At first, it may seem irresponsible to suggest that Xander Bogaerts may finish 2014 as the best shortstop in the American League.
Yes, he’s hitting .310/.394/.379 through Boston’s first eight games, already working himself up to the No. 5 spot in the lineup on more than one occasion. Yes, he’s shown flashes of defensive promise, even if he’s had a miscue or two along the way. And Bogaerts certainly looks comfortable in the majors, playing with that certain “it” factor that makes it clear that Bogaerts knows just how good he can be.
But for as much talent as Bogaerts possesses, every player faces some struggles early in his major league career. Aggressive hitters are thrown off-speed pitches and borderline strikes in order to induce weak contact or swings and misses. Patient hitters are challenged in the zone early and often. The onus is on young players to make adjustments, and those who fail to do so quickly can struggle for weeks on end.
With that knowledge in mind, it’s reasonable to doubt whether Bogaerts can finish 2014 as the most valuable shortstop in the AL: if you’re a betting man, it would certainly be smart to take the field. Yet the fact that Bogaerts at least figures prominently in the discussion is impressive, and reflects just how important Bogaerts is to Boston’s future.
The scouting report on Bogaerts has been out for quite a while now. As Baseball Prospectus (subscription required) wrote before the season, Bogaerts has “6+ potential” hit and power tools, meaning he projects to be well above average both in batting average and in extra-base hits. He possesses an advanced approach at the plate and solid instincts at shortstop, but his power has yet to fully manifest itself, and his defensive range leaves something to be desired.
The various projection systems around baseball have used that report and statistical analysis to project Bogaerts as between a two- and three-WAR player this season. FanGraphs’ ZIPS projection thinks Bogaerts will hit .271/.337/.425 with a touch of defensive value, leading to 2.7 WAR. FanGraphs’ STEAMER projection sees a .267/.331/.414 line worth 2.6 WAR. And Baseball Prospectus’s PECOTA projects Bogaerts to hit .265/.327/.433, good for 2.7 WARP.
You can put as much or as little stock into projection systems as you want, but it’s interesting that they all largely agree on what type of player Bogaerts should be in 2014. As someone who scouted Bogaerts throughout the minors, I personally think these systems are selling Bogaerts short at the plate and are a bit optimistic when it comes to his defense, but they’re realistic outcomes nonetheless.
But to fully understand why Bogaerts could finish as the best shortstop in the AL, we must look at his competition, too, and quickly break down the other shortstops in the junior circuit.
Without diving too deep into each player’s case, it’s safe to say we can dismiss Jonathan Villar (Astros), Alcides Escobar (Royals), Pedro Florimon (Twins) and Alex Gonzalez (Tigers) out of hand. It’s not quite so cut-and-dry for Asdrubal Cabrera (Indians) and Erick Aybar (Angels), but neither was worth even two WAR last season, according to FanGraphs, and both players are exiting their primes. Jose Iglesias (Tigers) is out for most of the season and wouldn’t be much of a candidate anyway. And would-be challengers Manny Machado (Orioles) and Jurickson Profar (Rangers) are both injured and aren’t playing shortstop right now.
And with all due respect to Derek Jeter (Yankees), who’s a no-doubt Hall of Famer and whose career should be celebrated, he can’t reasonably be considered for this distinction right now, either. We’re trying to judge these players on 2014 impact, not the impact of their entire careers.
That leaves us with seven non-Bogaerts options who have at least a reasonable chance of finishing as the best shortstop in the AL this year. Here’s how they stacked up when it comes to FanGraphs’ weighted runs created plus (wRC+), defense (Def) and WAR statistics.
|Yunel Escobar, TB||578||100||17.5||3.9|
|Jed Lowrie, OAK||662||121||-3.3||3.6|
|J.J. Hardy, BAL||644||99||13.3||3.4|
|Alexei Ramirez, CHW||674||86||12.7||3.1|
|Elvis Andrus, TEX||698||78||10.1||2.8|
|Jose Reyes, TOR||419||114||-1.3||2.2|
|Brad Miller, SEA||335||103||1.3||1.7|
A few things stick out right away when you look at the numbers. For one, defensive metrics are notoriously tricky—even hardcore saber fans acknowledge they should be taken with a grain of salt—and this helps explain why Escobar sits atop the list despite an average offensive showing. He’s a good defender, and we can all see this with the naked eye. But it’s reasonable to doubt whether he’s so good as to rank above some of the other names on this list, and why his defense was rated so much more highly in 2013 than in years past.
Health is a huge issue for Lowrie and Reyes. Both could easily top this list if they stay on the field, but neither is particularly likely to do so. Reyes is already missing time with a hamstring injury.
The 2013 season was a down year for Andrus, and it wouldn’t be surprising to see him rebound to the four-WAR seasons he posted in 2012 and 2013. Miller is another young player with a well-rounded game. He lacks anything close to Bogaerts’ offensive upside, but is a better defender. Hardy and Ramirez are consistent three-WAR performers, and there’s nothing to indicate either will see a big jump in performance now given their ages.
What this tells me is that Andrus, Lowrie and Miller are most likely to serve as serious challengers to Bogaerts’ “best shortstop” title this season. Reyes will lack the playing time and Escobar’s defensive metrics may exaggerate his value. Hardy and Ramirez are who they are at this point in their careers.
One immediate takeaway from that conclusion is that this is clearly a down year for shortstop talent in the AL. It’s a good thing that Bogaerts, Francisco Lindor (Indians), Addison Russell (A's), Carlos Correa (Astros) and others from the current crop of uber shortstop prospects are on the way, because the position could certainly use an infusion of talent.
But that lack of talent underscores just how unique Bogaerts is as a prospect, and how important he can be the to the Red Sox moving forward. Adequate defensive shortstops who can hit in the middle of the order are few and far between, and the value they bring to their teams is enormous.
If Bogaerts is able to finish as the AL’s best shortstop as a rookie, that will be more apparent than ever.