As a lifelong Boston Red Sox fan I have had the pleasure of watching some extremely entertaining teams. From the curse-breaking team of 2004 to the talented and lovable 2013 Sox team, there has been no shortage of excitement. However, no Red Sox team has been more fun for me to watch than the current group of players. The 2013 team’s dominant pitching is a thing of the past, nowadays replaced by the onslaught of runs scored on a nightly basis. The Boston offense is averaging nearly six runs per game, the highest mark in the majors, and it’s hard to overstate just how good they have been this season. Along with an exceptional farewell season from the legendary David Ortiz, much of this season’s offensive surge is due to two incredibly talented home-grown prospects: outfielder and leadoff man Mookie Betts, and shortstop Xander Bogaerts. Two of the most under-the-radar American League MVP candidates, both players are producing at the highest level on both offense and defense and have a real case for being named Most Valuable Player if the season ended today.
Though the early-season performances by David Ortiz and Jackie Bradley Jr. are more than worthy of a closer look, this piece delves into the impressive accomplishments of Boston’s youngest everyday-players and budding stars, Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts.
After the departures of Jacoby Ellsbury and Jonny Gomes along with injuries to Shane Victorino for most of 2014 the Red Sox were left scrambling to fill the massive void left in the outfield for the 2015 season. There were questions whether Rusney Castillo, a Cuban outfielder with massive potential, could help fill the void, or whether the Sox would need to rely on home-grown prospects like Mookie Betts, Jackie Bradley Jr., and Daniel Nava. Fast-forward to 2016 and these questions have largely been answered. Rusney Castillo failed to live up to his presumed potential, Daniel Nava struggled mightily and was traded, and the Sox were unable to reach a long-term deal with Yoenis Céspedes and traded him to the Tigers for starting pitcher Rick Porcello. However, outfielders Mookie Betts and Jackie Bradley Jr. have more than made up for a lack of production from the aforementioned outfielders. While much has been made of JBJ’s breakout season and remarkable 29-game hit streak, and rightfully so, Mookie Betts’ historic season has received a bit less coverage.
Often the forgotten man, Mookie Betts, standing 5’9” and weighing 180 pounds soaking wet, has launched 14 home runs and 45 RBI in 56 games so far this season. Much like his teammate Dustin Pedroia, conventional wisdom says he shouldn’t be capable of such abundant power due to his diminutive stature. And yet here he is, having jacked the second-most long balls for the Sox so far this season, including a monster two game span during which he hit five, yes FIVE, home runs against division-rival Baltimore earlier this week.
“I don’t remember a thinner, smaller guy in that regard who generates the type of power he does. He’s just got exceptional talent”
– Dave Dombrowski, Boston Red Sox President of Baseball Operations
Let’s take a look at the three home runs Mookie knocked into the Camden Yards bleachers on May 31, as they illustrate the advanced hitting ability the young outfielder already possesses.
First Home Run, May 31, 2016:
What makes this home run so impressive is the distance it traveled. Betts was able to punish a pitch, low in the zone, driving it on a line over the center-field fence to the tune of 433 feet. Betts launched the the 433 foot frozen rope by producing a shallow launch angle of 22.7 degrees (most HRs tend to be launched at an angle of about 30 degrees) and an exit velocity of a whopping 107 miles per hour, which is especially impressive from a player of such small stature.
Second Home Run, May 31, 2016:
His second home run is impressive in a very different way. Here Mookie fights off a high-and-inside fastball that would handcuff a lesser hitter. Instead of a pop fly or at best a bloop-single over the shortstop’s head, Betts’ quick hands and short, compact swing allow him to turn on the ball and power it to left field. Though there’s no guarantee the ball would have cleared the left-field wall in a different park, this is an impressive piece of hitting nonetheless as Betts’ speed would have turned the line drive into at least a standup double had it not left the park.
Third Home Run, May 31, 2016:
Mookie’s third home run is his most impressive hit of the night (ignoring the fact that it was his THIRD bomb of the game). Orioles reliever Dylan Bundy throws a fastball just off the outside corner of the plate, a quality pitch away that is unlikely to get him in any trouble. But Betts has other ideas, driving it deep to right with a short, sweet swing for his first career 3-home run effort. Using all parts of the field is an essential quality for the very best hitters, and Betts has demonstrated that quality during his young career with a 25% opposite field batted-ball percentage. Though this number is almost exactly league average (according to Fangraphs), it is impressive that such a young player with less than two full seasons of major league baseball under his belt has already developed the ability to use the opposite field, a quality usually reserved for the more experienced hitters. And, as evidenced above, he has the ability to hit for power to the opposite field.
