How Xander Bogaerts can regain his place among AL's elite young shortstops

FORT MYERS, Fla. — Alex Cora has been the manager of the Boston Red Sox for only 121 days, but it feels as though he has told this same story 120 times.

It was Oct. 9, an overcast Monday afternoon at Fenway Park. Bottom of the first inning, one out in Game 4 of a best-of-five division series. Xander Bogaerts took three balls in a row, then a called strike down the middle before Houston Astros starter Charlie Morton uncorked a center-cut, 95 mph fastball. Here it is, kid. Now hit it.

Bogaerts hit it into the bullpen for a home run.

“Everybody knew Charlie Morton had the best stuff in October and November,” said Cora, then the Astros’ bench coach. “For him to drive that ball to right-center, you have to be a good hitter and a good athlete. I still have that at-bat [in mind].”

Cora told that story after being hired by the Red Sox in late October. He retold it in December at the winter meetings. And he mentioned it again last week when Bogaerts arrived at spring training. It’s almost as if the 25-year-old shortstop hasn’t made any other impression on his new manager.

That isn’t the case, insists Cora, who recalls being impressed by Bogaerts’ talent and poise as far back as the 2013 postseason. To Cora, that swing against Morton was simply a reminder of how good Bogaerts can be.

“I’m not saying that’s going to be the result every time, but he can put himself in position to be up there with the elite shortstops,” Cora said. “Xander Bogaerts is one of the best shortstops in the league.”

Really, though, how good is he? It’s a fair question.

Three seasons ago, Bogaerts batted .320. In 2016, he hit 21 home runs and started at shortstop for the American League in the All-Star Game. But he regressed last year, in part because he played the second half of the season with a badly bruised right hand. He hit only 10 homers, saw his OPS slide to .746 (from .802 in 2016) and ranked by most metrics as one of the league’s worst defensive shortstops.

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At a time when the AL is loaded with elite shortstops, the gap between Bogaerts and the best of the best appears to be larger than ever. In Houston, Carlos Correa is the 23-year-old 2015 Rookie of the Year with 13.7 WAR, as calculated by FanGraphs, in 361 career games. In Cleveland, Francisco Lindor is 24 with a Gold Glove, two top-10 MVP finishes and 16.5 fWAR in 416 games. In Baltimore, Manny Machado is preparing to move back to his natural position of shortstop after spending the vast majority of his first six big league seasons at third base. We haven’t even mentioned Didi Gregorius of the New York Yankees or the Los Angeles Angels’ Andrelton Simmons, a generational defensive talent.

Not since the late ’90s crop of Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Nomar Garciaparra has the AL featured so many talented young shortstops. And Bogaerts’ place within this group doesn’t seem to be clear.

“He’s not the ‘big tools’ player that the other shortstops have — Correa, Lindor, Didi — yet he slows the game down so well,” one veteran talent evaluator from a rival team said. “He consistently makes all the routine plays and executes what he knows he is capable of at the plate. Bottom line is I still really like Bogey day in and day out as that pencil-me-in producer that he’s always been.”

The question now, it seems, is whether Bogaerts can keep getting better or if he has reached his ceiling. The Red Sox believe strongly in the former. In fact, as they continue to haggle with agent Scott Boras over free-agent slugger J.D. Martinez’s value, they are all but banking on a Bogaerts bounce-back, with Cora expressing confidence that Bogaerts can be coached up to exceed even his 2016 levels.

“Sometimes we talk about batting average on balls in play and all that stuff, nagging injuries or whatever. Sometimes you have a bad year. It happens,” Cora said. “People bounce back. Physically, he’s up there with the best. Mentally, he’s in a good place right now. I’m looking forward to working with him on a daily basis.”

You might even say Bogaerts is Cora’s pet project.

A utility infielder for 14 years in the majors, Cora played more games at shortstop (616) than any position. He understands footwork and positioning, and plans to be hands-on with Bogaerts in both areas.

Defensive metrics are no fan of Bogaerts. Last season, he ranked 11 runs worse than average in defensive runs saved according to Baseball Info Solutions, and 1.6 runs below average in ultimate zone rating according to FanGraphs. In particular, the metrics show Bogaerts had difficulty with balls hit to his right, in the hole between shortstop and third base.

Cora believes it’s a matter of positioning. The Red Sox intend to employ more defensive shifts than last season under former manager John Farrell and infield coach Brian Butterfield, a factor that Cora expects will enable Bogaerts to get to more balls.

“I think he put himself in a few spots last year that he wasn’t able to move his feet and use his hands,” Cora said. “I think we can help him. He can position himself differently. I think he’ll make the routine play more consistently.”

At the plate, Bogaerts should benefit simply from being healthy.

Bogaerts was batting .308 with a .363 on-base percentage on July 6 when he got smoked by a fastball from Tampa Bay Rays starter Jake Faria. Looking back, he admits he should have gone on the disabled list to give his hand adequate time to heal. Instead, he missed only one game and, with his top hand bruised and weakened, the righty-hitting Bogaerts batted .232 with a .321 on-base percentage over the season’s final three months.

“If I have something broken, that’s probably the only way I won’t be in the lineup,” Bogaerts said. “That’s just who I am. To a point, I do regret [playing], but it’s over with. You live and you learn.”

The Red Sox are also hoping Bogaerts will learn to hit the ball in the air more often. Over the past three seasons, 49.1 percent of his batted balls have been on the ground, making him the league’s 13th-most extreme ground ball hitter. Combine that with his high number of infield popups (10.7 percent, fourth-highest in the AL since 2015), and it’s clear that Bogaerts can stand to make adjustments.

“I’ll probably look to hit a lot more balls in the air,” Bogaerts said. “I’m not saying I’m going out and hitting 60 [homers] like [Yankees slugger Giancarlo] Stanton or something, but I can definitely go out there and put up the same numbers as ’16, maybe a little bit better. That’s the kind of stuff I’m looking forward to this year.”

So, too, is new hitting coach Tim Hyers, who returns to the Sox after two seasons as the Los Angeles Dodgers’ assistant hitting coach. Under Hyers and hitting coach Turner Ward, the Dodgers were proficient at hitting the ball in the air. Third baseman Justin Turner, in particular, was one of the earliest hitters to pay attention to maximizing the launch angle of his swing.

Bogaerts could benefit from adopting that philosophy. Last season, perhaps as a consequence of his hand injury, the average launch angle on Bogaerts’ swing slid to 8.2 degrees according to Statcast, down from 11.3 degrees in his 21-homer 2016 season.

“Fly balls are still outs. But if you hit the ball hard at a really good angle, 15-30 degrees or whatever number you want to use, it’s going to be a productive swing,” Hyers said in the offseason. “That’s what [the Dodgers] were shooting for, and it worked out really well.”

Clearly, the Red Sox believe 2018 could work out well for Bogaerts. They think he can bridge the gap to Correa, Lindor and Machado at the head of the AL’s class of shortstops, and if there’s any doubt in his mind, Cora will be there to remind him, maybe even with a video of the homer against Morton at the ready.

“I see him as an all-around hitter,” Cora said. “Xander’s a guy that, he can hit for average, he can get on base, he can hit the ball in the gap, he can hit the ball out of the ballpark. He’s a good hitter. I’ll remind him that he’s good.”

Said Bogaerts: “You always want to strive to be the best in the pack, to be on top of the leaderboard. Hopefully this year I go right up there again.”