Bogaerts, Bradley find learning curve a bit steep
Talented Red Sox rookies learning how to maintain consistency in Majors
BOSTON -- In the not-too-distant future, Xander Bogaerts and Jackie Bradley Jr. could well wind up as the Red Sox's version of the killer B's. They are two gifted young players who have the athletic talent to thrive in all facets of the game.
But for now, they are two rookies who are still learning how to maintain consistency at the Major League level.
And Bogaerts and Bradley are living proof that even the most conscientious and talented players need time to get acclimated to the point where they can stand out amongst the best players in the world.
"They might not have all ended in a positive result, but you can put Xander and Jackie in a similar situation where there's been some opportunities and exposure," said manager John Farrell. "It hasn't always turned out in our favor, but we're hopeful and we're expecting that because of these challenges or experiences, they're going to pay off dividends as we go deeper in the season."
As the Red Sox spent their off-day in Texas with a 17-17 record, that .500 winning percentage mirrored the way things have gone for their rookie duo.
"Up and down," said Bogaerts, when asked for some self-evaluation. "Just trying to survive until I feel like I'm right where I want to be. Hopefully things turn around."
If they played in another environment, Bogaerts and Bradley could take their daily lumps and few might notice. But in Boston, playing for a team that is trying to defend a World Series championship, every step is magnified.
When it comes to the 21-year-old Bogaerts and the 24-year-old Bradley, it's clear they've both been able to keep an even-keeled demeanor despite the bumpy start.
"It's one of those things where you have to keep grinding and have faith in yourself and keep playing and doing the things that got you here," said Bradley. "I'll keep swinging it. Things are going to turn around. You have to have some peace in the middle of the storm."
For context, it's important to remember that even Dustin Pedroia struggled at first. En route to what wound up as an American League Rookie of the Year Award-winning season in 2007, Pedroia had a .224 average on May 1. By May 9, he was up to .387.
A similar surge could be in store for Bradley or Bogaerts -- or perhaps both. With a young player, you never quite know when it will click.
"A person like Pedroia, you definitely want to mirror the way he's played and approached the game," said Bradley. "Yes, he struggled early on, but obviously he figured it out and look at him now."
Through his first 100 at-bats of the season, Bradley is hitting .210 with no homers, 13 RBIs and a .325 on-base percentage. In isolated moments, he's come through with some big hits to help Boston win games. And in many moments, Bradley has made marvelous catches in center field and could wind up as a legitimate AL Gold Glove Award candidate this season.
"I feel like I can go get it," Bradley said. "If it hangs up in the air long enough, I'll catch it."
Once Bradley can generate similar confidence and expertise at the plate, he could become a difference-maker. The Minor League numbers demonstrate that he should hit eventually. Bradley has hit everywhere he's been, and with a keen eye that fits in perfectly with the overall approach of the team he plays for.
"It is a matter of time," said Bradley. "You just have to keep grinding. You have to stay in there. You're going to have your ups and downs and you just have to know that. As a young player, it just takes time. You can't get too frustrated because you're still learning. That's what I'm catching a grasp of."
In the case of Bogaerts, perhaps he created unfair expectations for himself by transforming himself last year from late-season callup to starting third baseman for the stretch run of the AL Championship Series and all the way through the World Series clincher.
Playing on a big stage, Bogaerts looked like a veteran. He worked a pivotal walk to help win Game 4 of the AL Division Series against the Rays. When the Red Sox were being stifled by Max Scherzer in Game 6 of the ALCS, Bogaerts lofted a double high off the Green Monster to help turn the momentum. And in Game 3 of the World Series, the nerveless right-handed hitter came up with a game-tying single.
But Bogaerts has learned that the long haul of a season is much more difficult than the short sample of a postseason run. Through 112 at-bats this season, he is hitting .268 with seven doubles, one homer and five RBIs. Bogaerts' eye has been typically excellent, as evidenced by a .379 on-base percentage.
"I feel like the most difficult part is seeing pitchers for the first time," Bogaerts said. "You don't know them. There's a lot of guys I haven't seen. I had what, 50, 60 at-bats last year? And in the playoffs, you're facing the same guys all the time. It's difficult to face guys you've never faced before."
While Bogaerts is still putting together his book on pitchers around the league, they now have enough usable video to have a book on him.
"Whatever book they have on me, it's actually working, I guess," said Bogaerts. "I kind of know what they want to do with me, for sure. It's just a matter of executing and not missing pitches. I'm missing too many pitches."
Bogaerts and Bradley both have 32 strikeouts, second on the club only to Mike Napoli, the slugger who broke a team record for strikeouts last year.
Until they hit their stride offensively, Farrell might rely on them more to do the little things.
In Sunday's game against the Athletics, Bradley was twice asked to drop down a bunt in a key situation. On the first occasion, he bunted it right at the pitcher in a safety squeeze situation, only to be thrown at first with nobody advancing. In the next at-bat, Bradley didn't get the bunt down and wound up hitting a grounder to first in which Will Middlebrooks was thrown out at third.
Though the Red Sox beat the Reds on Tuesday, it was a tough night at the plate for Bogaerts, who left six men on base and struck out three times. Farrell has noticed Bogaerts trying to do too much at times in run-scoring opportunities.
"There may be a tendency to expand the strike zone at times with [Bogaerts]," said Farrell. "There's more expansion of the strike zone, particularly up with the fastball and off the plate away with the breaking ball. Where we've seen a selective, patient approach with nobody on base, there might be more of a tendency to swing the bat in those situations."
Farrell admits he's still trying to get the feel for what to ask from both players during the key points of games.
"Do you take the bat out of their hand and look to sacrifice? Maybe that's what the game might call for, just the traditional approach to it. Or is there some benefit long-term to letting him swing the bat and grow in an opportunity?" Farrell said.
Later in the season, Farrell hopes that there won't be much of a decision. At that point, it will just be a matter of two players letting their talent take over.
"It's just a matter of time when it all clicks in," said Bogaerts.