Bogaerts hopes break helps snap slump

BOSTON -- It begins as a depressing story, the one about the rookie third baseman who came in billed as a franchise player and instead played as if the only franchise where he would ever belong was McDonald's.

His batting average in his first full season was .196. He averaged better than a strikeout a game, 136 K's, 132 games. After a bad first half, he had a worse second half, batting just .168. He hit some home runs, but that was about it. The club liked his defense, and his power showed promise, but this guy at age 23 had a lot to live down.

Until the following year, when he hit a league-leading 36 home runs, led the league in slugging, and made the first of his dozen All-Star teams. If you want to see him, you have to go to Cooperstown. Ask for Mike Schmidt.

You don't give up on special players before their time. Xander Bogaerts may not grow up to be the next Schmidt, but neither is he the player who has endured a six-week stretch that has few rivals in misery: a .134 batting average (18-for-134), with 40 strikeouts and just five walks.

There's a reason why you don't see such prolonged slumps, especially for a rookie. Especially for a rookie in Boston. Usually when you're that bad, you're back in the minors as soon as they can arrange a ride. Especially when a team considers itself a perennial contender, like the Red Sox have.

The Sox are convinced Bogaerts is so good -- and so mentally strong -- that he can live through this slump and come out on the other side a better player, the player they've always imagined him to be.

Bogaerts ended the first half of the season with a .235 average, mostly the product of a torrid 17-game stretch in mid-May in which he hit .403. That stretch spilled over into the first week of June, when he made the switch from shortstop to third base, but it's been 50 shades of suffering since then, to the point where he was even having trouble picking up the spin of the ball coming out of a pitcher's hand.

If anyone needed a midseason break, it was Bogaerts, though he didn't flee home to Aruba when he had the chance. You know what he did instead? Watched the Home Run Derby on TV, and the All-Star Game.

OK, he admits he didn't make it all the way through the Derby, but he watched the entire All-Star Game.

"I'm a baseball freak," he said Thursday afternoon at Fenway Park, where the Sox worked out in advance of Friday night's opener against the Kansas City Royals.

"I like to think a lot about baseball and study it a lot," he said. But he conceded that he hit the "off" switch, too, and that probably was a good thing.

"Probably this will help me out, getting away from baseball, being around the park," he said.

Bogaerts has had a lot thrown at him this season. He worked tirelessly all spring to become a big league shortstop, was clearly settling in at the position after a ragged start, then was switched to third base when Stephen Drew was re-signed.

Maybe that didn't send him into his downward spiral at the plate, but it may have planted some doubt where there were none previously.

More change could be in the offing. Drew could be traded, or with Will Middlebrooks getting closer to returning, the Sox may revert to the three-man rotation at two positions they used last season. Farrell said playing Middlebrooks in the outfield was no longer on the table.

Bogaerts looks back at when he was going good in May and asks why that can't happen again.

"I mean, I had a stretch where I was good and that can happen again," he said. "Right now we have a few weeks left, a few more months where hopefully we can turn this around, the whole season around."

He has been working at adjusting his plate approach, getting into the "load" position faster, which should keep him from rushing his swing, Farrell said, and help with pitch recognition.

They'd also like to see Bogaerts go back to using the entire field more, said Farrell, noting his natural hitting zone is to right-center.

"Xander's been going at it pretty hard," Farrell said, noting how much Bogaerts has played in addition to all the extra work he's been doing.

"I think a break, mentally and physically, was needed for him, and quite frankly, for a lot of guys."

For what it's worth, 88 All-Stars hit .240 or worse in their rookie season, according to baseball-reference.com. Barry Bonds hit .223. Willie Wilson hit .217. Brady Anderson hit .212. Brandon Phillips hit .210. Dwight Evans hit .223. Fellow islander Andruw Jones hit .231. Mike Napoli hit .229.

They all went on to successful careers, some more successful than others. Bogaerts, who could easily eclipse .240 by year's end, has some pretty good company.

He's also had a lot of people throwing ideas at him on how best to get out of his slump, but rather than complaining that it has only cluttered his mind, he actually said he appreciated the thoughtfulness.

"That's good, getting help from everyone," he said with a smile that has yet to desert him through all his trials. "Everyone wants to help see you be the guy you were. It's very helpful. Thank everybody who has helped me so far."

And the folks back home, do they have suggestions, too?

"Not much," he said. "They just want me to start swinging, but I mean, it's not that easy. It's not easy when you're struggling. I've just got to continue to battle. Don't give up."