BOSTON — First impressions are powerful. But they aren’t everything.
Just ask Jackie Bradley Jr., whose .419/.507/.613 slash line over 28 spring training games in 2013 earned him a major league roster spot earlier than the Red Sox anticipated. He has since produced a .210/.286/.300 slash line while striking out 142 times in 149 regular-season games, raising questions about whether the slick-fielding center fielder will ever hit enough at the big league level.
And just ask Xander Bogaerts, whose 2013 playoff heroics have become a distant memory as the 21-year-old struggles to fulfill his potential in Boston.
Bradley was demoted to Triple-A Pawtucket following Sunday’s game against the Houston Astros at Fenway Park in a move that was a long time coming. Bogaerts, meanwhile, isn’t going anywhere. General manager Ben Cherington went as far to say Tuesday that “this is where (Bogaerts) needs to be.”
But boy, has the public perception of Bogaerts changed — fairly or unfairly — over the last 10 months.
Think about the adjectives most commonly associated with Bogaerts last October. The pride of Aruba, who hit .296 (8-for-27) with a .412 on-base percentage in 12 postseason games, was viewed as confident, poised, balanced and graceful in everything he did. He earned the distinction of Major League Baseball’s No. 2 prospect — behind Byron Buxton of the Minnesota Twins — and greatness not only was a foregone conclusion. It was expected immediately.
Now, Bogaerts finds himself battling the notion that his confidence is wavering amid a prolonged offensive slump, spotty defense and some questionable on-field decision-making.
Bogaerts appeared flustered earlier this season when the Red Sox signed shortstop Stephen Drew, forcing the young infielder off his natural position — the position he loves — and over to third base. Bogaerts has since regained Boston’s shortstop job by virtue of Drew being traded to the New York Yankees, but Sunday brought more growing pains and, in turn, another indication that the internal struggle is real.
“You guys have no clue,” Bogaerts said after Sunday’s game of making two costly defensive miscues in a three-game span. “Sometimes I hide it on the outside, but inside, it’s just tough.”
Does this mean Bogaerts is a head case? Absolutely not.
Does it mean he’s suddenly destined for a career of mediocrity despite so much promise? Not a chance.
Does it mean he’s human and susceptible to disappointment? Why yes, it does.
While every up-and-comer strives to be the next Mike Trout, the reality is that most young players are going to endure some struggles out of the gate. Bogaerts’ woes are amplified because of last year’s success, his well-documented minor league dominance, the pressure of playing in Boston and the lofty expectations he carried into 2014.
In essence, a once-glowing perception has given way to a sense of paranoia — not among Bogaerts or the Red Sox, but among those who contributed to the perception — because how could we possibly have misjudged this kid?
It’s time to take a deep breath. Bogaerts enters Tuesday hitting just .226 with a .293 on-base percentage and 114 strikeouts in 114 games this season. He also has committed a team-high 17 errors. But Bogaerts won’t be joining Bradley in Pawtucket anytime soon because the club remains impressed by the flashes he’s shown and the progress he continues to make in pregame work.
“The work ethic is more than satisfactory,” Red Sox manager John Farrell said before Monday’s game against the Los Angeles Angels at Fenway Park. “He’s a conscientious kid, accountable and probably feels as horrible as anyone with some of the happenings of late.
“Confidence is going to ebb and flow with every guy. The one thing that we want to be clear on with him is that the anticipation of plays prior to them happening — that’s where we’re centering our conversation around — and just anticipate the play, make the decision accordingly and let your natural abilities take over.”
Bogaerts’ natural ability is undeniable. The current deterrent in his major league growth instead appears to be rooted in confidence, which is amazing given where things stood at the end of last season.
Perceptions can be tricky. The unflattering 180 of Bogaerts underscores the importance of not putting too much stock into them, good or bad.