A number of Red Sox hitters have struggled to perform in line with their preseason expectations in 2014, a reality that has become painfully obvious to observers at this point.
As Jackie Bradley Jr. has endured a near-historic season of futility offensively, Boston’s young outfielder has had to cope with widespread scrutiny. Although a trip back to Pawtucket might help Bradley both mentally and physically, the 24-year-old’s demotion was an indictment of his failed season at the plate.
But Bradley’s offensive struggles pale in importance to those of Boston’s other renowned rookie, Xander Bogaerts, who is still expected to become a fixture in the middle of the Red Sox lineup for years to come. Bogaerts’ slump with the bat has only grown more worrisome, and now that the Aruban native is back to his natural shortstop position, his continued scuffles on offense come with one less reason for excuse.
It has become easy to forget, since the hullabaloo over his move to third base and subsequent decline, that Bogaerts was scorching the ball nearly as well as anyone in the American League at one point in the season’s first half. At the end of May, 52 games into the season, Bogaerts was batting .304/.397/.438 and was tied with Miguel Cabrera for the fifth-highest on-base percentage in the AL.
Since that time, over a 60-game sample, Bogaerts has hit .160/.198/.255 in a slump that has grown more and more prolonged. Things haven’t been any better since the Red Sox traded Stephen Drew and reinstated Bogaerts at shortstop, with the 21-year-old hitting .107/.161/.143 over 15 games during that stretch.
The numbers are ugly, but they also come with the caveat that Bogaerts is just 21 years old, an age that would make him young even for a prospect in Double-A, much less someone who has already reached the majors.
Still, lengthy struggles at the plate such as this one don’t exactly evoke much optimism, especially for a player whose bat is supposed to carry him to major league stardom. GM Ben Cherington even admitted prior to Tuesday’s game that the Red Sox themselves didn’t expect Bogaerts “to go through struggles to this extent.”
Cherington: “Frankly, we did not expect [Bogaerts] to go through struggles to this extent.”
— Tim Britton (@TimBritton) August 19, 2014
So how should Bogaerts’ protracted slump be viewed in the context of future expectations? Should Bogaerts’ once-lofty ceiling as one of baseball’s best prospects be tempered now that he has scuffled during his first extended look at big league pitching?
History provides one clue as to how 21-year-olds who struggle at the plate perform over the rest of their careers. Using Baseball Reference’s Play Index, I searched through all hitters dating back to 1947 who, at the age of 21 or younger, posted an OPS of .650 or lower in a single season.
The results brought back a list of 17 players, some who didn’t amount to much of anything and others who would go on to become Hall of Famers:
Perhaps the most intriguing name is Robin Yount, who posted a .593 OPS at the age of 20 back in 1976 before going on to bat .285/.342/.430 and win two MVP awards during his career. Other impressive names include Brooks Robinson and Rusty Staub, along with the likes of Ozzie Guillen and, most recently, Elvis Andrus, who played well enough after his age-21 season to earn an eight-year, $120 million extension from the Rangers before declining over the past couple of seasons.
Of course, the list also includes its fair share of misses, which is why Bogaerts’ continued struggles remain at least a little worrisome.
But the important thing to remember about Bogaerts is his pedigree. He never posted an OPS below .822 during his various stops in the upper minors, and despite his appearance on all the Internet’s top prospect lists before the season, he played just over a full year above High-A before arriving in the majors for good at the end of 2013. Despite what Mike Trout (who is unfair to compare to anyone) has done at such a young age, struggles are the norm for young players, not some sign of impending and ever-lasting doom.
Xander Bogaerts has already shown he can hit big league pitching, both at the end of last season and the beginning of 2014. That he has gone through such a nasty slump without ever really struggling to hit in the minors is more of an indication of how difficult success is in the majors, not a reflection of Bogaerts as a prospect bust.
Getting Bogaerts and Bradley (and by extension, Mookie Betts and the rest of Boston’s upper-level hitting prospects) to find better success early on during their transition to MLB is one of the biggest challenges facing Boston’s player development staff. It is a task that has only grown harder in an era where pitchers hold such a clear advantage over batters. Bogaerts is just the latest example of this reality.
Considering his obvious talent and the fact youth is on his side, any serious concerns about Bogaerts are a bit premature. Just about every hitter in the Red Sox lineup has underperformed in 2014, and Bogaerts is no exception. Given all the success he has had in the past, there is little standing in the way of him returning to the club next spring, when he will be only 22, and mashing the ball just as he did earlier this season.