BOSTON (CBS) — The time was ripe for Xander Bogaerts to introduce himself to Red Sox fans at Fenway Park on Tuesday night. The Sox were riding high after taking two of three from the Dodgers in L.A., and they were facing a left-hander in Wei-Yin Chen in their first game back at home. At last, the home crowd would get its first glimpse at the budding prospect who’s risen quickly through the minors and is considered by scouts to be an MVP-type player some day.
Alas, the potential star was not in the starting lineup against the Orioles, with Stephen Drew penciled at shortstop, batting eighth. And boy, were people mad.
They called the radio and shouted in rage, they tweeted some expletives and ultimately disagreed with manager John Farrell’s decision. Not everyone felt that way, of course, but those who preferred to see Bogaerts over Drew were the most vocal.
To an extent, they had a point. Bogaerts hit left-handed pitching pretty well in the minors, accumulating a .290 batting average and .875 OPS this season between Portland and Pawtucket. Drew, quite notably, has struggled against left-handed pitching this year, with a .195 batting average and .621 OPS.
But of course, minor league pitching isn’t major league pitching, and we saw that on display when the team’s previous can’t-miss superstar — Jackie Bradley Jr. — struggled and hit just .097 in his first big league stint in April. That came after Bradley hit .419 in spring training, showing just how drastic the difference can be for a young kid getting his feet wet in the Show.
It’s much too soon to come to any sort of conclusion on Bogaerts’ big-league hitting ability (he’s 3-for-9), but just as his average dropped from .311 in Double-A to .284 in Triple-A, it is most likely that the 20-year-old’s average is sure to be a bit lower in the majors.
For Farrell, he has two options. He can relegate Drew — a steady hitter and above-average defensive shortstop — to the bench against lefties, putting his hope in the rookie in the midst of a tight division race and into the postseason. If it works out, Farrell would look like a genius, but the odds of a kid with less than a season’s worth of games played in Double-A or higher being able to excel under those circumstances just aren’t good enough for any manager to bet on — not with so much at stake.
The other option is to stick with the guy who’s been there all year, while the Red Sox have seized and maintained their spot in first place for most of the season. Farrell essentially said that’s his plan prior to Tuesday’s game, when many expected to see Bogaerts in the starting lineup.
“I’m not going to turn away from Stephen Drew. He’s been a very good player for us,” Farrell said. “Probably [since July 27] to now, he’s been one of our most consistent hitters, he’s been a very good shortstop defensively for us, and I just don’t want to let the splits of a given starter determine and cause us to turn away from a guy who’s been very good for us.”
And if Farrell were to experiment with that route, essentially telling Drew “I don’t trust you against left-handers,” only to have to go back to Drew in a few weeks if/when Bogaerts falters, it would not go well. “Now, after the rookie couldn’t do it, you have my full trust against lefties” would be a hard sell for Farrell to make to Drew.
And don’t discount the effect that confidence can have in a player. Gabe Kapler, in his thought-provoking story on PEDs last week, said the biggest benefit that drug users gained from taking steroids was probably a mental edge as much as anything.
“In baseball, there isn’t a factor more responsible for success than confidence,” Kapler, a veteran of 12 MLB seasons, wrote. “I’ve never in my life had a player tell me different.”
While Kapler’s comment came in a much different context, the fact remains that if Farrell were to start benching Drew — a player he will need as the Red Sox make their postseason push — against every lefty on the schedule, he’d essentially be deflating his starting shortstop of any and all confidence in such a situation.
Farrell already resisted the temptation to give the shortstop job to Jose Iglesias, and this late in the season, with Drew hitting at a .301 clip since getting his feet under him after coming off the DL, the manager is not going to give it to Bogaerts. If the Red Sox are going to make a postseason run, it’s going to be with Drew at shortstop, and it’s probably best to just accept it rather than fight it. Farrell already has.