February 6, 2014
Tale of the Tape
J.J. Hardy vs. Xander Bogaerts
Today’s “Tale of the Tape” will look at a quintessential grizzled veteran vs. young gun matchup as we debate the merits of two AL East shortstops, Baltimore’s J.J. Hardy and Boston’s Xander Bogaerts.
Hardy’s been one of the better power options at short for several years now, owning the fifth-best ISO among big-league shortstops since his breakout campaign as a 24-year-old in 2007. Now entering his age-31 season, he’s as good a bet as any middle infielder to hit you 20-plus homers and give you 140-160 R+RBI this year. In the other corner, Bogaerts is a consensus top-three prospect in all of baseball after a breakout post-season debut last fall that saw him hit .296/.412/.496 in October for the eventual World Series Champions. Bogaerts will be ranked among the third-base tiers per our internal discussions, but he would’ve rated as a borderline two-to-three-star player on Paul’s SS rankings. That would have put him right around the same ballpark as Hardy, who checked in at the back end of tier three. Let’s see if we can shed a little more light on where Bogaerts would’ve/could’ve/should’ve slotted in among shortstops, at least relative to Hardy.
Hardy is a .260 hitter over the course of almost 4,600 career plate appearances, and he’s managed that average despite a routinely below-average BABIP number that sits at .273 for his career. He hits a lot of popups and doesn’t hit a lot of line drives, and when he runs into an “unlucky” year, it hurts that much more, because his normal AVG range is that much lower to start. He’s tossed up two clunker seasons of sub-.240-average work in his last five, and he does not carry the kind of profile to suggest he’s likely to suddenly stumble into a .290-plus season at this point. Bogaerts, meanwhile, is a career .296 hitter in the minors, including a .315 mark over 311 Double-A at-bats and a .284 mark at Triple-A last year, all before his 21st birthday. He profiles as a player capable of posting strong batting averages routinely over the course of his big-league career. However, this seems as good a time as any to mention what will be a recurring theme of this breakdown: He’ll play the 2014 season as a 21-year-old rookie with all of 50 big-league plate appearances on his résumé. PECOTA projects a .259 average over about 500 at-bats, and I’d say that’s a very fair starting point for expectations. The fragile nature of Hardy’s batted-ball profile and the immense relative upside for Bogaerts push this category narrowly in the rookie’s favor, but at least for now, that gap is not as large as it’ll likely be a couple of years down the line.
Slight Advantage: Bogaerts
While Hardy’s managed to more or less hold his own in the batting-average department, his OBP skills are subpar and the main driver of his below-average career OPS+ and wRC+ marks. His career seven percent walk rate is propped up by a more patient approach earlier in his career. In fact, since his arrival in Baltimore three years ago his approach changed rather dramatically from a guy who swung at 21-24 percent of balls to one who consistently hacks at over 30 percent of pitches outside the strike zone. He’s posted walk rates south of six percent in each of the past three seasons, and his .298 OBP during that span ranks 22nd among 28 qualifying shortstops. Bogaerts boasts a 10 percent career minor-league walk rate, and he backed that up with 11 walks in his first 84 big league plate appearances between the regular and post-seasons last year (that’s a 13.1 percent rate). Rookie-year adjustments notwithstanding, he’s a patient enough hitter who, barring a worst-case scenario of misfortune and struggle, should be able to work his way on base at a better rate than Hardy right out of the gate.
Hardy’s calling card in fantasy baseball is his elite power production for the position. Since 2007, only Hanley Ramirez and Troy Tulowitzki have hit more home runs among shortstops, and he plays in one of the best ballparks in baseball for right-handed power. He’s one of the safest options for 20-homer power at short, with annual upside into the mid-20s. A couple of years from now, that range may very well be the kind of floor we talk about for Bogaerts. He’s got natural 65-grade power bottled up in a quick, fluid swing, and when paired with an extremely mature approach at the plate, the total package should allow for a majority of his raw power to play in game situations. There’s legitimate 30-homer potential in his bat, and that’s huge upside for any player given the state of power hitting in today’s game, let alone a shortstop. But again, he’s 21 and extremely unlikely to approach that number just yet, even supposing a full season of at-bats in an above-average park for right-handed power. Hardy’s demonstrated consistency takes this one handily, at least for now.
Runs Batted In
Since arriving in Baltimore Hardy’s hit all over the lineup, but last year he settled into the no. 6-7 range for the vast majority of his starts. It’s likely he slots into a similar position this season, probably getting a bit more time in the no. 6 hole behind Chris Davis and Matt Wieters. Davis’ .370 OBP from a year ago is likely due for some regression, while Wieters bottomed out with a .287 mark last year that should probably see a rebound toward his career .319 mark. It’s not the greatest warm-up act for his RBI opportunities, but it’s certainly the worst either, and Hardy should be a decent bet for 70-80 RBI once again. There is an open question, on the other hand, as to where Bogaerts will end up in Boston’s lineup. Logic would dictate he begins the year in the bottom third, but there’s legitimate potential for him to move up with a strong debut, particularly against left-handed pitching. Regardless of his ultimate spot in the lineup, Bogaerts will hit regularly in the offense that put more men on base than any other offense in baseball last year, so RBI opportunities should be plentiful. I’ll give a slight edge to Bogaerts here on account of the combination of AVG upside, a better supporting cast on the whole, and the chance that he might wind up in a premium position in the order by the season’s second half.
