For several years, the Red Sox have brimmed with young, high-upside offensive talent. Those players have yielded mixed results as they've jumped to the major leagues. Mookie Betts delivered an MVP-caliber season in 2016, but regressed last year. Andrew Benintendi and Rafael Devers had solid rookie seasons with the potential for more at the plate.
But central to the development of the Red Sox' young lineup, still, is shortstop Xander Bogaerts. Not long after he signed with the Red Sox as an international free agent, Bogaerts became one of the top prospects in baseball. Generally expected to develop into a star at a premium position, Bogaerts was supposed to be a lynchpin for the game's new golden age of shortstops.
Betts blew by him as the Red Sox' highest-upside hitter in the past two seasons. But Bogaerts, still just 25 years old, remains far from trudging into "bust" territory. That doesn't mean he can't still improve greatly.
Bogaerts' offense has at times been spectacular, but has often been frustrating. Especially in the power department. Now, with a new manager and fresh approach at the plate, 2018 could be Bogaerts' chance to finally break through with his bat in a way that has only shown up in flashes.
Power Back On?
It's unfair to foist all the blame for the Red Sox' 2017 power outage on Bogaerts, but he's been at the center of those concerns. It looked like Bogaerts' career trajectory was rounding upward after he blasted 21 homers in 2016, but the past season brought a sharp drop-off.
When you take a closer look at Bogaerts' advanced stats, you won't notice many appreciable changes from the 2016 season (21 home runs) to 2017 (10 home runs). But there were three striking differences:
-- Swing percentage at pitches inside the strike zone (Z-swing%) fell from 59.1 percent to 53.0 percent
-- Raw power percentage (ISO) dropped from .152 to .130
-- Slugging percentage slid from .446 to .403
Though you may justifiably shrug at other changes, it's worth noting that his hard-hit percentage went up a tick between those two seasons - from 30.6 percent to 31.4. But his groundball rate and strikeout rate also went up slightly, while his flyball rate dropped nearly 5 percent.
He's trending in the wrong direction - but there's a chance he swings back up in 2018.
Can Cora Make The Difference?
Besides J.D. Martinez, virtually the entire Red Sox roster will be the same in 2018 that it was in 2017. So manager Alex Cora is going to have to make a major difference if the Red Sox want to not only improve upon their 93 wins in 2017, but make an actual run in October.
One of Cora's most publicly preached tenets as manager has been a more aggressive approach on offense. For Bogaerts in particular, he may have been a little too patient (or, you could say, passive) at the plate in 2017. As broken down in a recent column by Alex Speier of the Boston Globe, Bogaerts will be a major focus of the Red Sox' plan to be more aggressive in hitters' counts and early in the count. Per Speier, Bogaerts ranked 212th out of 216 players with at least 400 plate appearances with an 11.9 percent swing rate at first pitches. And at some point, Bogaerts became aware that pitchers were drilling pitches right over the plate that they knew he wouldn't attack.
The shortstop explained to Brian MacPherson of the MetroWest Daily News that his struggles in those areas were partly mental, and he's been working to train his body to do more of what his mind wants him to do.
"In the end, it’s about getting a good pitch and putting a good swing on it, trusting the work you’re doing in the cage," said Bogaerts. "If you get a good pitch, just swing hard. Don’t just try to make contact. Try to do damage."
It's arguably a bigger concern that Bogearts dealt with mental hurdles as opposed to physical ones. But he's at least aware of what he needs to do differently. Now, it'll come down to the execution.
Forget hitting for power. Post-All Star break, Bogaerts still needs to prove that he can hit at all.
For the first three-plus months of 2016, Bogaerts looked like he was emerging as one of the best-hitting shortstops in baseball. From March-June, he batted .342 with nine home runs and 50 RBIs. From July on ... he did hit 12 home runs, but he plummeted to a .248 average with just 39 runs driven in. His .863 OPS in the first half took a nosedive to .729 in the second half.
September/October of 2017 was a promising step in the right direction for Bogaerts, who batted .284 with an .803 OPS in 25 games. But the larger sample size still shows that he simply wasn't the same hitter in the second half than he was in the first. He struggled mightily in July and August, batting just .198 with three homers over a 47-game stretch.
So not only does Bogaerts still need to reach his full potential as a hitter, he needs to prove he can do it for a full season. Even if he tops out hitting 20-25 home runs a season, if he can hit well over .300 then he could become the high-end talent he's supposed to have been all along.
Can He Put It All Together?
Again, Cora's presence could be the key to unlocking Bogaerts' untapped upside. This is the first time Bogaerts has had a fresh voice in the manager's office, and it's a clean-slate opportunity for him to finally become the stud he was projected to be over the course of a 162-game marathon.
Bogaerts' slow development and extended slumps have only become more disheartening as you watch his peers blossom. Francisco Lindor plays much better defense than Bogaerts and just hit 33 home runs as a 23-year-old. The Astros' Carlos Correa (24 home runs in just 109 games) is living up to his billing as the No. 1 overall pick. Even the Yankees' Didi Gregorius smacked 25 homers in 2017, in just 136 games.
But there's where Gregorius' late-blooming pop could bode well for Bogaerts. The former is already 27 years old. Bogaerts still has time to develop into a finished product as he enters the prime of his career. He's running out of time to make a case for the Red Sox to commit to him long-term. But the point is, he still has time. It's still too early for the Sox to give up on him, as it was in the previous 2-3 years.
Still, the 2017 season is Bogaerts' best opportunity yet to show that he should be considered among the best at his position. That he should be up there with the Correas and Lindors of the world. Bogaerts still has time, but he's already had plenty of it. It's now time for him to hit the way he was expected to hit. For the whole season.
-- By Matt Dolloff, 985TheSportsHub.com
Matt Dolloff is a digital producer for 985TheSportsHub.com. Any opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of 98.5 The Sports Hub, Beasley Media Group, or any subsidiaries. Have a news tip, question, or comment for Matt? Follow him on Twitter @mattdolloff or email him at [email protected].