Fort Myers, Fla.—It was an at-bat Max Scherzer was still talking about, ten days ago, across the state in Lakeland. Game Six, ALCS, seventh inning, Tigers up 2-1 fighting elimination, Jonny Gomes on second, one out, Xander Bogaerts, 21 years old with 50 career regular season plate appearances of experience, at the plate.
“I still cannot believe that at-bat,” Scherzer said, with his usual eloquent animation. “How does someone that young, that inexperienced just spit on pitches? Good pitches?”
The Cy Young Award winner got Bogaerts 0-and-2, then went to 2-and-2. Scherzer blew a slider down, away, seemingly on the rim of the strike zone. “That’s a pitch good hitters can’t lay off, but he just stared it down,” said Scherzer.
Then he threw a Madduxesque 3-2 changeup.
Bogaerts again took it, admitting “he really surprised me with that. He fooled me.” And watched it. Ball four. Jim Leyland brought in Drew Smyly to face Jacoby Ellsbury, who hit a ground ball that escaped Jose Iglesias, loading the bases. In came Jose Veras, out into the Monster Seats went Shane Victorino’s grand slam, it was suddenly 5-2 and the Red Sox were on their way to the World Series.
Told that Bogaerts admitted that he considered himself fortunate that both pitches were called balls, Scherzer said, “then I think even more of him if he can have that self-awareness.”
Back down route 17 through Arcadia and Punta Gorda in Ft. Myers, the Red Sox coaches were talking about Bogaerts, his maturity and his self-awareness Tuesday morning. “He is a completely unique individual,” said hitting coach Greg Colbrunn. “He’s got great ability, he’s very smart and mature, but his self-awareness is really unusual for someone who turned 21 last October. He understands himself and what he has to do.”
There is the power that saw him go way deep in Yankee Stadium, the plate discipline of the Scherzer at-bat. He is going to begin the 2014 season as the Red Sox shortstop. Brian Butterfield, perhaps the best coach in the game, has no doubts. “He’s an unbelievable worker,” says Butterfield, who further appreciates the leadership Dustin Pedroia executes in bringing all the young infielders out and into Butterfield’s unique drills every day, from February to October. “He has great hands. He is really athletic; he makes that jump throw going to the left field line even better than Derek. People talk about how big he is (6-1, not the conjectured 6-3, 205 pounds), but his actions are short, those of a much smaller infielder. And he takes everything in.”
To begin with Bogaerts knows all about Butterfield’s legend, with Jeter one of the endorsements. In 1993, in his first full professional season, Jeter made 56 errors in 126 games. Enter Butterfield. The next season Jeter played 138 games at short and made 25 errors. Never in the majors has Jeter made 25 errors; in fact, he’s made more than 20 twice.
“I love all the drills, all the ideas Butter brings to the field every day,” says Bogaerts. Like, when one is playing the left side of the infield, to always field balls with ones left eye, which Bogaerts, Garin Cecchini and Will Middlebrooks will tell you gets their bodies lined up to come up throwing to first base. Then there are all the drills to improve and exploit Bogaerts’ explosiveness. “That can be one of his great strengths,” says Butterfield. “It’s footwork, it’s power fielding, and Xander understands it. His capacity to learn is remarkable.” Unlike most around him, being fluent in four languages says something about the education and learning skills of the people of Aruba and Curacao.
Until pleas went out this week for the Blue Jays to sign Stephen Drew as a second baseman, there had speculation that the Red Sox would bring Drew back and move Bogaerts back to third base, where he played in the ALCS and World Series. But from early January on, Ben Cherington insisted Bogaerts was the shortstop and Will Middlebrooks would play third. Now, weeks into spring training, Butterfield believes Middlebrooks—his back healthy, his strength increased and his presence far more confident and assured—can be an above average defender at third, which the hitting coaches feel can translate to 35 homers judging from the adjustments and the .332 OBP he demonstrated after coming back in early August.
“As well as Xander played in the post-season, given the circumstances, he is a better shortstop than he is a third baseman,” says Butterfield. “But he is going to be a very good defensive shortstop.”
As the coaches circled around Wednesday, they offered up the chorus that not only is Bogaerts better at short than third, Middlebrooks is a better defensive third baseman than is Bogaerts.
While Drew passed on a $14.1M qualifying offer, the Red Sox appear ready to spend $1M on an offensive left side of their infield. In the wings, as well, is 22-year old Garin Cecchini. Cecchini climbed to Portland last season with a .322/.443/.471/.915, 94 walks and 86 strikeouts, and while his seven home runs were Boggesque, teammates claim he simply never would vary from his disciplined approach and actually has big power. Cecchini has grown into a young Jim Thome frame, and as minor league hitting coach Rich Gedman says, “he hits everything—away, up, down, in…everything.” Butterfield has been very encouraged by his defensive improvements, citing what has surprised him most—his speed and athleticism.
Since the infamous Aug. 25, 2012 trade with the Dodgers, the Red Sox have emphasized their development. “We have really good coaches,” says Henry, words seldom uttered by owners. With Cherington, Mike Hazen and John Farrell all former farm directors, coaches are treated with rare respect, a condition that is dictated by Pedroia. Hang around their minor league fields and there is the same respect, for Gedman or Andy Fox, George Lombard, et al, a culture that was the organizational mantra for Cherington, Hazen and Farrell.
Thus no one seems at all concerned that Jackie Bradley, Jr. struggled going 2-for-31 at the start of 2013. “He’s stopped worrying about the ball in on him,” says Colbrunn, “and concentrated on what he hits well, how he takes so many pitches. He’s already a tremendous defensive centerfielder who can really throw, and if he gets on base as he did in the minors and gets his double digit homers as well as his other extra base hits, he’s going to be a very good player.”
That precludes what they learn as Grady Sizemore plays out the spring. Even Sizemore says he is “surprised and really pleased” with the way he has felt, moved and looked, and was down to play in their first game Thursday. “Not every team can think about replacing a 30-30 center fielder with another 30-30 center fielder.”
Back before the draft was altered to limit bonus money—which jacked up free agent dollars and actually costs club more—Henry gave Theo Epstein, Cherington, et al the cash to go over slot on Bradley, Cecchini, Mookie Betts, catcher Blake Swihart, Middlebrooks, Henry Owens, Anthony Ranaudo and others, which is why their farm system is now beginning the real transition of the nightmare of Sept., 2011 through September, 2012. So they spent more in the draft? So they spend more on major and minor league coaches and managers?
They may not get headlines in the off-season, and they do not produce immediate gratification. What they hope they are doing is producing players that can and will be cost-efficient for three years and be under control for seven years (for the $21M they paid Jacoby Ellsbury for seven years, they got all-star quality, two World Series rings, and never dealt with the over-30 issues).
They believe Bogaerts is that player, and now that Middlebrooks will be in his first full season he will develop into a righthanded power bat with above average defensive skills, that Bradley will be a gold glove center fielder who can post 50 extra base hits, that Cecchini is an all-star…
Asked the organization’s longterm goal, one executive said, “be like the Cardinals.”
Considering that Boston and St. Louis have won half of the last 10 world championships, and two of the three times the Red Sox won they beat the Cardinals to do so, it is a reasonable goal. Lofty, but reasoned.