months, but nothing would suggest the low BABIPs that were to come later either. So something must have changed. What was it?

It wasn’t Bogaerts’s average flyball distance; that stayed more or less intact. But he did start hitting many fewer line drives…

March/April 22.4%
May 24.4%
June 15.7%
July 19.0%
August 14.6%

…and started striking out more, which didn’t affect his BABIP directly but did have an impact on his overall hitting (somewhat astonishingly and coincidentally, his K% has been the exact same – to one decimal – each of the past 3 months):

March/April 21.7%
May 22.0%
June 26.5%
July 26.5%
August 26.5%

And in the same vein, he walked much less, which helped contribute to his very low wRC+ as well:

March/April 12.3%
May 10.2%
June 2.9%
July 3.6%
August 7.2%

So while it may be easy to ascribe Bogaerts’s recent struggles to his abnormally low BABIPs, there is more to the story. He simply isn’t hitting anywhere near as well as he did earlier in the season. I can think of a few potential reasons for this:

1. Pitchers are pitching to him differently, and he will have to adjust

2. He is in a prolonged slump, and will snap out of it eventually

3. He isn’t actually that good, and his first few months were just very lucky

4. He was playing third base

I think we can ignore the last two. Bogaerts, after all, was ranked a top-5 prospect coming into the season by almost anyone worth listening to, and he has hit very well in the majors before; he’s almost certainly not actually bad at hitting. As for the last one — that was a theory many people floated out when Bogaerts stopped hitting well at almost the exact same time as Stephen Drew returned and kicked Bogaerts over to third. The argument was that since short was Bogaerts’s natural position, and he felt most comfortable there and could focus on his hitting, he would do better when playing there.

And that theory holds some water: this season, his wRC+ as a third baseman is 37 (in 180 PA), and as a shortstop it is 95 (in 312). That is too large of a difference to dismiss offhandedly. But here’s the problem: when Drew was traded, and Bogaerts returned to shortstop, he continued to hit poorly. In fact, throughout the entire month of August, Bogaerts played shortstop, and he had a -3 wRC+. I am going to say that that theory, while compelling, doesn’t really explain Bogaerts’s struggles at all. He’d tell you that himself.

So what does? Pitchers pitching him differently? Yes, to an extent. Here is how Bogaerts has done all season long against certain pitches:

Pitch RAA BABIP Contact%
Fourseam 5.0 0.342 82.8%
Cutter 2.5 0.150 83.0%
Changeup 0.3 0.324 69.6%
Curveball -0.2 0.200 70.9%
Sinker -4.6 0.290 79.6%
Slider -12.2 0.205 57.9%

And here is how he has been pitched:

Bogaerts pitches

The pitches in that gif are ordered by how many runs above average Bogaerts has been against them, descending. You can see that from June 4 (the date of the start of Bogaerts’s extended slump) on, he has seen many fewer fastballs and many more sinkers and sliders than before. That could be the cause of his BABIP, strikeout, and general hitting struggles since he excels against fastballs and cannot hit sliders or sinkers (sliders more so).

But there’s only one issue: the problem isn’t that Bogaerts is getting fewer pitches he can hit, it’s that he’s not hitting the pitches he used to. Here’s Bogaerts against four-seam fastballs (from Brooks Baseball; BIP means balls in play):

Time Count Foul/Swing Whiff/Swing GB/BIP LD/BIP FB/BIP PU/BIP
March 31 – June 3 404 44.8% 18.8% 30.3% 27.3% 37.9% 4.6%
June 4 – September 1 292 41.4% 15.0% 24.1% 13.8% 46.6% 15.5%

He’s cut down a bit on his swings and misses, but everything else looks bad. He’s drastically decreased his line drive rate and drastically increased his popup rate. His groundball rate has gone down a bit, which can be good or bad (in this case I don’t think it’s had a huge effect on anything), and his flyball rate has gone up a lot — which could be good, but Bogaerts is averaging a mere 266.75 feet on his fly balls — 230th out of 284 qualified hitters. So how has this changed his results? Again, Bogaerts against fastballs:

March 31 – June 3 404 .386 .590 .205 .469 .471
June 4 – September 1 292 .179 .328 .149 .189 .253

Wow. That is quite the drop in production. League average wOBA against four-seamers this year is .416 (which makes you question why they are thrown so much, but that’s a different article) and so Bogaerts’s wRC+ relative to other fastballs went from a 113 to a 61 in those two timeframes (park-unadjusted).

