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The 2017 Red Sox Season Ends and Starts With Bogaerts

The Red Sox are currently tabbed as the favourites in the American League by most experts and odds-makers, but there was a lot of roster turnover from last season so it is difficult to really project their level of success for the coming year. Their positive 2017 outlook is despite losing the face of their franchise and best power hitter, David Ortiz, to retirement. He has been one of the most consistent clean-up hitters in the past decade and so offensively he leaves big shoes to fill (pun intended). The Red Sox offense in 2017 led the majors in most offensive categories like AVG, OBP, SLG, Off WAR component, swStr%, contact% and had the best OPS since the 2009 Yankees. Instead of signing or trading for a big slugger in the offseason to fill this void, Red Sox management looked elsewhere by acquiring one of the majors’ best starting pitchers in Chris Sale. The 2017 Red Sox are now led by a young nucleus of hitters who are projected to carry an offence that is likely going to be one of the best, and the Red Sox are banking on the continuing development of their young offensive talent to help them go far in the postseason.

One player who is expected to make major offensive contributions this season is Xander Bogaerts — a hitter who has shown the ability to hit for an elite batting average (.320 BA in 2015) and display some power (21 HR in 2016). He plays for one of the league’s most scrutinized teams and at one of the most important positions, creating an environment that demands excellence and puts a high level of pressure on a young player. Bogaerts has posted back-to-back seasons with a WAR over 4 and a wOBA over .338 but he achieved these feats in contrasting ways. In 2015, it was driven by an elite batting average, while in 2016 he made some changes to his swing and approach at the plate and was able to hit for a high average (.294) while increasing his home-run total from 7 to 21.

But when we delve into the numbers of his 2016 season, we learn that it was a tale of two halves. His noticeable two-halved season is similar to the 2016 seasons of Matt Carpenter and Kevin Pillar, players who I have written about recently, but these tales were directly related to injuries they sustained. For Bogaerts, however, his change was not due to an injury but from a change in his approach at the plate. This change had a negative effect on most of his offensive statistics and perhaps is a cause for concern for the coming season.

In the first half of the season versus the second half of the season, his batting average fell from .329 to .253, his BB/K fell from 0.59 to 0.37, his OPS dropped by 134 points, and his wOBA dropped by 57 points. The only improvements he displayed was improving his HR/FB ratio from 10.6% to 12.1% and increasing his ISO slightly by 13 points (.146 vs. .159).  So what changed, you ask? Well, you can probably tell from interpreting the aforementioned changes in his statistics; he sold out for power. He made a significant change to his ground-ball to fly-ball ratio, as it decreased from 1.62 to 0.98. Below we can see the change in his AVG/P from the first half to the second half of the 2016 season:


He stopped hitting balls to the opposite field, decreasing his Oppo% by 6.3% and increased his Pull% and Cent% by 2.8% and 3.5%, respectively. See below for a summary:

He also increased his average launch angle from 6.3 degrees in 2015 and 6.9 degrees in the first half of 2016 to almost double those marks in the second half of 2016 — 13.1 degrees. Despite increasing his launch angle in the second half, he made no major changes to his exit velocity (89.8 MPH vs. 90.2 MPH) or to his swing speed (61.3 MPH vs. 61.7 MPH).

In the table below, we see how Bogaerts ranked at his position in wRC+ and wOBA based on batted-ball type in the first half of the season and the second half:

Further, it is interesting to investigate his home and road splits in the second half as he hit .325 at home vs. .207 on the road. His second half away FB% was 39.9% and pull% was 42% while at home it was 38.3% and 52.1%. He increased his away FB% by 9.4% and increased his home FB% by 5.9% and his pull% by 7.7%. This change obviously helped him when playing at Fenway Park as his ISO increased from .172 to .205 while maintaining an identical batting average. However, while playing on the road, this new approach to hit fly balls and to pull the ball over an imaginary Green Monster led to major struggles at the plate.