Betts is currently enjoying a historic season for a leadoff man, on pace for , but few inside the Red Sox organization foresaw his current power surge. As the Red Sox scout who landed Betts on Boston’s radar stated, “I wish I could tell you that I saw all this coming, but I didn’t — not this. I did not see home runs like this. Honestly, I thought he could have some impact with power, but I really thought it would come in the form of doubles more than home runs.”
While this season’s power surge has come as a surprise to nearly everyone, Mookie’s ability to make consistent contact and his speed on the base paths has not. His current batting average is .286, a respectable level for a player with the amount of pop Betts has shown this season. However, his average should continue to improve as the season progresses due to his 2016 batting average on balls in play (BABIP) of only .288. With the immense speed that has allowed him to steal 8 bags this season after swiping 21 in 2015, his BABIP can be expected to rise to a level slightly above the league average of .300. ZIPS projects Betts for a 2016 BABIP of .312, which seems more than reasonable, if not a bit conservative, due to his ability to beat out ground balls for singles.
As if Betts could be any more valuable to his organization, he has become one of the top defensive outfielders in the American League. A natural second baseman, the presence of Dustin Pedroia and a lack of outfield talent led to a positional switch in 2014. And Betts has thrived, flying across the outfield to track down any ball in his vicinity on the way to a 2016 defensive WAR of 0.2, a quality number through only 56 games, after achieving an unbelievable defensive WAR of 1.4 last season.
Here are some of his impressive defensive highlights:
Betts made this unbelievable catch to rob Chris Davis and record the final out of Rich Hill’s complete-game shutout (Don’t miss the celebrating cop in the bullpen).
Another impressive catch by Betts during the same game he launched three home runs. Take note of the speed he exhibits to put himself in position for a chance at making the tough catch.
“He can do anything. He takes advantage of everything — everything you give him or any mistake you make, he just takes advantage of it and goes with it”
– Xander Bogaerts, Red Sox Shortstop
Mookie Betts is well on his way to becoming one of the MLB’s finest five-tool players, and probably the best bowler in the majors; the Red Sox organization is just happy to be along for the ride.
Though Xander Bogaerts has predominantly been a “hit for average” hitter over the last season and a half, his abilities are anything but average. A longtime prospect with the Boston Red Sox, Bogaerts, 23, has been a member of the farm system since he was 17 years old. Boston’s shortstop position has been a “Revolving Door” since dealing the legendary Nomar Garciaparra to the Cubs in 2004, but finally, after more than 10 years of instability, the Red Sox have found a suitable replacement in Bogaerts.
At a position typically known more for fielding than hitting ability, Bogaerts possesses a complete, all-around hitting game. He is able to hit for both average and power while also maintaining a high on base percentage. His .350 batting average is tops in the American league, and his recently concluded 26 game hit streak illustrates the consistency with which he is able to collect hits. But he is not simply a contact hitter; he has hit 6 home runs this season, only a single bomb shy of his total for the entirety of 2015, and is on pace to improve significantly on his 45 extra base hits from last season.
“Say it with me – Xander Bogaerts is a superstar. Mayhaps he could be as good as Nomar.”
– Paul Swydan, Boston beat writer
But major league baseball has not always come so easily for him. While I chose to take a more statistics-based approach to Mookie Betts’ season, Bogaerts’ journey to this point is worthy of further exploration and offers insights into what makes him such a phenomenal hitter today.
It’s hard to imagine based on his batting average and home run totals over the 2015 and 2016 seasons, but Bogaerts’ main appeal as a prospect was actually his power. Bogaerts flashed major power numbers during his years in the minors, slugging .477 while hitting 15 home runs in only 116 games of Triple-A baseball in 2013. He even managed to keep his batting average right around .300 while posting power numbers atypical for a shortstop. But despite his minor league success he struggled mightily upon entering the majors in late-2013, and these struggles continued through essentially the entire 2014 season in which he hit a measly .240.
