In less than two years since he received a surprise call-up from extended spring training to Low A Greenville in June 2011, Portland shortstop Xander Bogaerts has used each trip to the plate to improve on that younger version of himself.
Those efforts have unequivocally paid off thus far. Bogaerts has appearances in the World Baseball Classic and MLB Futures Game under his belt, and at age 20, he is one of baseball's most dynamic prospects.
But this spring, two years of acclaim and praise couldn't shield Bogaerts from experiencing something each of his Portland teammates has at one point or another -- deep struggle and self-doubt.
A spot on the Netherlands WBC roster was an honor and a mark of distinction for the young shortstop, but Bogaerts saw his playing time (mostly at third base) diminish as the tournament went on. His limited playing time, combined with the sparse game schedule and heavy travel of the WBC, represented a new challenge for Bogaerts.
"I don't like days off," he said. "I like playing baseball, so the more games you play the better you get. The WBC, we didn't play every day like spring training, so it just took a little bit longer to get my timing back."
Bogaerts admitted as much in spring training, and thought he'd snapped out of his funk on the last day of camp. But the days off before the Eastern League campaign began broke his rhythm, and the season's first two weeks were difficult for Bogaerts.
"It was bad, man. It was really bad," he said. "There was a point I thought I couldn't hit no more. I was striking out on three fastballs. I didn't recognize anything, but I think the more pitches that I saw, I just started feeling better and better."
Portland manager Kevin Boles said he recognized a mental block in Bogaerts early.
"I think there was a little bit of doubt, a little bit of worry came into play, where if you look at him and how he goes about his business, there shouldn't be," Boles said.
During spring training, Boles observed an added sense of urgency in Bogaerts.
"I don't think he was enjoying hitting at that time," Boles said. "He looked like he was worried because the season was coming up, and he was adding a bit of pressure to himself, because guys want the results right away. I think he felt like his timing was a little bit off, but once he settled in, managed his strike zone, things have turned around for him and now he's really enjoying the game."
Since the early-season slump that saw Bogaerts scuffle to a .171 average in the first nine games, Bogaerts raised his average to .300 on April 22. He has since leveled off at .287/.372/.459 with nine doubles, five triples and a four home runs (two of which came Wednesday).
With five stolen bases thus far, he has already matched his total from last season, putting him on pace for his goal of 15 by season's end.
"I'm not fast, but I know I can run," Bogaerts said. "The thing is, I never used to go, so how can you use your speed if you don't go?"
He has also honed his approach at the plate a bit this season, an improvement Bogaerts said stemmed from his brief stint in Double-A last August into September. Between High A Salem and Portland last season, Bogaerts' strikeout rate (20-percent) dwarfed his walk rate (8.1-percent), and concerns were raised when he walked just once in 92 Double-A at-bats.
In nearly twice as many at-bats, Bogaerts strikeout rate is up slightly to 22.2 percent, but he's also walking more (11.6 percent).
"In High A, maybe 3-1 counts, 3-2 counts, you know a fastball is coming most of the time," Bogaerts said. "But here, 3-1, 3-2, they'll throw you changeups and sliders and curveballs. It was good to have an idea that these guys here are more advanced and they can throw it for strikes also."
Bogaerts is admittedly a straight fastball hitter -- "just give me it," he said -- but he acknowledged that each time he steps up to the plate, he learns a bit more. When he described how far he's come in just two years, the young Aruban seems a bit wistful.
"I came from the DSL [Dominican Summer League] to here," Bogaerts said. "I was a way different player than I am right now. The more I see, the better I get. (The DSL) seems far away, but it's not that long ago. Everything passed by so fast."
Jon Meoli is a senior columnist at SoxProspects.com. Follow him on Twitter @JonMeoli.