Red Sox’s Xander Bogaerts, Rafael Devers spent offseason doing defensive homework. Now it’s paying off

Just before Thanksgiving and days before the MLB lockout began, the Red Sox gave Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers some homework.

The team had just completed individual player meetings entering the offseason, and the focus area was the same for Bogaerts and Devers: defense.

While the duo won Silver Sluggers last year as the best offensive players at their respective positions, defensively each has significant room for improvement.

Bogaerts finished last year with -5 Defensive Runs Saved and -9 Outs Above Average while making nine errors at shortstop, ranking him near the bottom of the league. Similarly, Devers had -13 Defensive Runs Saved and -13 Outs Above Average while making 22 errors at third base.

“They usually don’t hear the noise,” manager Alex Cora said. “But in the defensive aspect, they’d had enough, like, ‘C’mon we’re not that bad.’”

And so the team put together a plan.

For Bogaerts, strength and conditioning coach Kiyoshi Momose worked with infield instructor Carlos Febles and infield coordinator Andy Fox to film a series of drills aimed at enhancing Bogaerts’ pre-pitch routine. The Red Sox coaches wouldn’t be able to communicate with any of their players for more than three months during the lockout so the video served as a point of reference for Bogaerts in place of the one-on-one feedback and instruction. For Devers, the offseason work was less mechanical and more mental. They supplied videos of him playing third base, highlighting the need for him to slow down and avoid rushing his throws.

“I enjoy defense a lot, I don’t really think it enjoys me as much,” Bogaerts said. “Whenever there’s tips you can get better in my case, I’m all for it.”

Bogaerts typically spends the winters at EXOS training facility in Phoenix, but during the past two winters due to COVID-19 restrictions, he’s worked out at a gym near his home in Aruba.

One of the offseason drills for Bogaerts focused on hip mobility, rolling out a medicine ball while attempting to keep his hips square. For the others, he tossed a baseball against a wall and stepped into and away from it to create different angles on forehands and backhands.

The Red Sox also wanted to narrow Bogaerts’ base in his pre-pitch stance. Previously, he’d set his legs too wide from the outset and gotten even wider going down for the ball, which slowed him down. This year, he’s made a concerted effort to narrow his base. He’d tried to implement each of these tweaks at points in the past, but fell away from them as the seasons wore on.

“I wouldn’t say I was lazy with my pre-pitch, but I would say maybe I didn’t think it affected me as much as if you do it with intent, and correct,” Bogaerts said. “That’s something I’ve learned this year compared to all the years prior. I wish I did it differently, but I really can’t go back in time, all I can do is now and forward. But I just feel now I’m more ‘on it’, every pitch.”

In the past, Devers made diving plays to his left or right but then too often wouldn’t take time to set his feet and would throw the ball away. He spent time over the winter watching some of his own mistakes, trying to slow himself down, planting his feet first before throwing.

“I focused on the videos of myself and tried to be in the right position more and not be too aggressive,” Devers said through team translator Carlos Villoria. “In the past, I would tend to watch the runner before throwing, so right now my focus is on throwing the ball to the base and not watching the runner. I think that’s one of the big changes I made during the offseason and an adjustment I made this year.”

When Bogaerts and Devers arrived in spring training, the coaching staff noticed an immediate difference in each player’s fielding. Still, game action was necessary to cement the defensive tweaks. Every spring training game, Fox and Febles would watch video of Bogaerts’ pre-pitch routine in order to offer suggestions and feedback for the shortstop so that he could implement and feel the changes he was trying to make in real time.

“He’s honest,” Fox said. “‘He’ll say, ‘I feel like I’m a little wide, maybe we can take a look at it, or keep an eye on me.’ So he’s very engaged with it, and understands the impact it’s had on his lateral movement and the ability to get to balls, and maybe attack a ball where (in the past) he’s been a little late and the ball had eaten him up.”

At times in the past, Bogaerts would stay back on a bouncing grounder but then wouldn’t have enough time to make the play once it reached him. Now with a pre-pitch setup that makes him feel faster, he’s more confident pushing forward to grab the hop and make the play.

With Devers, the staff is offering constant feedback about keeping his chest taller and taking time to plant his feet after the ball is in his glove.

“I think he’s gotten so much more confident from the work he’s put in, but he’s just developed a nice clock in his head as far as not having to play fast or look at the runner,” Fox said.

Neither player has been flawless in the field this season, but there has been noticeable improvement

Bogaerts has made four errors on the year, though all four came in April. On the season, he has a -3 Outs Above Average, but in May, he’s at 0.

Devers, meanwhile, has made two errors, and his Outs Above Average mark stands at zero. Though fielding percentage is a more one-dimensional statistic, he ranks second in the majors among qualified third baseman at .983.

The addition of an elite defender in Trevor Story at second base has undoubtedly helped as well. But for Bogaerts, especially, he knew he needed to enhance his own play regardless of his double-play partner.

“(Story) has great range and has great work ethic, he works his ass off every day and is very consistent,” Febles said. “So having him next to Bogey makes him better. Balls now that Story would get to backhand, Bogey doesn’t have to worry about, knowing where he’s at. It makes the team way better defensively and it makes Bogey better.”

As a whole, the Red Sox defense has been much better at converting ground ball outs compared to last year. The Red Sox ranked worst in the American League last year with a .659 defensive efficiency, which measures the percentage of balls converted into outs.

This season, they rank fifth in the majors with a .721 defensive efficiency. The league average is .701. Some of that, of course, has to do with the addition of Story, but Bogaerts’ and Devers’ efforts to improve have also been impactful.

“It’s cool to see them now,” Cora said. “I know they’re taking pride in it and they’re relentless with the structure, with Carlos and Foxy and Ramon (Vazquez). Even the days we don’t get outside, they do their machine work and activation and so far so good.”

But the early season success only matters if the pair can maintain it throughout the year. Rather than letting the offseason and spring training work wane as the long season progresses, they’ve collectively made a concerted effort to keep on top of it.

Bogaerts has the same pre-game routine every game. In shallow right field, Momose, the strength and conditioning coach, helps Bogaerts loosen up, twisting and stretching his legs like a pretzel. Bogaerts then jogs in the outfield, first on his own, then with a thick purple band around his waist with Momose providing resistance. Bogaerts does a few lunges and then long tosses with Devers, who does his own jogging, high kicks and stretches while Bogaerts runs through his routine.

About 15 minutes before first pitch, the pair head into the dugout and down the tunnel to the batting cage area. But rather than hit, they work with Febles on a series of activation drills minutes before first pitch.

“I don’t miss a day,” Bogaert said. “It’s just drills with your hands, hand-eye coordination, that’s helped me a lot with the plays coming in.”


Bogaerts and Devers reviewing data on their tablets. (Matt Stone / MediaNews Group / Boston Herald via Getty Images)

During the games, players often used tablets in the dugout to check their swings, but Febles and Fox use the tablets to show Bogaerts and Devers their positioning, or check whether they’re falling back into old habits.

“Every night we go watch the videos, we watch all the plays, and see how they pre-pitch and break on first-step,” Febles said. “If it’s something that I think they’re late or whatever, we’ll text, or next day we’ll talk about it.”

Seeing the changes come to life during the games has been a validation of their work.

“I can tell you right now,” Bogaerts said. “I’ve been much better with all of it compared to prior years by far.”

(Top photo: Maddie Malhotra / Boston Red Sox / Getty Images)