This is what it means to live through player development at the major league level. This is what it means to have young players at key positions who are making their transitions, rather than established veterans who represent known quantities.
The Red Sox' 14-5 loss to the Yankees Thursday night was a total failure of epic proportions. They committed five errors, their most since April 28, 2001. And for the second time in three games, they permitted five unearned runs. They've have now allowed 17 unearned runs on the year, the most in the American League.
"That’s as bad as we can play," said catcher David Ross. "That’s a terrible game to be a part of. That’s not big league baseball."
There have been more such nights than the Red Sox care to experience this year. The team has shown startling defensive inadequacy thus far, highlighted by its abysmal defensive efficiency rating. Defensive efficiency measures the frequency with which balls in play are turned into outs -- factoring in errors as well as range limitations. The Sox are saddled with a .656 defensive efficiency rating, meaning that they convert 65.6 percent of balls in play into outs -- the second-worst rate in the major leagues.
It was a performance that the team hopes will be an aberration going forward. After all, the Red Sox took a major step towards solidifying what has been their terrible early-season defense on Thursday by activating Shane Victorino from the disabled list. The team will take another step forward by re-installing regular third baseman Will Middlebrooks from the DL on Friday.
With Victorino in right and Jackie Bradley Jr. in center, the Red Sox will have a pair of outfielders who should give them well above-average coverage on the outfield turf, even if Grady Sizemore has some adjustments to make in left. And on the infield, the team has standouts on the right side in Dustin Pedroia and Mike Napoli, while Middlebrooks is expected to solidify what has been a merry-go-round at third base that has resulted in defensive inconsistency.
But that leaves one player whose defense is going to be subject to scrutiny unmatched in his young career. And right now, Xander Bogaerts is experiencing an education in being a big league shortstop that both he and the team must live through in the pursuit of a standout hitter who can also be a big league starting shortstop.
Bogaerts was charged with a tough error in the first inning, when Carlos Beltran's two-out smash directly at him jumped up on a tough hop, caroming off his right hand. (Bogaerts was checked by trainers, but remained in the game.) The ruling of the play as an error was debatable, but it was the sort of inning-ending play that teams rely upon their shortstops to make; the inability to make the play led to a run.
In the seventh inning, with the game already out of hand, Bogaerts misfired on what should have been an easy 4-6-3 double play, skipping his throw to first to give the Yankees another free out. It wasn't ruled an error thanks to a bit of absurdity in baseball's official scoring rules, but it was undeniably a miscue.
Bogaerts' offensive talent and potential for stardom are unquestioned. But now, finally, a shortcoming is being exposed at the big league level.
Of late, there have been instances where he's lacked the range or first-step burst to make plays on grounders; there have been stray throws; there have been double plays that haven't been converted. According to John Dewan's Fielding Bible, Bogaerts has produced four fewer outs than an average shortstop would have in comparable opportunities, costing his team four runs already at this stage. That mark would rank 33rd among big league shortstops.
The issue is not effort and it's not work ethic. Bogaerts receives high marks on both fronts from team officials and the coaching staff. But for now, it's difficult not to note the contrast up the middle to the steady play offered by Stephen Drew last year, when ground balls so reliably transformed into outs.
But Bogaerts' struggles in the field don't come as a shock. He is a 21-year-old with 30 games of big league experience at shortstop and just 375 total professional games at the position -- a relative blink of an eye.
The team knew this when it committed to Bogaerts at shortstop, understood that he would represent a work in progress and that what he did in April would not match his performance by mid-year. The team sees the athleticism, body control and aptitude that offer the raw materials of a solid shortstop -- but with the caveat that it may take some time for those raw materials to take shape.
"What I see is a kid who is learning step by step. He's a dependable shortstop, and I think he's learning the finer points that are being taught to him. It's taking a little bit of time for him to get exactly where he wants to. He's still a young player that's in the process of learning our concepts," observed bench coach Torey Lovullo. "His track record indicates, in all areas of his game, he learns the level and then begins to excel sometime around mid- to late-May. I think that's what he's done over the past three years of his development. And we have to remember that he is a young player who's still developing, and hasn't yet reached his full potential.
"It's a new level. It's a learning process for him and we had that expectation," added Lovullo. "Is he there yet? No. Is he improving daily? Yes. And by mid-June, I think we're going to see a player that's adapted very well to this level."
The idea that Bogaerts has defensive development in front of him can be a strange one to contemplate. After all, whereas it's generally understood that hitters must adjust to more advanced pitching as they move up the ladder, it's easy to imagine that defensive skill either exists or it doesn't, that plays are either made or not.
But that portrayal overlooks how different defense can be at the major league level.
"There's a lot that goes into it -- more than catching the ball," noted Middlebrooks, who explained the significant difference in positioning, strategy and game awareness that is required at the big-league level, along with an adjustment to the force with which balls are hit with regularity.
"People don't expect development in the big leagues. They expect you to be developed and to be ready to perform at the highest level. When you have guys who are 20-25 years old, they're still developing. A lot of guys don't make the big leagues before 25 years old," he added. "You can develop all you want in the minor leagues. You can play 20 years in the minor leagues. It's not the same as stepping out here. It's just not. The speed of the game is different. The hitters are different. Not only do they hit the ball harder. You're not getting choppers. You're getting bullets.
"It's an experience thing. You have to get out there and go screw up. Unfortunately that's the best way to learn."
Bogaerts recognizes that. He's proud of how far he's come defensively, from a point where he simply didn't bear any resemblance to a professional shortstop when he entered the Red Sox system in 2009 to one who is working to establish himself as a solid everyday defender at a pivotal up-the-middle position.
Yet he also understands that he's in the middle of a process rather than at the end of it. He's faced defensive struggles before and come out stronger for it, as when in June 2012, he committed seven errors in a nine-game span in High-A Salem, but made just two errors in his subsequent 42 games including none in his last 28 contests.
Bogaerts was mindful of that experience in taking stock of some of his current defensive struggles.
"This is nothing, man," said Bogaerts. "I've been through worse stretches than this. It's part of the game. You're going to learn from it.
"There's a lot of work to do offensively, defensively. In all aspects of the game, you try to get better," Bogaerts added. "I have three errors on the season but I'm definitely happy where I am. The confidence is there. I'm definitely in a good place -- especially when [the weather] heats up. Things are going to go so much better."
That, at least, is the expectation. After all, committing to player development means that a team lives with struggles while expecting improvement. That improvement often arrives, but sometimes it doesn't. With a player who is not a finished product, there are unknowns -- unknowns about what he ultimately becomes, unknowns about the precise pace of improvement.
But, to reap the rewards of what Bogaerts can become, the Red Sox know that they must look beyond immediate circumstance. If they want to get a player whose overall impact as a shortstop can rival any in the game, they must permit him to develop -- and, at times, to struggle, at an age when most of his teammates were taking their lumps either in college or the lowest rungs of the minors.
"It's easy to be critical of a lot of different things after today's game. I think what we all have to do is be patient," said Lovullo. "We know the challenges before him, we understand what he's going through. A lot of us can relate to those from our own experiences when we were playing. And we know he's going to be an elite player one day."