The San Diego Padres have not gotten off to the start that you want as a preseason darling. That “Offseason Champions” moniker can be so, so damaging after all. As of this writing, they sit 7.5 games back of the Los Angeles Dodgers and fourth in the National League West overall. Luckily, it’s the middle of May. And there are seemingly four teams in Major League Baseball that can be declared Actually Good.
For the Padres, the majority of their struggles have come at the plate. Slow starts from Juan Soto & (now injured) Manny Machado, compounded with a complete lack of secondary contributions, have dug them the hole in which they now find themselves. No matter how much Fernando Tatis Jr hasn’t skipped a beat.
Our focus here is not on the unfortunate outcomes of their San Diego sticks, however. We’re here to investigate somewhere they’re actually succeeding: defense. Specifically, the defensive contributions of their major offseason acquisition.
It both was and was not a surprise when the San Diego Padres signed Xander Bogaerts to an 11-year contract last winter. On one hand, the Padres already had a shortstop. Or at least they would by the end of the first month. Even without Fernando Tatis Jr, the club survived just fine in 2022 with Ha-Seong Kim at the six. On the other, you can’t put anything past A.J. Preller and San Diego ownership. So after a failed bid at bringing Trea Turner into the fold, the Padres were able to poach Bogaerts from Boston, writing his name in pen as the team’s new starting shortstop.
Interestingly, there was a lot of talk about Bogaerts’ ability to handle the position, especially in relation to his free-agent counterparts. Dansby Swanson, after all, was an elite defensive shortstop. Turner and Carlos Correa each graded out better than Bogaerts, as well. In fact, talk of a position change—either to second or third—was bandied about when discussing Bogaerts’ prospective new team.
That talk became moot when Bogaerts joined the Padres on that massive new deal. The team declared their intentions immediately. It pushed Kim over to second base and threw Tatis Jr to the outfield grass. Soto was flipped over to left in anticipation of Tatis’ imminent return at the end of April (Sidebar: How good has Tatis looked in right, man? An elite player at the position already.).
Ultimately, it’s a configuration that seems to be working just fine, Bogaerts supposed shortcomings be darned.
As much as San Diego has struggled to find their way into the win column thus far, the defense isn’t even a little bit to blame. They’re very much an elite group there. The Friars rank sixth in Defensive Runs Saved (17) and lead the league in Outs Above Average (18). FanGraphs’ Def metric has the collective at 9.1, also sixth in the league.
That the defense is this good is not super surprising. Tatis Jr’s immediate ascent as a defensive outfielder has been remarkable. Trent Grisham is among the very elite centerfielders. Ha-Seong Kim has a very good glove that compensates for a below-average bat. Manny Machado is, well, the best glove this side of Nolan Arenado. And Juan Soto was a Gold Glove finalist (he said, through gritted teeth).
Nevertheless, there had to be questions about adding Bogaerts through a defensive lens. Since becoming a full-time shortstop in 2015, the following are his defensive outcomes and ranking the position among those with at least 500 innings in a given year:
- Fielding Percentage was included as a basis for giving more context as to where Bogaerts stood in each year respectively to his shortstop counterparts. Never to be taken as an indicator of defensive ability. To a lesser extent, the same is true of UZR. DRS & OAA are my guys.
- There is some variability there, and I’m not talking about the obvious between seasons. Even within seasons, different metrics measured Bogaerts very differently. That speaks to what each measures/values. You will note that, in large part, DRS & OAA are fairly close to one another.
- Xander Bogaerts, the 11-year shortstop, is maybe not that good at defense after all?
An important note: I did not watch a lot of the Boston Red Sox outside of postseason play during Bogaerts’ tenure. So when I heard the whispers about the defense over the winter and then watched San Diego early in the year, I was fairly confounded. The eye test (as in, my eyes) loved Bogaerts’ glove. Range both ways, easily making the routine plays, etc. But given the above image, it’s fairly easy to see where such a narrative comes from.
He did, however, experience significant growth in 2022. Some of that could likely be attributed to positioning. Bogaerts’ worst work from 2015 to 2022 came in two primary situations. The first was when he played straight up. As that previous link notes, he routinely lined up deep in the hole at short. From 2016 to 2021, his OAA in being positioned “straight up” was -25. His estimated success rate was 75 percent, but he only converted outs at a 73 percent clip. The other was to his right. In working toward the SS/3B hole, Bogaerts posted a -13 OAA. His success rate was 70 percent against an estimated success rate of 72 percent.
It doesn’t seem like a lot, but OAA hates when you’re…not as successful as you should be. OAA sees your potential and gets frustrated.
The 2022 season showed notable growth, though. His OAA in straight-up situations came in at -2, while his estimated and actual success rates were 75 and 74, respectively. In the SS/3B hole he was at 0 OAA with (obviously) identical estimated and actual success rates (77 percent). So, growth! But was it sustainable growth?
If there was a narrative swirling around the glove of Xander Bogaerts, it’s possible that it may have faded before it really gained that much traction into his new contract. Whatever growth he demonstrated in 2022 has shown not only to be sustainable but there are clearly additional levels that we had yet to see.
It turns out the eye test (even by my own terrible eyes) was correct. Xander Bogaerts really has been quite good. So much so, you could call him elite and you wouldn’t be exaggerating. Nobody at the position has a higher OAA at short than Bogaerts’ eight (Bobby Witt Jr is second with six). He’s 100th percentile in OAA, folks. That figure is also twice the mark of Dansby Swanson and seven more than both Trea Turner & Carlos Correa. His DRS, at two, ranks 10th. He trails Swanson (who is tied for the league lead in DRS) there but has a fairly wide edge over the other two. So much for being the one of the four most likely to change positions.
Even better? Those two problem areas for Bogaerts in the OAA game have evolved into his biggest strengths. His defense straight-up features an OAA of one, with a success rate of 71 percent versus an estimated success rate of 65. Moving to his right, he’s going for an OAA of five with an actual success rate of 81 against an estimated rate of 77. And you were all worried about his defense.
The context of Xander Bogaerts‘ wild success in San Diego shouldn’t be overlooked either, though. Playing with Manny Machado—before the small hand fracture—to his right has to be a boon for performance. Padres fans watched Eric Hosmer. They know first base play can be an important pillar for infielders. Jake Cronenworth’s play at first base has been a steadying force, no doubt aiding Bogaerts’ rise in at least some fashion.
Speaking of steadying force, that’s what the Padres’ defense has been to the club as a collective. The defense and the pitching have been stable. If the bats get going, we know the other elements are in place for this team to be what preseason prognosticators dreamed they’d be. And the defensive contributions of Xander Bogaerts will end up being every bit as valuable as the bat was expected to be.