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Frustrated Bogaerts off to a Slow Start

The first two-and-a-half weeks of the season have been a struggle for Red Sox prospect Xander Bogaerts. Last year, the shortstop excelled in the Eastern League and earned his place as one of baseball’s elite prospects. But his return to Double-A Portland has been underwhelming thus far. Against New Britain, Bogaerts went 0-for-6 with a strikeout, a walk and a groundball double play. His frustration was palpable. But there were still plenty of positives too.

Bogaerts’s performance in his first 15 games has been poor. Overall, he’s been 18% worse than the Eastern League average — this, despite hitting .396 on balls in play. His 29.6% strikeout rate is too high and his power has evaporated. In nearly 100 Double-A plate appearances last season, Bogaerts slugged five home runs and 10 doubles. This year, in 71  trips to the dish, Bogaerts’s isolated slugging percentage is .047. He’s hit just three doubles and zero home runs.

The primary cause of his struggles on this night was his tendency to pull off the ball. Typically, a hitter’s shoulders should be square to the pitcher until they begin to rotate following his hip turn. Against New Britain, Bogaerts’s front shoulder was flying open too early and he was being exposed on the other half of the plate. The scouts behind the plate joked, “here comes another ground out to second.” A scout who followed Portland for a few games noted weak contact became his expectation, and Bogaerts had not been playing up to his tools.

Bogaerts was noticeably frustrated. With the bases loaded in the fifth inning, he worked a full count before he struck out swinging on a breaking ball. He stood in the batter’s box, looked to the sky, exhaled, then stared at the ground as he walked back to the dugout. Later on, he grounded into a double play and failed to run hard to first. In the field, Bogaerts was rarely challenged, but on his sole attempt he gingerly charged a slow roller up the middle and flipped it underhand past Travis Shaw‘s outstretched arm.

Is his slump due to Eastern League’s brisk climate? An erratic spring? Recall, he left Boston’s major league camp to represent the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic, then returned after losing his starting role. Or maybe it’s just mechanical. It’s hard to pinpoint the cause, but his tools are loud and he will rebound.

Bogaerts will hit. He relies on his quick hands to pull the bat through the hitting zone, efficiently generating outstanding raw bat speed. The natural loft in his swing enables him to hit for power without “selling out” — over swinging and changing his mechanics to hit for power — and his approach is sound too. He’s a disciplined hitter with a fair understanding of the strike zone. He’s unfazed when working deep into a count and rarely expands the zone, waiting for a pitch he can drive.

Questions about whether the 20-year-old’s frame will force him off shortstop will follow him until he proves he’s a capable major league defender. Last year, Bogaerts had a thick lower half and if it grew as he aged, he wouldn’t resemble a shortstop for long. But, his entire body is noticeably less muscular and it is more well-proportioned now. His foot speed and range will always be below average for the position, but a smaller frame will allow him to maintain his agility and give him a shot to stick at the position.

With under a month of the season’s games played it would be foolish to overreact to a small sample size of minor league statistics. The tools that made Bogaerts an elite prospect are not in question, and a more natural frame is a promising development for his defensive future. There will always be hiccups in a player’s development, they are just more noticeable at the beginning of the season. The ability to adjust is essential for a major leaguer, so overcoming this challenging time will be an important lesson for his career.