The SI.com Debate Series pits two of our writers against one another on opposing sides of a decision many fantasy owners will face during their drafts. In this installment, we look at two middle infielders representing bitter rivals: Xander Boagerts and Gleyber Torres.
Michael Beller makes the case for Bogaerts over Torres…
Look, I get where Shapiro is coming from. Torres is the shiny new toy. Everyone loves a shiny new toy. Doesn’t matter if you’re 4 years old, 34 years old, or 64 years old. We’re all drawn to things that are bright and new, full of untapped potential. And hey, Torres isn’t just new. He’s pretty dang good, too. Can’t-miss prospects who hit .271/.340/.480 with 24 homers as a rookie in their age-21 season aren’t exactly growing on trees. Torres has the look of something special.
Here’s the thing, though. We’ve only seen Torres do this for 484 plate appearances. Bogaerts has been to the plate more than 3,000 times in his career, mostly to excellent results. Chasing upside in fantasy leagues is fun, and often advisable, but you also need to mitigate risk where you can. Clichés may be tired, but most of them have some truth, or they wouldn’t have become clichés. A bird in the hand really is worth two in the bush in most instances in the fantasy baseball world. Bogaerts is the bird in the hand here.
It helps, too, that Bogarets is quite young himself, despite his wealth of experience. This will be his sixth full year in the majors, but it’s still just his age-26 season. He still may have some natural and experience-based growth in his future. Even if he doesn’t, the floor he has set for himself over the first five seasons of his career is that of a top-60 fantasy player, hitter or pitcher. Oh, one more thing I should probably mention. It also helps that he’s coming off the career year, especially when making the argument that the best is yet to come.
Bogaerts was a monster last year, slashing .288/.360/.522 with 23 homers, 45 doubles and 103 RBI. All but the batting average were new career-highs. Prefer advanced metrics? Good news, we’ve got those, too. Bogaerts posted a 135 OPS+ last season. A non-comprehensive list of players who were behind Bogaerts on the OPS+ leaderboards includes Nolan Arenado (133), Bryce Harper (133) and Francisco Lindor (131). For what it’s worth, Torres’ OPS+ was 117, wildly impressive for a 21-year-old rookie, but not within shouting distance of Bogaerts.
Whenever a player makes a leap along the lines of what Boagerts did last season, we want to look for substantive differences in his profile. Did he make a meaningful change that set the foundation for a breakout, or did it merely owe to the vagaries of an inherently fickle game? If it’s the former, we get excited. If it’s the latter, we expect at least some regression to the mean. In Bogaerts’ case, it was emphatically the former.
Boagerts’ batted-ball data strongly suggests that he made a change in approach that increased his power numbers. He had a 43.3% ground-ball rate, three percentage points less than his career average. His fly-ball rate jumped to 35.6%, 2.5 percentage points better than his career mark. A focus on lift helped Boagerts post a career-high 15.5% HR/FB ratio. Bogaerts always played like a hitter with more natural power, and he did hit 21 homers in 2016. There’s good reason to believe he unlocked that latent pop last season.
It doesn’t end there. Bogaerts became more patient at the plate, something we know for a fact thanks to one of my favorite stats. Fangraphs tracks how often a player swings at pitches outside the strike zone with a metric it calls o-swing rate. Bogaerts’ o-swing rate last season was 27.2%, the lowest mark of his career. His walk rate spiked to a career-best 9.5%. That suggests not just an improved approach, but the sort of growth we’d expect to see from a smart, star hitter in his mid-20s and fifth MLB season. Quantitatively and qualitatively, Boagerts is developing into that type of hitter.
There isn’t much difference in team context. The Red Sox and Yankees are going to have two of the best offenses in the league, if not the literal top two. Both Bogaerts and Torres are going to have huge RBI and run-scoring upside. The difference, then, owes to Bogaerts track record and the growth we’ve already seen him make in his career. A stud shortstop in the hand is worth two in the bush. I admit that Torres has a higher ceiling, but give me the sure thing in Bogaerts.
Michael Shapiro makes the case for Torres over Bogaerts…
The Red Sox and Yankees will once again battle for AL East supremacy this year, and the rivalry is made all the more intriguing by a slew of fantasy battles between players at the same position. Mookie Betts vs. Aaron Judge or Chris Sale vs. Luis Severino may grab more attention, but the shortstop competition between Bogaerts and Torres is the most heated of the bunch. And while Boston may snag the upper hand on the mound and in the outfield, expect New York to bounce back up the middle with a big year from its budding superstar.
Torres became a premium hitter almost immediately upon joining the big league team last year, blasting 24 homers in 484 plate appearances. He tallied 16 doubles and 77 RBI while playing just about two-thirds of a full season, ending the year as one of six Yankees with more than 200 total bases. Torres’ smooth all-fields stroke—10 of his 24 dingers went to the opposite field—should continue to play well at Yankee Stadium with its short porch in right field.
The sophomore slump isn’t just a narrative, as many players struggle to make adjustments once the league has had a look at them. Torres’ sterling pedigree should help prevent that. After being signed as the top infielder on the international market in July 2013. Torres hit .403 in the Arizona Fall League in 2016, his first offseason as a Yankee. Since then he's cruised from top prospect to a permanent piece of New York's infield. Torres spent a plurality of his time hitting ninth last year, and while he succeeded in that spot, a move up the lineup should be in the cards this season. That should help him across the board, particularly in the counting stats that are so important in fantasy leagues. If Torres hits second in front of Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton, he’ll be among the favorites to lead the league in runs. If he hits sixth behind Stanton Gary Sanchez and Miguel Andujar, he’ll have more than his fair share of RBI upside.
Torres’ ceiling is still an unknown, but the one thing we do know is we haven’t seen it yet. On the other hand, is there any way Bogaerts outperforms his 2018 season? Boston’s World Series campaign coincided with the best year of its shortstop’s career, as Beller mentioned above. What he neglected to get into was where Boagerts came from before 2018. He hit just 10 homers in 635 plate appearances in 2017 and seven bombs in 645 trips to the plate in 2015. His .522 slugging last year was 76 points better than his previous career high. The most concerning stat for Bogaerts believers, though, is his .234 isolated slugging percentage, far better than his previous career high of .152. Beller can talk about change in approach all he likes, but that number screams regression in 2019. His status as a slugger from last season looks to be more an aberration than a turned corner.
Torres isn’t without risks, like any other 22-year-old. At the same time, we know he’s not your garden variety second-year player in his age-22 season. Torres’ quick bat, the Yankees’ stacked lineup, and a favorable hitting environment should land him in the top tier of middle infielders come September. Bogaerts finished 13th in the AL MVP voting last year while having a career year. Torres, meanwhile, is still ascending. He’ll be sure to give a wave to Boagerts as he passes him this season.