In a four-batter span on June 11 at Fenway Park, before a Sunday Night Baseball national TV audience, Xander Bogaerts made three plays that could have won him a starring role in Tom Emanski’s next infomercial.
First, Bogaerts ranged to his left, slid to stop a hard grounder and bounced a throw to first base. Then, the Boston Red Sox shortstop drifted to his right, played a chopper in the hole on the long hop and fired a strike to first. And finally, he made a full-extension dive to gobble up a grounder up the middle and threw out a slow runner at first.
Emanski, the eminent youth baseball coach who stressed the fundamentals of defense in his series of often-advertised instructional videos in the 1990s, couldn’t have taught it better.
Yet after that game, in which Bogaerts also sailed a high throw to first base on a routine play, he still ranked among the worst defensive shortstops in baseball according to advanced metrics. The 24-year-old grades at 0.6 runs below league average in ultimate zone rating, as calculated by Fangraphs. Defensive runs saved, a measurement developed by Baseball Info Solutions, paints an even harsher picture. Bogaerts rates six runs worse than average, 23rd among 24 qualified shortstops. Only the St. Louis Cardinals‘ Aledmys Diaz is worse.
The numbers seem incongruous with the old-fashioned eye test. Scouts who watch Bogaerts often concur that he’s hardly the best defensive shortstop in the majors, but he’s far from one of the worst. He also appears to have improved in the past few years, not regressed, as some metrics indicate.
And the Red Sox are comfortable enough with Bogaerts’ defense that they kept him at shortstop even after calling up Deven Marrero from Triple-A Pawtucket last month. Despite being drafted as a shortstop, the slick-fielding Marrero has been used at third base in place of injured and ineffective Pablo Sandoval.
“All I can go by is what my eyes tell me, and I think [Bogaerts] has been very strong,” Red Sox manager John Farrell says. “For me, Bogey has done a heck of a job. He’s durable. You can count on him. He’s a reliable shortstop and an offensive one at the same time. I don’t know the factors that go into defensive metrics or all the UZR ratings. Sometimes those are alignment-dependent.”
Indeed, defensive metrics still don’t measure everything about a player’s proficiency at a position. Plays that occur when a team is aligned in a shift, for instance, don’t factor into defensive runs saved. But DRS and other metrics have evolved into a much more reliable evaluation of performance.
When it comes to Bogaerts, though, even the stats community acknowledges some disparity between watching him play shortstop and analyzing the numbers.
“He definitely looks athletic, and he obviously is athletic,” says Scott Spratt, a senior analyst for Baseball Info Solutions. “So, I think the numbers don’t quite match up with the expectations when you watch him.”
A closer look at Bogaerts’ defense might reveal a few reasons for that.
WHEN BOGAERTS WAS coming up in the minors, and even after he made his major league debut in 2013, scouts wondered if he would remain at shortstop. At 6-foot-1 and 200 pounds, he was already big for the position — and he was seemingly still growing.
But as a young player in Aruba, Bogaerts’ baseball idol was Derek Jeter, another tall shortstop. Bogaerts patterned his game after Jeter’s, right down to the opposite-field approach at the plate. For Bogaerts, shortstop was less a position than an identity.
So, when the Red Sox re-signed shortstop Stephen Drew and moved Bogaerts to third base midway through the 2014 season, it was a disappointment. It also caused Bogaerts to redouble his commitment to becoming a better shortstop. He took seriously infield coach Brian Butterfield’s challenge to improve his footwork and first-step quickness. He also realized the importance of studying scouting reports on opposing hitters and understanding how Red Sox pitchers were attacking them to best position himself.
When the Red Sox moved Bogaerts back to shortstop in 2015, he demonstrated an improvement that was reflected in the metrics. By defensive runs saved, he was only one run worse than average in 1,360 innings compared to nine runs below average in 880 innings in 2014. Moreover, Bogaerts’ ultimate zone rating was one run above average compared to 2.7 runs below average in 2014.
“He has made a quantum leap from 2014 to now,” Butterfield says.
