Touching All the Bases

Xander Bogaerts is Enduring His First Real Slump — Both Offensively and Defensively


Don’t know about you, but I was pretty confident that the most productive American League East rookie middle infielder who also happened to rep the Netherlands in the World Baseball Classic would have been Xander Bogaerts.

Heck, I didn’t know there was even another candidate to fit such specific criteria. I was even mildly annoyed to discover that Bogaerts, the prince of October, had to share his cardboard real estate with another player.

Jonathan Schoop? Who and what is Jonathan Schoop?

Turns out he’s a second-base prospect of some repute with the Orioles, ranking 82d in Baseball Prospectus’s top 101. He impressed Buck Showalter enough this spring to win the second base job in a semi-patchwork Baltimore infield that awaits the return of Manny Machado.

What else have we got? His full name — Jonathan Rufino Jezus Schoop — is cooler than his real name (dig the z there) … his last name is pronounced like the mouthwash, not the Salt-N-Pepa song … he bears a vague resemblance to John Legend …
… oh, and he’s off to a better start to his rookie season than is the far more heralded Bogaerts.
That last item tells you two things: Bogaerts is struggling — he’s enduring the first slump of his career, really. Also: it’s still very early.
Bogaerts was so exceptional last postseason, especially in relation to his age and experience level, it was easy to assume that he would just pick up where he left off this April. In a way, he did — late in spring training, he was such a line-drive machine that it almost reminded you of Vintage Nomar, and he did put up an .831 OPS in the Grapefruit League.
And it carried over to the regular season. Through five games, he was hitting .412/.524/.529 and had already vaulted himself up to the No. 5 spot in John Farrell‘s batting order.
(Brief aside: Farrell clearly has the utmost faith in Bogaerts now. It must have been October that convinced him, because the kid should have had more than 50 plate appearances down the stretch run last year.)
But in the nine games since, Bogaerts has gone 6 for 33 (.182), and that includes a two-hit game April 10 in the Bronx. He does not have a hit with runners in scoring position — he’s 0 for 12 with a walk, giving him a Grebeckian .077 OPS — and so it’s both jarring and unsurprising that he’s still looking for his first RBI of the season, 57 plate appearances into the thing.
He’s already six RBIs behind Jonathan Schoop. I’m pretty sure that’s not insurmountable. But it is unexpected.
This is the first real slump of his brief major league career, and while his talent, maturity, and baseline of success last October suggest he’ll snap out of it soon, he probably could use a day off.
That should not be today, however. The White Sox are starting lefthander John Danks in the second game of this series, someone who may be of assistance in awakening the Red Sox’ righthanded bats. Danks allowed 28 homers in 138.1 innings last year.
Plus, having made essentially a walk-off error last night, with his throw on a basic play allowing the White Sox to score the winning run, it’s best that Bogaerts gets back out there and puts the blunder behind him.
Besides, they can’t really afford to sit him, especially if Dustin Pedroia and/or Mike Napoli are out of the lineup. We’ve already seen enough of Jonathan Herrera and Ryan Roberts to hope Will Middlebrooks heals sooner rather than later.
And you know what’s coming next. No, not a Giancarlo Stanton reference. That other pummeled topic around here. I’m obligated to say this because of my More Good Players Is A Good Thing platform: This would be a better team with Stephen Drew on the roster.
I know it’s not going to happen for a variety of reasons at this point. But the Red Sox do miss him. Bogaerts is rangy but erratic at shortstop right now. He’ll get better, because he works hard and has the tools, but he is a work in progress, and that progress may take seasons rather than months or weeks. Pitchers who were on this staff last year must privately long for the days early last season when Drew was at short and Jose Iglesias handled third base.
It just serves as reminder that it rarely comes easy, even for the most promising of young players. Bogaerts’s brilliance last October and the plaudits he drew atop all of those prospect lists over the winter might have falsely suggested that he would be an instant superstar. It’s rarely so easy — that’s why we still talk about Fred Lynn‘s 1975 season so reverently. Such a breakthrough is unforgettable because it’s so scarce.
Confession: When the Sox hit the Bronx last week, I was tempted to write some type of Derek Jeter/Bogaerts column, comparing their ascents and similarities. I thought better of it — such hyperbolic compare-and-contrast, changing-of-the-guard columns work better when the young player in the discussion has at least one RBI on the season.
Yet one element does apply. During Jeter’s rookie season of 1996, in which he had an .800 OPS, 10 homers, and 78 RBIs — he also struggled early and defensively. He was hitting .258 with a .720 OPS as of May 4, and he finished with 22 errors at shortstop, which stands as the second-most of his career.
It would not shock me if Bogaerts turned it on soon, perhaps even starting tonight against Danks and his tasty meatball offerings. And I’m not abandoning the thought that he’s an All-Star this season. But he’s 21 and has 141 major-league plate appearances to his credit. He’s a proven fast learner with a lot of learning left to do.
It’s been a tough few games for Bogaerts, the Red Sox’ future superstar who has already become essential in the present. But soon enough, we’ll be back comparing him, perhaps favorably, to a certain young Orioles infielder.
Manny Machado, of course. What, you thought we meant someone else?

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