December 20th, 2021

The Captain

Xander Bogaerts has been the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox for the past seven years. He’s the only active member of the roster to have won two World Series rings with the team. Aside from his rookie year and the pandemic-shortened season of 2020, he has played in at least 136 games every single year. His season averages are .290/.353/.459/.812 with 21 HRs, 89 RBI, 39 doubles, 187 hits, 97 runs scored, and 622 at bats.

He is front and center in the clubhouse to face bloodthirsty Boston sports reporters every night, the first person to take accountability when things are going badly and the first person to pass credit off to others when things are going well. He avoided free agency to take a team-friendly contract so he could stay in Boston without compromising the team’s payroll situation. He is the de facto captain of the Boston Red Sox.

And he’s a good defensive shortstop.

He’s always been a good defensive shortstop. It wasn’t until the second half of 2021 that a few beat writers and columnists started peddling some half-baked narrative that said his defense is not only declining, but that he is among the worst defensive shortstops in the league. Before long, most of the Boston media and a contingent of gullible fans decided that Xander Bogaerts had to be moved out of the shortstop position sooner rather than later. These spreadsheet-wielding know-it-alls don’t care what their eyeballs tell them, because defensive sabermetrics supposedly trump all.

 

Sabermetrics

Let me be perfectly clear … I am not an opponent of statistics. I acknowledge that statistics can tell you more about baseball than they can tell you about any other sport. Analyzing stats can often tell you virtually all you need to know about evaluating players from an offensive and pitching standpoint. If I want to learn about a player I haven’t seen much firsthand, the first thing I do is pull up their page on baseballreference.com. Data encapsulates almost every aspect of baseball and can be used as reference points to tell you almost everything you need to know about a player’s performance.

The one exception to this is defense.

Starting in the early 2000s, Bill James and his groupies took their best shot at compiling metrics to evaluate the defensive capabilities and deficiencies of baseball players. Where previous generations had little data to go by beyond fielding percentage, putouts, assists, and total errors, the sabermetric age gave us calculations such as range factor, league range factor, total zone fielding runs above average, defensive runs saved above average, plus/minus fielding runs above average, and other figures that would lead Connie Mack to take a blowtorch to the Philadelphia A’s analytics department if he were asked to take them into consideration.

Now I’m not some cranky traditionalist old coot. I appreciate many aspects of baseball’s modernization. I’m okay with the fact that brawls and headhunting have been eliminated from the game. I think guys like Goose Gossage, who equate humming a 98 mph fastball at another human being’s ear with “keeping players in check,” are borderline psychopaths. I like domed stadiums for teams in uncomfortable climates. I love the three-batter minimum, I’m a proponent of implementing the 20-second pith clock, and I adore a good bat flip.

I believe that statistical analysis is invaluable in baseball. Actually, strike that; it’s an undeniable fact that statistical analysis is invaluable in baseball. But I only give credence to statistics whose calculations I can actually understand.

 

Concept and Calculation

For instance, I had no resistance to the introduction of the OPS stat (on base percentage plus slugging percentage), and I embraced it as soon as it became the trendy data point for evaluating offensive production. Why? Because both the concept and the calculation were useful and intuitive.

OPS Concept: To measure a player’s overall batting ability and plate discipline.

OPS Calculation: (Total hits/total bases) + (Total hits and walks/total plate appearances)

Any baseball fan that understands statistics can:

  1. understand the value of OPS
  2. understand how OPS is calculated
  3. calculate OPS him/herself if they have access to the player’s basic stats.

The same cannot be said for defensive metrics. Nobody that is reading this column can calculate a player’s total zone fielding runs above average without a heavily pre-formatted spreadsheet. In fact, nobody that is reading this column even knows anybody that can calculate a player’s total zone fielding runs above average without a heavily pre-formatted spreadsheet. The same goes for all fielding metrics beyond fielding percentage and the basic counting stats like assists, putouts, and errors, which also tell you very little without a lot of context.

 

Unquantifiable

What fielding sabermetrics try to do is quantify that context. In other words, they try to quantify that which is unquantifiable.

