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Xander Bogaerts ahead of curve in big league education

09.16.13 at 2:03 am ET
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Xander Bogaerts made his presence known at the plate on Sunday, going 2-for-3 with a double, scoring two runs and facilitating another on a double steal where he took second while Jarrod Saltalamacchia stole home as the Red Sox cruised to a 9-2 victory over the Yankees. That he did so while playing a capable third base — a position he’s played for just 10 games in the minors and seven in the majors — is one more sign that while the 20-year-old has plenty to learn, he’s making rapid progress.

Red Sox third base coach Brian Butterfield said Bogaerts has avoided letting the struggles of a new position affect his performance at the plate, or vice versa. Both he and Sox manager John Farrell spoke highly of Bogaerts’ maturity and his eagerness to learn from coaches and veteran teammates.

‘€œHe’€™s a very graceful defender,” Farrell said on Sunday. “Right now, he looks more comfortable at short than he would at third, which you’€™d expect because of the number of games played there. But he’€™s blended in well. He’€™s been all eyes and ears. He asks great questions. This has been invaluable, the time that he’€™s been here so far. He’€™s got a bright future.”

“A kid that young — his maturity level, he’s a little bit ahead of the curve, and he plays a very relaxed game,” Butterfield said. “Defensively, tonight he made a couple nice plays, made a couple nice plays yesterday, at shortstop. There’s not any panic to his game. He relaxes when he throws. So that part of it, where a lot of kids come up and it’s only natural for things to speed up and the heart’s jumping a little bit — he’s been really relaxed, offensively and defensively, and that part of it, we’re really pleased with.”

Of course, the adjustment to a new position hasn’t been seamless, especially since Bogaerts has played in just 13 games, seven at third, since his August 20 call-up.

“He’s a big guy, so sometimes that transition from playing shortstop and from standing more erect is a little more difficult for guys like him,” Butterfield said. “Now they’re protected from their waist down, so they’ve got to play with a wider base. They’ve got to play a little bit lower. But he’s a real good athlete. He’s got great aptitude. He wants to be a great player. So it’s no problem getting him the work that he needs. He’s always seeking me out.”

The Sox started giving Bogaerts time at third base this season in Triple-A Pawtucket, though he still played the majority of the time at shortstop. Laying that groundwork before Bogaerts arrived in Boston has eased the process as well, Butterfield said.

Andy Fox, our minor-league infield instructor, has done a fantastic job with him in acclimating his feet and his glove action,” Butterfield said. “So he’s a little bit ahead of the curve right now because he’s pretty clean. Just going from shortstop, where you’re playing up a funnel and you’re attacking the ball, now he has to learn how to play a little bit lower. Third base is more of a zigzag position, where you go front to back, back to front. It’s a little bit different than shortstop in that the ball is on you a lot quicker. So there’s a lot of things that you rehearse during your early work, but it’s the game reps that help a guy get better. And he’s had limited game reps. But he works hard when he works, so we’re pleased with where he’s at.”

Bogaerts gave credit to his instructors in both Boston and Pawtucket for refining his play in the field. He also brought up veteran infielder John McDonald, who’s played in just two games since the Sox acquired him from the Phillies on August 31, as a positive influence.

“Definitely the acquisition of McDonald, he’s helped me a lot,” Bogaerts said. “Even at shortstop he’s helped me a lot. So I give a lot of thanks to him, and also Butterfield. I give him a lot of credit. I came from [Pawtucket manager Gary DiSarcina], [Fox] and all those guys down there to these other guys up here, so I’m in good hands.”

Butterfield emphasized McDonald’s role as well, noting that having a technically sound teammate to imitate has suited Bogaerts’ style of learning.

“Johnny is the best practice player that I’ve ever had,” Butterfield said. “He’s highly intelligent, he knows how to play all the positions, so when we talk about some things — I think Xander is probably more of a visual guy. You can talk about a lot of things, but until he sees it, that’s when it starts really clicking for him. So he’s able to see Johnny work his feet, Johnny work different angles at third and at shortstop, and I think that’s helped speed up the process a little bit.”

If Bogaerts is overwhelmed by continuing to learn a new position at the major-league level, it hasn’t hampered his hitting much. After Sunday’s strong performance, his line with the Sox is .303/.361/.455 in 36 plate appearances. He doubled to right and singled to center on Sunday, hitting the ball hard to various parts of the field.

“That’s the way his swing is built right now,” Farrell said. “I think as information gets around on him, it’ll be interesting to see how he handles some pitches on the inside part of the plate, but if you make a pitch out over the plate, he’s likely to put a good swing on it. There’s strength, there’s bat speed, there’s a good plane through the strike zone with the swing.”

Bogaerts has drawn comparisons to a few established major-leaguers in recent months, but Farrell may have been the first to liken him to Mariano Rivera, using Rivera as an example of a player with a similar drive to improve.

‘€œHe’€™s a smart kid. He’€™s very respectful, and I mean that in a good way,” Farrell said. “He doesn’€™t come across as he knows it all. He’€™s all eyes and ears. ‘€¦ His comment of wanting to be great, that’€™s what you hope every young player aspires to. That means he’€™s going to put in the work, make the sacrifices that we talked about with Mariano. Whether he achieves that status, who knows? But he’€™s wanting to put forth that effort.”

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