Slight Advantage: Bogaerts
As with RBI, the uncertainty surrounding Bogaerts’ likely lineup destination clouds the picture a bit, but the same factors are at play. Baltimore’s offense was strong in 2013, finishing in the top 10 in wOBA and wRC+, and plating the fifth-most runs in baseball. But Boston’s was more than a hundred runs better, and projects to hold a significant advantage again this year. With the likes of Delmon Young and Jemile Weeks penciled into the back-third of the Oriole lineup, Hardy’s 66 runs in 2013 may be more ceiling than expectation, and indeed PECOTA projects a significant drop to 52 for Hardy this year. I have to give the edge to Bogaerts here again on the strength of his upside in a stacked lineup.
Speed is not the centerpiece of either player’s game, and that’s particularly so with Hardy. The Baltimore shortstop has stolen a whopping eight bases in his entire career, which spans over 1,100 major-league games. His career high in any season is two, though I suppose it warrants a mention that he did tie that mark last year. That said, Bogaerts, for his part, was just 17-of-33 in his minor-league career stealing bags, so nobody’s mistaking him for Rickey Henderson either. He did steal eight of 11 between the minors and his time in Boston last year, so there’s at least the possibility of 5-7 bags over the course of a full season with Bogaerts’ fresher legs. To that end, Bogaerts gets the nod here.
Hardy has suffered his share of injuries over the course of his career, missing significant time in 2006 (ankle), 2010 (wrist), and 2011 (oblique), though he’s posted consecutive seasons of 158-plus games. Bogaerts has no real injury history to speak of thus far. Given Hardy’s durability over the past two seasons, this category is probably a push. But his checkered past does exist, and coupled with Bogaerts’ youth and successful avoidance of the trainer’s room to date, I’m going to push this one narrowly into his column.
Slight Advantage: Bogaerts
Hardy will be the everyday shortstop for the Orioles so long as his health allows it. Bogaerts, on the other hand, faces some legitimate uncertainty regarding his playing-time situation. Stephen Drew’s status is still up in the air, and it remains a perfectly viable option for him to re-sign in Boston given the organization’s stated preference for major-league depth. Additionally, early-season struggles could very well precipitate a trip back to Pawtucket in order to let the youngster clear his head. He certainly wouldn’t be the first 21-year-old to struggle in his rookie season, and it’s a very clear leap of faith to assume he’ll be able to match Hardy’s likely 150-plus games on the field. This one goes to Hardy.
Hardy is who he is at this point in his career, a guy whose offensive profile is a lot more valuable to his fantasy owners than it is to his real baseball team. He’s currently being drafted as the ninth shortstop off the board around the middle of the 11th round in standard 12-team leagues, and that’s on the heels of posting the 11th-best season by a shortstop in 2013. That seems about right, as buyers are paying a slight premium on draft day for his consistency. There’s some risk that his R+RBI totals take a little hit this year, particularly the R totals given the step back the bottom of Baltimore’s lineup projects to take. But Hardy’s ceiling and floor are not all that far apart, and while the ceiling isn’t particularly sexy it’s got plenty of value in most any league format. For Bogaerts, the sky is the limit on his ceiling. He has the kind of tools to break out in a big way and in relative short order at the major-league level. The eventual ceiling is pretty clearly above the one Hardy has set for himself; the question is just how quickly Bogaerts will reach it.
The category breakdown above paints a fairly one-sided picture, with Bogaerts laying claim to a dominant 7-2 advantage. And yet I think that paints a pretty inaccurate picture of the respective values of these two players. They articulate a fairly standard contrast of the young player chalk full of projection and the veteran who’s the most boring kind of known quantity. In this case the upside of Bogaerts’ offensive skill package is pretty clearly superior to Hardy’s established baseline over what has been a fairly lengthy career to date. But it’s really important to remember that Bogaerts is a 21-year-old rookie with a minuscule big-league track record, and it’s much more likely than not that he’ll struggle to produce consistently this season.
Given the respective lineups each player will have around them it’s entirely possible that Bogaerts returns more value than Hardy, but it is by no means a given. Hell, he may just be a narrow underdog to pull it off, if you’re the gamblin’ type. That Hardy’s current ADP is around 25 picks higher than Bogaerts’ reflects his cost certainty, and depending on how your draft has unfolded through the first 10 rounds, there’s a strong case to be made for grabbing his safer production and moving on. Still, that tantalizing upside Bogaerts possesses is the rarest kind. If he does find a way to tap into some of it this season, the potential is there for a monster return on investment in the middle rounds of your draft. But what separates Bogaerts here is that even if he doesn’t approach his ceiling right away, he’s still got the kind of baseline skillset and favorable offensive environment around him to post value close enough to what Hardy will give you. The potential reward pretty clearly outweighs the risk.
And the winner is… Bogaerts.
Wilson Karaman is an author of Baseball Prospectus.
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