There are dozens, maybe hundreds of variables to consider on each batted ball that is put in play. What type of shift is the fielder playing in? How smooth is the playing surface? What is the weather like? How many runners are on base? How fast are those runners that are on base? How hard was the ball hit? What kind of spin is on the ball? What kind of pitch was thrown? Did the fielder cheat a couple of steps in either direction based on the pitch selection? The list goes on and on. No algorithm can accurately account for all of those variables to provide an across-the-board comparative benchmark. 

Are there also variables to consider when measuring hitting and pitching performance? Absolutely. But those disciplines are essentially head-to-head matchups between a hitter trying to get on base and a pitcher trying to retire him. Fielding is a much more complex scheme with far more different potential objectives, outcomes, and methods for achieving those outcomes.

Hardcore stat-heads will try to tell you that everything in baseball can be statistically quantified; that the eyeball test is an archaic system of evaluation that old-school traditionalists cling to in order to continue living in the past. I argue that people who insist that statistics can thoroughly inform you on every facet of the game are simply taking the easy way out. They choose to simply skim the data on their charts and spreadsheets so they don’t have to watch the action and learn about the players firsthand before running off at the mouth. 

 

Measuring Up 

How can you measure a person’s competency at a skill using a calculation whose formula you know nothing about? Even if you understand the concept of the metric, how can you possibly relate to what it is telling you if you could never in a million years even dream of applying the formula and calculating the statistic yourself?

Which brings us back to Xander Bogaerts, the starting shortstop for the Boston Red Sox since 2014. I honestly had never heard a complaint about his defense until the second half of the 2021 season, at which point a number of people in the Boston sports media decided that he was one of the worst defensive shortstops in the league and his fielding was a major factor in the team’s poor defense last year.

Bogaerts was fourth in baseball among shortstops in fielding percentage last year, meaning he was fourth best at fielding the balls that he reached. He was also tied for fourth in errors, committing only nine all season in 523 total chances. Stat-heads will tell you that fielding percentage and total errors don’t count, as those figures don’t take the player’s range into consideration. After all, you can’t make an error if you can’t even get to the ball.

Fair enough. Let’s take a look at his range factor, which measures a player’s average putouts and assists per nine innings. I don’t put too much consideration into a player’s range factor, but it’s one of the less complicated fielding metrics that can be easily calculated.

Bogaerts ranked sixth in all of baseball in 2021 with a range factor of 3.96.

So let’s review.

In 2021, Xander Bogaerts was one of the five best shortstops in Major League Baseball at fielding ground balls that were hit to him, he was one of the five best at not committing errors, and he ranked just outside the top five in terms of how much ground he covered at shortstop. Yet his defensive wins above replacement (dWAR), the Captain Kirk to this nerdist cult of Bogaerts doubters, was 0.3, tied for last among all qualifying shortstops in MLB.

 

Use Your Eyes

So how can a player be one of the best shortstops in the league at fielding balls that are hit to him, make fewer errors than all but three other shortstops, and cover more ground than all but five other shortstops, yet have a dWAR at the very bottom of the league? To me, the answer is simple.

dWAR is a load of crap. 

Bogaerts’ dWAR being completely contrary to intuitive statistics compels me to dismiss all other advanced fielding metrics along with it. Thus, all we are left with is the eyeball test. Let me tell you what I see when I watch Xander Bogaerts play defense.

I see a player who makes every play that is hit to him, makes plays ranging to his left and to his right, turns every double play, makes every throw to first, and makes every relay throw to third and home. I see a guy who plays hurt, who doesn’t make excuses, and who is the first guy to jog over to the mound and give words of encouragement to a struggling pitcher.

Overall, I see a guy who has been through the wars, enduring heartbreaking losses and enjoying thrilling victories. I see a guy who took crucial walks in the 2013 ALCS as a 21-year-old rookie and who took Gerrit Cole deep in the 2021 Wild Card Game as a 29-year-old veteran. I see a guy whose overall WAR, which does factor in defensive value, was 4.9 in 2021 despite his dWAR somehow being 0.3.

This is not somebody you want to force over to second base because of some mythological defensive woes. This is a guy that you want playing the most important position on the field for a big market team with lofty expectations every single year.

