Xander Bogaerts moving along the shortstop learning curve

May 18, 2014 - 6:00 am

Before the rumble of pre-game batting practice starts, Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts stands out on the edge of the infield dirt, manning his usual shortstop position while fielding ground balls from third base coach Brian Butterfield. Bogaerts ranges to both sides, slickly fielding the grounder and transferring the ball to his hand before making the throw over to first base. After a series of ground balls, Bogaerts and Butterfield meet on top of the pitcher's mound, where Butterfield vigorously gestures to specific spots on the infield while positioning himself as if he were anticipating a ground ball. The sight of Bogaerts and Butterfield working in the infield has been common throughout the first month and a half of the season, as the shortstop tries to work on transitioning defensively to the big league level, a task that has been difficult for the 21-year-old. Following an April where balls frequently squirted past the ranging glove of Bogaerts, May has been a month of marked improvement for Bogaerts in the defensive transition to the big leagues according to Butterfield. "[He's improved] a lot," Butterfield said. "I don't use a timeline, but since day one of spring training, you're looking to get better during the course of spring training and during the course of the year and sometimes the slope is a little bit steeper than others but right now, I'm really pleased where he's at. His feet are getting better every day and the key for any young shortstop is his feet, glove action is good. There is always little things that every player is trying to iron out, especially young players [at] demanding positions like shortstop. There's things that he's still working on but I like where his curve is going." One of the marked differences between playing shortstop down I-95 in Pawtucket and manning the position at Fenway Park has been the amount of information available at the disposal for Bogaerts to use to prepare defensively at shortstop. "In the minors, you don't know too many scouting reports about anyone," Bogaerts said. "You just go out there, catch the ball and throw the ball. Here in the big leagues, it's different. Guys have been playing here for 16 years and for example, they only hit the ball up the middle so you position that way. In the minors, there was nothing about that. In the big leagues, it's been a whole different story." The education towards the growth of Bogaerts' defense started in spring training. Butterfield says that one of the most difficult transitions when coming to the big leagues is the level of sophistication defensively due to the amount of resources available. Many of the terminology and defensive shifts used at the major league level is foreign to young players coming in. In the month since coming up to the big leagues, Bogaerts has improved his ability to anticipate pre-pitch, allowing him to get better jumps on balls at shortstop. Bogaerts has taken the coaching staff's feedback and various scouting reports in order to prepare himself as much as possible in the field. The scouting reports have resulted in Bogaerts moving around the infield when a certain player requires a shift. Reading the ball off the bat at different parts of the infield is something that poses a challenge to any young player according to Butterfield. Different infield shifts are not prevalent in the minors, thus providing an often unforeseen challenge once a player makes a jump to the big leagues. With a young player such as Bogaerts, Butterfield has to be careful not to overload him with information, instead encouraging him to focus on one specific aspect of his game to improve through pre-game routine. The veteran presence of second baseman Dustin Pedroia provides a second eye on the field to position the infielders as best as possible pre-pitch. Pedroia's assistance in the teaching process of Bogaerts has helped the shortstop get used to a lot of technical aspects on the field quicker. "The sooner that he gets used to everything that is going on as far as the mental part, the over shifts, where he's supposed to be and all of our team defense becomes second nature to him, then he can let his hair down and he can play like he's used to playing and as a kid in the minor leagues," Butterfield said. "Now, there is just a lot more added responsibility than he's ever had in his life." Something that Butterfield says is important is to keep expectations in check for Bogaerts in the field, stating that the transition defensively for any young player is challenging. According to FanGraphs, Bogaerts currently sits 17 among 27 qualified shortstops in the majors in defense. In addition, Bogaerts has a plus/minus of -3 (three fewer plays than the average shortstop) and a -3 in runs saved according to John Dewan's Fielding Bible. However, because defense is relatively difficult to quantify concretely with statistics, Butterfield tries to point out areas of importance and focus for each player he is working with. "The things that we try to earmark and areas of importance, the little things," Butterfield said. "Like anticipation, that's getting better. That's how to quantify it. I try not to be a numbers guy and I try not to. I've tapered my expectations because I understand how difficult this game is for a young shortstop playing one of the most demanding positions on the field." Bogaerts hopes to keep his recent ride of smoothness on defense going through his work with Butterfield on his anticipation and footwork, among other things. "Sometimes you tend to overthink a lot of things instead of catching the ball, throwing the ball," Bogaerts said. "It's as simple as that. It's being relaxed and having fun, not putting too much pressure and being too hard on yourself." Butterfield believes that Bogaerts has the talent, athleticism and work ethic to become a very good defender at shortstop. "I think he can be an outstanding fielder. I think that it's real important that people taper their expectations, regardless of who that young player is," Butterfield said. "There is so much going on and you're under the microscope every day. There is a lot of things young guys have to get adjusted to but he's ahead of schedule as far as I'm concerned and one of the keys to being a good shortstop is being a consistent guy and right now, he's being a very consistent guy catching the ball and throwing it over for us."