I wanted to see if there was hope for Bogaerts with his new fly-ball-driven plate approach, so I wanted to look at hitters who made similar changes year-over-year and how they fared. I used data from the past four seasons and looked at qualified hitters who had at least a 0.40 decrease in their GB/FB from one year to the next. Analyzing the data, I found that Xander Bogaerts’ second half was eerily identical to Salvador Perez’s 2014 season. Perez made similar changes in his fly-ball approach from his 2013 to 2014 season and below are the results:


Apart from their HR/FB ratios, their batted-ball and hitting-profile metrics are identical. Bogaerts decided to pull and hit fly balls in the second half and if he was able to sustain this batted-ball profile over the course of a full season, versus if he kept his batted-ball profile the same as he had in the first half of the season, he would have hit six more home runs. Hitting over .310 with 18 HRs is much preferable to hitting sub .260 with 24 HRs. Of course, this extrapolation has its flaws, but whenever your hitting is compared to a catcher’s, it is a bit of a sign of concern.

It is not all doom and gloom for Bogaerts, as he is only 24 years old and has a lot of time to build into his frame and develop a power stroke. Looking at the same set of data, Bogaerts’ 2016 full-season data (a mixture of high-average approach vs. HR-hitting approach) looked similar to Robinson Cano’s 2016 season, apart from his ability to tap into his power. Cano and Bogaerts decreased their GB/FB rates by 0.72 and 0.75 respectively from 2015 to 2016, as shown below:


If Bogaerts can learn to hit the ball harder more consistently and perhaps focus less on pulling the ball, and revert back to his 2014 Oppo% of 32%, he could turn into both an elite power and contact hitter. An ideal future player comparison for Bogaerts would be somewhere in between Derek Jeter and Robinson Cano. Being able to utilize the whole field, hitting for a high batting average, stealing some bases, scoring lots of runs atop a killer lineup, and hitting for a lot of extra-base hits are all within the realm of possibilities for this young shortstop.

An important aspect to consider for the upcoming season is, where should Bogaerts hit in the batting order? According to Ian Browne of MLB.com, John Farrell is tinkering with the idea of hitting Bogaerts sixth in the Red Sox lineup, and this was the case for his first spring-training game since returning from the WBC on Thursday. And perhaps he has done so for good reason. In 2016, Bogaerts had most of his success hitting third in the lineup, but was moved to the two-hole on August 10th and stayed there for the vast majority of games there on out, and he began to struggle at the plate. It is a bit of a chicken-and-the-egg dilemma but something that probably prompted the move was his inability to hit with runners in scoring position. His batting average fell from .351 to .136, due mostly to his increased FB% — a trend that he has showed throughout his short major-league career, as shown by the table below:


His struggles with runners in scoring position are something that I am sure Farrell is well-aware of, and therefore his move down in the batting order makes a lot of sense, especially if he continues struggling with his new approach at the plate. It should not only helps his team be more efficient at run production, but it should also help Bogaerts’ chances of stealing more bases this season — something he has talked about doing more of if given the opportunity. He stole 11 bases in the first half of the season but only stole two in the second half, something that he attributed to having fewer green lights from his coaching staff when on the base paths, as they didn’t want to take the bat out of Big Papi’s hands. Of course, that is no longer an issue, and if he does in fact hit in sixth slot, he should have more opportunities to run than if he hit fourth – a position in the order that he was originally projected to hit from.


Fantasy Perspective: The move down in the order will definitely hurt his counting stats in runs and RBI, but the optimist in me believes that he will revert back a little to his 2015 self and hit fewer fly balls than he did in the second half of 2016. This should hopefully help him hit for a high batting average, considering he was able to sustain a BABIP in the .370 range over the course of over 1000 PAs from the beginning of the 2015 season to the halfway point of the 2016 season. His batting average over that period was .323, which which was tied for second with Jose Altuve, and only trailed Dee Gordon at .324. A more balanced approach should hopefully result in productive power numbers from Bogaerts, posting an elite number of doubles and HRs in the mid- to high teens. He has talked about trying to steal at least 20 bases this season and the likelihood of doing so is highly dependent on where he hits in the order. So if he stays in the six-hole for the majority of the season or moves up to the two-hole at some point – I believe that 20-25 steals is achievable.