Last names bonded by alliteration have made it easy to lot Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, Xander Bogaerts and Andrew Benintendi together.
The rebound of a Red Sox offense that had a brownout in 2017 requires not only the success of J.D. Martinez, but improvement among at least some of those four. How they get there, however, will vary.
A particularly strong 2016 set up that group for a letdown in 2017. A linear climb became the expectation, their excellent numbers from '16 an unfair measuring stick.
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“Every year is different. The pitchers aren’t getting worse, you know, they’re getting better,” Bogaerts said. “There’s not a lot of guys throwing lower 90s on a consistent basis, there’s a lot of guys throwing harder. The bullpen is throwing harder. It’s not like the pitching is getting worse.
“The [2016 season] was probably one of the best years we’ve had, I would say, even in the [team's offensive] history, it’s pretty much right up there. We had a lot of guys playing great baseball. And last year was a bit different. But we still scored runs.”
Being better in 2018 will mean different focuses for the Killer B’s.
Early in camp, Benintendi noted he wanted more consistency. Players have said that forever. For-ever. So what does it mean? As sweet as his swing may be, he can't collect a hit daily. There’s a limit on what anyone can do.
“Last year, I went through several like 0-for-20s it felt like,” Benintendi said. “It’ll jump on you quick. You get four or five at-bats a night and you don’t get a hit for four games and you’re 0-for-20, and it jumps on you like that. I want to kind of recognize that sooner, and maybe tweak something here or there. Something small, nothing big, just to kind of maybe avoid those kinds of longer slumps. I think last year, it was like every other month was terrible. I think if I can just do a little better here or there, it’s just going to make it overall [better] numbers-wise, help the team win.”
Benintendi hit .333 in April. What followed: .204 in May, .295 in June, .222 in July, .333 in August and .238 in the final month. His worst stretch was 0-for-26 in seven straight hitless games in May. He was 2-for-25 for seven games in July, 1-for-21 in a five-game run in September.
Those will happen occasionally. But Benintendi was also in his first major league season, dealing with the adjustments for the first time. That's reason alone to think he can be better.
Bradley is now entering his sixth year, and streaky is a label that's stuck with him. He drew as many walks in May as he did in July and August combined.
“I don’t like to feed into that so-called streaky thing,” Bradley said earlier in camp. “Obviously, the game is about making adjustments and I want to be able to do that better on the fly.”
At the start of camp, Betts talked about the clubhouse not having enough fun in 2017. They have the power to shape their worlds, their bubbles. Maybe more than anything in 2018, they need to tap into their own will, their own ideas. To assert themselves, be it in action or in words.
Those may not be publicly visible expressions. They likely won’t be, in fact.
Benintendi, Bradley and Betts can appear reserved publicly when they’re not dancing in the outfield. Don’t expect that to change.
“I mean I think he has it in him,” Brock Holt said of Benintendi. “But that’s kind of just who he is. … He’s not shy really around me or the guys anymore, but new people he meets, he’s pretty quiet. You’ll see it. Just who he is. Just how he grew up, and you know, I say, don’t change who you are. ‘Cause you’re Andrew Benintendi. Everybody wants a piece of Andrew Benintendi.”
If there is a shell to come out of for any of these guys, that’s one thing. But a personality type is not going to change. At most, it evolves with time, not overnight.
“I just kind of want to be me,” Betts said. “However the future goes, it goes. Right now I just want to be me. I'm going to be someone who smiles and brings joy to the locker room and to the field. Kind of everywhere. So I don't want to try and be something I'm not.”
Nor should anyone want him to be.
“I don’t try to look at myself as any particular, veteran or rookie or anything like that,” said Bradley, the oldest of the bunch, nearing his 28th birthday in April. “I just like to consider myself someone who leads by example. I let other people decide. I know that I go about my business the right way and I think people look at that and they respect that and I think.
“I’ve always heard when someone looks at you, they shouldn’t be able to tell whether you’re winning or losing. You should always win with class and if you lose you show respect. And that’s what I’ve tried to live by, so. Everybody says, you know, you never smile, this and that. You never do this and that, you never get too excited.
“There’s so many highs and lows in life. In general. You just got to be able to put things in perspective and ride it out. Because those highs can get really high and those lows can get really low. So you don’t wanna try to waiver too much.”
Patience is a quality Bradley says he has gained a greater appreciation for as a young father.
Another form of assertiveness: speaking up when hurt, knowing when it’s time to pull the plug. Knowing yourself. That’s not only on the player, but a lot does fall to the player.
“I just should not have played, and I did, and that’s probably one of the biggest mistakes I made,” said Bogaerts, who had a bad hand for much of 2017. “I just don’t like being on the bench. I try to do my best, I try to stay healthy. I try to perform my best. I mean, I can’t control that I’m going to get hit with a ball, regardless of where.
“That’s in the past, I’m over it. You just try to move on, learn about yourself.”
There are plain old mechanical things to tune. Bogaerts, for example, is trying to hit the ball in the air more often and to take better routes to grounders.
“A lot of talk about hit the ball into the air, not a lot of ground balls, ground balls are outs,” Bogaerts said.
Is this a launch angle conversation with new hitting coach Tim Myers?
“Not too extreme,” Bogaerts said. “Some guys are way extreme. It works with some guys. … Just try to listen and be open-minded about it.”
Manager Alex Cora has been working directly with Bogaerts on his fielding. Sometimes he goes straight to the ball when he'd be better off squaring himself to it.
At the plate, Bogaerts is an interesting case, because he can hit for power and average. He’s done both. Finding out what is closer to the norm for him — and for all of these guys — is a great hook to the 2018 Sox season. Is Betts' 2017 or 2016 performance closer to the "real" Betts?
Whatever their norms might be, these are individualized paths that are joint in the same lineup, and often the same conversation.
"I like to do a lot of everything,” Bogaerts said. “I like to run, I like to hit, I like to do everything. The years I’ve won two Silver Sluggers, I’ve won it different ways. I won one hitting a lot of base hits [in 2015, with seven home runs] and the other one I did off like power and like RBIs [in 2016, with 21 home runs]. … I don’t even think either way is bad."