Much of the X-Man’s early struggles can be attributed to his pull-happy approach and an inability to drive the ball to right field. When opposing pitchers became aware of his major shortcoming they were able to shut him down by locating pitches away, preventing him from pulling the ball and decreasing his batting average dramatically. But Bogaerts made a conscious decision to work at hitting the ball to opposite field; and the hard work paid off. The chart below shows the improvement in Bogaerts’ notable hitting statistics before (2014) and after (2015 and 2016) changing his hitting approach.
As you can see, virtually every meaningful statistic improved from 2014 to 2015 by opening up the opposite field. He pulled the ball significantly less, leading to a higher batting average, weighted on base average, and a significantly decreased strikeout percentage. However, his home run totals did decrease significantly despite playing even more games. In short, the opposite field focus had a profound positive effect on his overall effectiveness in the batter’s box, but a negative effect on his power. For a 6’1”, 210 pound player, 7 home runs seems a bit modest.
This swing from 2015 visually illustrates the mindset change. On a pitch down the middle that Bogaerts is more than capable of pulling for power, he instead keeps his hands behind the ball and drives it to right field for a single.
The results are slightly different from 2015 to 2016, however. Whether it is a conscious decision or simply pitchers respecting his newly acquired opposite field proficiency, Bogaerts seems to have found a happy medium between pulling the ball for power and using opposite field for overall hitting success. So far this season he is pulling the ball at a rate less than in 2014 but more than during 2015. Both his batting average and wOBA to opposite field have increased further, and he is hitting the ball much harder to opposite field. But most encouragingly, his home run numbers have rebounded in a big way. While extrapolating mid-season numbers in order to predict a full-season total is not always accurate, Xander is currently on pace to hit 18 home runs in 2016, 6 more than his total during his pull-happy 2014. Even if he doesn’t quite reach the 18 home run mark, it’s tough to criticize a guy batting .350 with the most hits in the majors.
“You know what a catcher told me the other day when I got to the plate? The catcher for the A’s, he told me that [Xander Bogaerts] right now might be the best hitter in the game. … So when you hear things like that about a guy that two years ago was trying to learn how to establish himself at this level, it’s damn good.”
While we can expect his batting average to regress slightly due to his inflated BABIP, he has shown an ability to post a BABIP well-above the league average due to his combination of speed, opposite-field ability, and a high ground ball rate. So when regression does eventually come, we can still expect his batting average to remain among those of the game’s most elite hitters.
The way Bogaerts adapted his game for success at the major league level is an encouraging sign for his future. As he continues to improve as an all around hitter, forcing pitchers to respect his opposite-field ability, Boston fans can expect to see the young shortstop’s power numbers continue to creep towards the level they were promised.
Like his teammate Mookie Betts, Bogaerts is well on his way to becoming a premiere five-tool player. He has flashed speed by stealing seven bases this season, and his defensive skills have undergone a rapid improvement over the last few seasons. Not known as an exceptional defensive player during his farm system days, Bogaerts has taken a “Quantum Leap” forward on defense over the last two seasons. After a poor defensive 2014 season in which he posted a defensive WAR of -0.9 runs, Bogaerts has improved significantly over the last two seasons posting defensive WARs of 0.9 runs in 2015 and 0.4 runs through 2016.
And as a Red Sox fan, he passes the eye test with flying colors. He has always been an athletic defender, but his first step and instincts have improved significantly. He is quicker off the mark, able to snag balls that he probably would not have reached a year earlier. Bogaerts arm has also improved over the last two seasons. He struggled mightily to throw out runners on their way to first base, often leaving his throws in the dirt as he does in the below clips from 2014 (extremely maddening for any Red Sox fan like me).
But Bogaerts was able to correct these mistakes. After a putrid 2014 that featured 20 errors, he was able to cut this number to 11 errors in 2015. He has trimmed this number further in 2016, committing only 2 errors through a third of the season. Xander looks calm, confident, and comfortable manning the shortstop position, routinely making plays like these:
It’s important to remember that both Betts and Bogaerts are still only 23. The progress they have made over the last two seasons is incredibly encouraging for the Red Sox faithful, but there is no reason to think they are done progressing. Their eyes and plate discipline should continue to improve with age, as should their defensive instincts. If the Red Sox are able to lock down both Mookie and Xander for the long-term it’s not unreasonable to think that these two could compete for the American League’s MVP award for years to come. Though Ortiz will soon ride off into the sunset, Boston’s young nucleus of talent is here to stay. Beantown looks primed for more many October battles, led by homegrown-heroes Mookie Betts and Xander Bogaerts.