State of the Sox: Shortstop
Updated: Feb 15, 2020
Shortstop in 2019:
While second and first combined to give the Red Sox an extremely weak right side of the infield, third base and shortstop gave the team a fantastic left side. Similarly to third, which was manned almost exclusively by Rafael Devers, shortstop belonged essentially to one man: Xander Bogaerts. Bogaerts had 693 plate appearances at shortstop in 2019, with no other player having more than 16 at the position. This was great news for the Sox—Bogaerts’ production gave the team the sixth most valuable shortstop position by bWAR at 5.0 (up from 11th in 2018). Bogaerts had a phenomenal season, setting career highs in home runs (33), on-base percentage (.384), slugging percentage (.555), OPS (.939), doubles (52), and RBI (117). Additionally, he scored the second most runs (110) and had the second highest average (.309) of his career. Among shortstops, he was tied for third in homers, second in average, first in OBP, first in slugging, first in OPS, and first in wRC+ (141). Using fWAR, he was the most valuable shortstop in all of baseball, and the eight most valuable position player. In a hugely disappointing season, Bogaerts was one of the brightest spots on the Red Sox.
Depth chart for 2020:
As was the case with third, shortstop is once again projected to be played primarily by one player. Jose Peraza could fill in from time to time when Bogaerts needs a day to rest, but that’s about it. Unlike third base, which is where Bobby Dalbec plays, the Red Sox have no promising shortstop prospects in the high minors. C.J. Chatham and Jonathan Arauz could be called upon in an emergency, but that would only be as a result of an injury. Barring that, the shortstop position belongs to Xander Bogaerts.
How shortstop can be better than 2019:
Outdoing 2019 will not be easy for Bogaerts, but it is not out of the question. Outside of 2017, when his season was somewhat derailed after being hit by a pitch in the hand, he has improved each season since 2015. The improvement does not appear to be due to luck. He has increased his walk rate every year since 2015, up to 10.5% last season, and his strikeout rate has remained steady right around 17.5%. He hit fewer ground balls and more fly balls in 2019 than any other season in his career. Furthermore, he had less soft contact than any other season in his career by over 2% (14.1%, 0.3% less soft contact than Christian Yelich!), and set a career high in hard contact percentage. Bogaerts swung at fewer pitches out of the strike zone than any other season of his career, and when he did chase pitches, he made contact at a higher rate than any other season of his career outside of 2015. Essentially, Bogaerts improved almost every offensive aspect of his game in 2019, and at only 27 years old, it’s not crazy to think that he could continue to improve.
How shortstop can be worse than 2019:
Shortstop could of course be a less productive position for Boston than it was a season ago. Injuries obviously happen, and, as was noted, the team has very little middle infield depth. Even if Bogaerts stays healthy all season, however, it is easy to see how his performance could dip slightly. He had a .338 BABIP in 2019, which leaves plenty of room for regression (although his career BABIP is .333, so it shouldn’t be expected to regress that much). Maybe the loss of Mookie Betts affects how opposing teams pitch to Bogaerts, leading to lessened production. That said, it is difficult to envision him performing all that much worse than he did in 2019. His stats all point to his career year being due to adjustments and improvements rather than luck, and it would be bizarre—although not unheard of (Evan Longoria, for example)—for a player presumably entering his prime to suddenly decline.
I think that Bogaerts will actually have an even better season in 2020 than he did in 2019. His power has increased drastically over the past several seasons, and I could see him hitting 35+ home runs in 2020. When a player’s power seemingly falls off a cliff, it’s often due to him not having had all that much power to begin with. When you see a player who has a lot of homers and not all that many doubles, it can indicate that his power is kind of an illusion. True power hitters hit the ball hard a lot, not only when they hit home runs. If you see a player who has 40 homers and only 20 doubles, for example, it might be the case that he’s gotten somewhat lucky in that such a high percentage of his hard hits are carrying over the wall, which is not sustainable. Bogaerts’ 33 home runs and 52 doubles in 2019, on the other hand, demonstrate that his power is for real, and is likely here to stay. This power, combined with his fantastic contact skills, low strikeout rate, and increased walk rate, should lead to continued improvement for Boston’s franchise shortstop.