Statistically, though, Bogaerts has taken a step back in the past two years. Last season, he was 10 runs worse than average in defensive runs saved and 2.9 runs below average in ultimate zone rating.
In particular, Spratt notes that the metrics show Bogaerts has had more difficulty with balls hit to his right, in the hole between shortstop and third base. After making three plays above the league average on balls to his right in 2015, he made 12 fewer than average last season and eight fewer than average so far this year.
By comparison, Bogaerts has been slightly above the league average on balls hit directly at him or up the middle to his left.
“What that sometimes can indicate, especially given how much better he’s been on the straight-on balls and balls to his left, it could be arm-strength-related,” Spratt says. “Another explanation is perhaps he’s suboptimally positioning himself over towards second base and that’s letting more balls get through [in the hole]. I don’t know whether or not that’s the case. We don’t really have enough information with what we track to really figure that out easily.”
Butterfield, regarded as one of the best infield coaches in baseball, says he hasn’t noticed Bogaerts getting to fewer balls to his right. Although Butterfield says he’s “interested” in defensive metrics, he also doesn’t pay close attention to them during the season, preferring to trust his eyes.
“There’s nights where balls are hit firmly and far enough away [in the hole] where there’s no chance of getting it,” Butterfield says. “That might have something to do with where we’re positioning.”
But Butterfield isn’t about to position Bogaerts any differently. Bogaerts might have a tendency to shade closer to the second-base bag, but that’s typical of young shortstops, according to Butterfield.
“One thing that we try to emphasize in double-play situations, sometimes you’ve got to move yourself a little bit further away from the base,” Butterfield says. “If they hit it over there in the 5-6 hole but you want to stand close to the base, it’s going to decrease your chances of catching the ball. And he’s well-equipped to be further away from the base and still get to the bag and be able to turn it if the ball is hit to the [right] side. I think one of the common themes with most young middle infielders is trying to push them away from the base, and we’re still in the process of doing that.”
IF BOGAERTS HAS tried to pattern his defense after Jeter, he appears to be succeeding. Defensive metrics were never kind to Jeter, either.
Beginning in 2003, Jeter ranked below the league average in defensive runs saved in every season except 2009, with one of his primary weaknesses coming on balls hit to his right. Jeter used his jump throw to attempt to make several of those plays, a technique mimicked by Bogaerts.
“I can say that Jeter was a prime example of a guy that did worse in the numbers than when you would visually look at him,” Spratt says. “Maybe the jump throw is a poor choice. Or maybe it’s a case that Bogaerts and Jeter are very good at the balls they got to, but just don’t get to as many balls. That’s kind of what the case was with Jeter.”
The Yankees never moved Jeter from shortstop, even after trading for Alex Rodriguez. And the Red Sox maintain they are perfectly content to leave Bogaerts at his desired position because of all the other things he does well.
Bogaerts is batting .316, the second-highest average among shortstops behind only Cincinnati’s Zack Cozart (.320). Bogaerts leads all shortstops in hits (93), is tied for second in doubles (20) and triples (4), is fourth in on-base percentage (.371), OPS (.833) and runs scored (48), and is seventh in slugging percentage (.463), RBIs (35) and stolen bases (8). He is also second behind Houston’s Carlos Correa (2.8) for the most wins above replacement (2.7, according to Fangraphs) among American League shortstops.
Indeed, the only metrics that are unkind to Bogaerts are the ones that measure defense.
“There’s so many variables that go into [defense], and I think that’s one of the things that some of the metrics can’t read into,” Butterfield says. “But I’m also not closed-minded enough to say, ‘No, I’m not going to ever look at stuff like that.’ So, I’ll ask questions when things are brought up to me. If I see something about defensive ratings, I’ll look at that. I’m really not sure why [the metrics are so poor] with Bogey.
“I think you have a player that is not only an outstanding player defensively, but he’s one of the top offensive shortstops in baseball, and that’s a little bit of a rare commodity. You’re looking for both in a guy that’s playing in the center of your infield, and those kind of guys are hard to come by.”
To the Red Sox, there isn’t much doubt that Bogaerts is one of those shortstops, regardless of what the defensive metrics say.