It was a weird breakout season for Xander Bogaerts. He was the undisputed top shortstop in baseball by about $9 and yet it doesn’t really feel like it. He won’t be the top shortstop off the board in 2016 and his home runs + stolen bases didn’t even equal 20. The big season was spurred by an 80-point spike in batting average, 84 runs, and 81 RBI.
Obviously the batting average plays into the rise of the other two, but a lot of it was batting second, third, fourth, or fifth for 103 of his 156 games on a team that scored 4.62 runs per game – fourth-most in baseball. In other words, there was some team-dependent good fortune baked into this season as opposed to a season like Manny Machado’s which showed major skill growth. No other shortstop scored more than 77 runs and only Brandon Crawford topped the RBI total with 84.
The biggest change in the skill profile was a surge against left-handed pitchers. Bogaerts’ .365 AVG was the second-best in baseball behind only Jose Altuve (.372) and his 145 wRC+ was 21st despite a lack of power (.103 ISO). He essentially traded power for singles dropping from .166 to .103 in ISO while the BABIP jumped from .293 to .420 at the same time. He had 19 more singles against lefties in 172 PA, the same total he had against lefties in 2014 as well.
He also improved against righties going from a .621 OPS in 422 PA to .735 in 482 PA. There was no tradeoff necessary as his power was nonexistent against righties in 2014 (.105 ISO) and 2015 (.101), but he did collect a ton more singles (105 to 63). The key to the burst of singles was an opposite field approach against righties and lefties.
Bogaerts had a 13% increase in Oppo% from 2014, easily baseball’s highest amongst qualified hitters. Miguel Cabrera’s 8% was second. Of his 88 singles in 2014, 15% were to the opposite field. Last year saw 35% of his 151 singles go the opposite way. Power goes way down with an opposite field approach as-is, dropping from a .263 pull field ISO to a .140 the other way, but then Bogaerts was even well below average with just an .080 oppo ISO.
Furthering the power outage was a sharp rise in groundball rate to 53%, the 16th-highest among qualified hitters. He had a bigger raw jump in groundballs to the opposite field, from 13% to 36%, but the jump to 69% pull field groundballs (up from 53%) dented his power more. Despite all of these declines in power output fueled by his changes in approach, there is still plenty of optimism to be had with Bogaerts.
I don’t think we should necessarily believe this new approach is one that he will keep. It runs counter to his initial MLB work and his four seasons of MiLB track record.
Adding up all of his work before 2015 yields a .280/.352/.453 line with a .173 ISO, 20% K rate, and 10% BB rate in 2267 PA.
I think 1298 PA of a .720 OPS in the majors has caused some to forget about Bogaerts’ pedigree coming up. He was the unanimous #2 prospect in baseball two years ago behind Byron Buxton and seen as a middle-of-the-order bat capable of both a .300 AVG and 20+ HR. He showed that power throughout his minor league career with 16 HR in 72 games at A-ball, 20 in 127 games between High-A and Double-A, and then 15 in 116 games at Double-A and Triple-A as a 20-year old.
Our expectations of young players is higher than ever so Bogaerts feels like something of a disappointment – even after being the top SS in fantasy this year – but it’s worth remembering that he is still just 23 years old. Not every guy will click immediately like Mike Trout (yes, I know about the 40 games in 2011, but even clicking after 40 games is “immediately” in baseball time) or Carlos Correa or any number of other players recently. Let’s not pretend Bogaerts has sucked, either. His 108 OPS+ is still the fourth-best age-22 season from a shortstop since 1990: Alex Rodriguez (136), Hanley Ramirez (116), and Troy Tulowitzki (109). And again, he was the best shortstop in fantasy this year.
The next step for Bogaerts is unlocking the power. Spending a year focusing on the opposite field hasn’t stripped him of the power potential we saw just a couple years ago. If anything, it gives him another tool for a more complete batting profile. While we have seen a lot of young players dominate right away, we have seen some others not quite live up to the unrealistic expectations right away before exploding and jump two or three levels from their previous high. Machado, Bryce Harper, and Nolan Arenado were examples of that happening in 2015.
Bogaerts went with the 51st pick (4.6 of a 15-teamer) in a draft I did earlier this month and I think he will live in that 45-65 range throughout draft season in 2016. I love that fourth-fifth round range as a great breeding ground for the next big thing. Arenado was going 50th last year and there were concerns it was too high given what he had shown to date. Sometimes the numbers aren’t going to justify a pick spot, but betting on skills is perfectly valid and that’s exactly what you’ll be doing when you take Bogaerts in 2016.
I think he at least doubles his career home run total in 2016 (currently has 20**) while maintaining a very strong batting average (.290+). If you’re not ready to snag Correa in the first round of your draft, wait a couple rounds and get Bogaerts to fill the toughest spot on the diamond. He’s going to be a superstar in 2016.
**btw, after re-reading this it might read like I’m suggesting he’ll hit 40 HR! I’m actually saying he’ll hit 20 in ’16 to double his career total.