 

Scapegoat

So how did the narrative of Bogaerts being a defensive liability at shortstop begin? My guess is due to Boston’s terrible team defense in 2021. But how about we blame the guys that were truly responsible for this?

Rafael Devers made 22 errors last year, and despite the fact that he has gradually improved throughout his career, he is a legitimately bad defensive third baseman.

Bobby Dalbec deserves a bit of slack since he was a rookie that had primarily been a third baseman throughout his career until this past season. However, he was also objectively awful on defense, somehow finding a way to make a gross 11 errors at first base.

And how about Christian Vazquez? A laser-chucking baserunner assassin when he first got to the big leagues, he can’t even make the throw to second base on the fly anymore. He made seven errors in 2021, more than every qualifying catcher in the league besides Houston’s Martin Maldonado.

Bogaerts was the lone defensive stalwart of the Red Sox infield in 2021. Yet there is now a movement to remove the captain of the team from shortstop and move him to a different position in order to somehow sure up the defense???

Imagine that you have five children. Three of them are constantly getting into trouble at school, one of them gets straight A’s and always does what he’s told, and one of them simply floats under the radar. If no chores were getting done correctly and there was constant bickering in the house, would your solution to instilling harmony be to move the golden child into a smaller bedroom while staying the course with the other four?

 

Embracing the Lie 

But this is what happens with Boston sports. An overarching problem is identified, one or two attention-craving media vultures cook up a spicy take to explain it, a handful of fans that want to feel like they are on the cutting edge spread the word, and confirmation bias takes over from there. Soon enough, every ground ball that sneaks up the middle or into the whole becomes Bogaerts’ fault.

“Come on! Andrelton Simmons would’ve had that.”

“Dude!!! Correa makes that play all day!”

“Ya know, if we slid Bogaerts over to second and got Isiah Kiner-Falefa from the Rangers to play short, our infield would be the best in the league.”

These are the people that truly mystify me. If you are a die-hard Red Sox fan, you may watch 100 to 130 games per year, mostly in their entirety. You only get a chance to see the other shortstops in your division 19 times per year at most, and you see the other shortstops far less, likely only a few times in a season.

Sure, some of you get the MLB package and may occasionally watch a game that doesn’t involve the Red Sox, but nobody does that often. If you say you do, you’re lying. We all have lives to live, and 162 games per year is a hell of a lot to watch of even your home team. Even the biggest of baseball nerds aren’t chomping at the bit to watch two other teams play.

My point is this: there’s no way any Red Sox junkie is seeing enough of the other shortstops in the league to truly understand if they are better or worse than Xander Bogaerts. If Bogaerts was an atrocious shortstop that wasn’t making the plays that are hit to him, that would be one thing. But he’s a good fielder that rarely makes a mistake.

You need to see a shortstop play a whole lot of games in order to determine if he is better than the solid shortstop that you’ve been watching for seven years. Just because you’ve seen one guy make a sick play that you’ve never seen Bogaerts make doesn’t mean that the other guy is a better fielder than Xander. The only support that can be made for such a claim lies within defensive metrics, which are both inherently and conceptually flawed. You can tell the really good fielders from the really bad fielders quickly enough, but you need to see all the guys that fall in between for dozens, maybe even 100 games to determine which is better than the other. 

 

Welcome to Boston

We’ve seen this happen in Boston before.

It happened to Theo Epstein. It’s been happening  for the past two years to Bill Belichick. And now it appears to be happening to Xander Bogaerts.

A hometown hero is being portrayed as the scapegoat for a much more complex problem because a few attention fiends in the media managed to make the story sound interesting. Now people are seeing what they want to see, finding fantasy baseball-style solutions to a problem that doesn’t even exist as they convince themselves that the leader of the team that came two wins shy of reaching the World Series needs to be moved to a new position.

Luckily, I feel that Chaim Bloom is a lot smarter than this small contingent of fans. You don’t correct a problem by fixing the part that ain’t broken, and you don’t screw around with the team captain because the players around him aren’t pulling their weight.

Chaim Bloom is solution oriented, even if the Boston sports media and a portion of the fanbase is not.

Boston Red Sox Fan

 

 

By Luke

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