And look where Bogaerts is hitting balls, too. The following charts aren’t only fastballs — it’s all balls put in play by him. In the beginning of the year, he was sending line drives to all fields, getting grounders through the infield, and pulling balls deep. In the second part, you see lots of shallow line drives and fly balls — in fact, in the three months covered in the second half of the gif, there are all of TWO ground balls that make it through the infield, and only one opposite-field line drive that makes it to the outfield. There are more popups, too, and the fly balls seem to be shallower generally.

Bogaerts BIP

Now, some of the things you’re seeing here could be a result of teams shifting on him more as the year goes on, which is why no ground balls are getting to the outfield. But more likely it is Bogaerts making weaker contact and allowing fielders to get to his ground balls; in addition, he isn’t hitting many ground balls up the middle, where you’re more likely to get hits.

Bogaerts hits

Take a look at the gif above. What you’re seeing is the same thing as the last one, only with the at bat result instead of the batted ball type. In the first part of the year, you see Bogaerts getting lots of hits to all parts of the outfields, including deep balls that end up in home runs or doubles. Then, many more balls end up in the infield and most of his hits are shallow balls to the outfield.

This doesn’t look good, especially since it’s been going on for so long. I’m no expert in swing mechanics, so I can’t tell you why Bogaerts has suddenly stopped hitting everything, fastballs especially. My guess is that it’s just a long, long slump that is happening because he’s only 21 years old. I don’t think this means that we should give up on him. He has already proven that he can hit, albeit in a very small sample.

Take a look at the list of all the players who had a wRC+ below 100 in a year where they were listed as top-10 prospects by Baseball America (since 1997):

Name wRC+ PA WAR Rank Year Age
Brandon Phillips 44 393 -0.7 7 2003 22
Todd Walker 62 171 0.2 7 1997 24
Paul Konerko 63 239 -0.4 2 1998 22
Hank Blalock 64 172 -0.3 3 2002 21
Aramis Ramirez 70 275 -1 5 1998 20
Xander Bogaerts 74 485 -0.2 2 2014 21
Lastings Milledge 74 185 -0.5 9 2006 21
Adrian Beltre 75 214 0.2 3 1998 19
Jurickson Profar 75 324 -0.4 1 2013 20
Sean Burroughs 77 206 0 4 2002 21
Miguel Tejada 78 407 -0.5 10 1998 24
Mike Moustakas 84 365 0.2 9 2011 22
Jeremy Hermida 84 348 -0.8 4 2006 22
Alex Gordon 87 601 2 2 2007 23
Alex Rios 87 460 2 6 2004 23
Colby Rasmus 89 520 2.6 3 2009 22
Cameron Maybin 89 199 0.9 8 2009 22
Delmon Young 89 681 0 3 2007 21
Jesus Montero 90 553 -0.4 6 2012 22
B.J. Upton 91 177 0.1 2 2004 19
Rickie Weeks 92 414 -0.3 8 2005 22
Ruben Mateo 94 222 0.8 6 2000 22
Eric Chavez 94 402 1.2 3 1999 21
Rocco Baldelli 94 684 1.7 2 2003 21
Matt Wieters 95 385 1.3 1 2009 23
J.D. Drew 95 430 2.5 1 1999 23
Andruw Jones 96 467 3.7 1 1997 20
Travis Snider 96 276 -0.3 6 2009 21
Michael Barrett 96 469 0 6 1999 22
Jay Bruce 97 452 0.7 1 2008 21

There are a lot of really good players on that list. Bogaerts is one of the worst there in terms of wRC+ that year, but he’s also younger and higher-ranked than most. That doesn’t concern me. What concerns me is that almost all of the ones on that list from the past few years haven’t succeeded: all of the ones that have are from 2009 or earlier. This is consistent with semi-recent findings by Jeff Zimmerman that the aging curve is changing: hitters don’t improve with age anymore. Further research by Brian Henry shows that players who start in the big leagues at 21 tend to stay steady with their production for a while, then decline at around 30. This does not bode well for the young Red Sox shortstop.

But who knows? If I had to guess, I would say that Bogaerts regains his stroke and starts driving the ball more. He’s too good of a hitter to be so bad against fastballs. After all, he is only 21 years old. Plus… I mean, look at that swing. Number two prospects go far. All the prospects on the list above ranked first or second had some degree of success in the majors, with the exception of Rocco Baldelli, who was good until injuries ruined his career. (Brandon Wood didn’t have enough plate appearances to qualify for the list.) If he was playing a little over his head in April and May, he’s been playing well below his feet for the past three months, and those kinds of things tend to right themselves in time.

Note: This was written before Bogaerts played today, Monday 9/1. He went 1 for 4 with a double and two strikeouts.

Jonah is a baseball analyst and Red Sox fan. He would like it if you followed him on Twitter @japemstein, but can't really do anything about it if you don't.

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