Some players look like they have all the talent. But sometimes there are external problems that make all the difference. That is the case for Red Sox prospect Xander Bogaerts. The problem isn’t an off-the-field issue but an inherent problem with his on-the-field performance. Is it correctable? Yes. But it’s not something that can be ignored.
Bogaerts stands out most for his incredible bat speed to go with great lift in his swing. He has present power with more to come. That all sounds good. But there’s something completely off. Bogaerts gets far too much lift in his swing and makes his bat speed play down. Bogerts shows great bat speed, but his swing has become so lift-oriented and that he has gotten away from barreling the ball. As a hitter, the goal should be to first make solid contact, on the barrel of the bat, and then, when you get an opportunity on pitches far up enough in the zone, power through the ball with an upward angle in order to hit the ball high enough to give it a chance of being a home run. There is nothing wrong at all with a power hitter hitting a line drive single. But Bogaerts has completely lost track of that. He generates the lift in his swing by reflex, out of habit, and that could have serious ramifications moving forward. He angles his bat upwards and then goes through his swing. What happens because of this is that Bogaerts has turned into an extreme flyball hitter. He uses his bat speed not as a facilitator to his getting the barrel on the ball, but instead as a manifestation of his strength. He decides to put the ball in play in the air before each pitch and when he doesn’t, it’s unintentional. That plan is doomed to failure from the start.
What is going on here? Why in the world am I complaining so much about a hitter who has a .286/.364/.478 line with 17 doubles, 12 homers, and 48 RBI in 80 games as a 19 year old in the High-A Carolina League where the league average is nearly 23 years old? You have to look at his batted ball ratios and see this in action to appreciate it. According to Minor League Central, so far in 2012, Bogaerts has posted just an 8.8% line drive rate compared to the 13.9% league average. His outfield flyball rate is 38.6% compared to the 30.6% league average and despite that his popup rate is still better than average, coming in at 6.6% compared to the 7.2% league average. That’s a testament to his bat speed. But don’t think outfield flyballs are so great. In 2011 in the Major Leagues, players had just a .155 BAbip (batting average on balls in play) on flyballs to the outfield. That’s a far cry from the .718 mark in MLB on line drives. Why does any of this matter, though, if Bogaerts is still hitting well? Because the higher you advance in the minor leagues, the more flyballs get caught, and the worse Bogaerts will hit if another change doesn’t occur. Here’s some perspective: Bogaerts 8.8% line drive rate was 37.7% below league average. Just one player in the entire major leagues minimum 200 PA has a line drive that low: Trevor Plouffe of the Twins at 10.8% (the MLB line drive rate was 18%). When we expand the range to players with line drive rates at least 25% below league average (line drive rates less than or equal to 13.5%), we find that the highest batting average is .264 with a mean of .230 and a median of .233 and in terms of OPS, we find just two players with OPS marks above .690 (MLB average .725) with a mean of .676 and a median of .662. Players who don’t hit line drives don’t do well. There are just three players in the major leagues minimum 200 PA with batting averages over .300 and line drive rates below 16% (11.1% below league average), and two of them (Jose Altuve and Norichika Aoki) only hit so high because of their speed – faster players will reach base more on groundballs and can survive without as many line drives. Xander Bogaerts is not fast, stealing just 3 of 6 bases in 2012.
The worse thing about this is that it transcends Xander Bogaerts. Looking at the bottom of the line drive percentage rankings in the Carolina League, we find a common denominator: members of Salem Red Sox. Bogaerts has the second lowest line drive rate in the league minimum 200 PA and he trails his teammate Sean Coyle. Of the bottom eight in the league for line drive percentage, six of them are Red Sox prospects (in ascending order): Coyle, Bogaerts, Jackie Bradley, Michael Almanzar, Christian Vazquez, and Shannon Wilkerson. In fact, every single Red Sox full-season affiliate features at least three players in the bottom 20 of their league in line drive percentage. There is a serious organizational philosophy issue here. The Red Sox are not a team that disowns line drives- their 19% line drive rate this season is in a virtual tie for third in baseball and they have not been below league average since 2009. These prospects that we’re talking about here, several of them, most notably Bogaerts, feature great bat speed. So why are so many of them hitting so few line drives?
I can’t provide an answer to that question, but it’s clear that there’s more than coincidence going on here. The data is too overwhelming to discount. Could the problem be the Salem coaching staff? They also had three of the bottom seven in line drive rate in the Carolina League in 2011 with no overlapping players! No matter what is really going on, this is something to watch moving forward. So many of these players have very high potential, but if the poor minor league line drive rates translate to poor major league line drive rates, the Red Sox will be in trouble.
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