TORONTO — Luis Rivera only had a few chances to observe Bo Bichette at shortstop during spring training this year. It wasn’t enough time for Rivera to formulate definitive conclusions about the 20-year-old prospect’s defensive skills, but one thought did emerge.
“He used to be a little thicker when he signed, but now, he’s in great shape,” says Rivera, the Toronto Blue Jays third base coach and infield instructor.
Even before the Blue Jays selected Bichette in the second round of the 2016 MLB Draft and handed him an over-slot signing bonus, questions existed about his ability to stay at shortstop long-term. Bichette’s advanced hitting prowess will likely always be his calling card, but the physical detail that Rivera noticed could go a long way toward ensuring he doesn’t end up moving to a less-demanding position.
MLB is brimming with elite shortstops these days. From Francisco Lindor, Carlos Correa and Manny Machado to Andrelton Simmons, Didi Gregorius, Trea Turner and Corey Seager, one could make a compelling argument that at no point in history has such top-end talent manned the position. These aren’t just players who bolster their teams, but rather multi-faceted stars acting as foundational pieces for organizations. It’s the type of role Bichette could end up filling for the Blue Jays.
It’s impossible to pinpoint exactly why the current group is on track to outdo generations like the Jeter-Rodriguez-Garciaparra era — after all, it could just be happenstance.
Or, maybe there’s more to it.
“I do wonder if part of it is that training has come so far in baseball,” speculates Ben Cherington, Blue Jays vice president of baseball operations. “The opportunity that players have to really make improvements on how their body works and moves. Not just in terms of quickness, but literally just how the body is moving. How efficiently the body is working. We’ve made a lot of gains in baseball in the last [several] years and players have more access to resources on that than they maybe had 30 years ago.”
Cherington was general manager of the Boston Red Sox from 2012 to 2015, a time when Xander Bogaerts, another member of the sport’s elite shortstop class, was breaking into the league. Bogaerts was primarily a shortstop through his minor-league career, but with Stephen Drew entrenched at the position in late 2013, the Red Sox promoted him to the big leagues to play third base.
Bogaerts was an asset there during the playoffs, eventually helping the club capture a World Series championship, but was moved back to short to begin the next season. When the Red Sox re-signed Drew in late May, the yo-yoing continued and Bogaerts was again shifted to third.
“That was probably the toughest time in my professional career as of this point,” Bogaerts says during a recent series in Toronto. “I played shortstop since I was a little kid. I feel I’m more comfortable there than anywhere else … It’s an important place on the middle of the diamond.”
Bogaerts was always a standout hitter, but had to work hard on his body to make sure he stayed at shortstop once the Red Sox moved him back after trading Drew a few months later.
“Eat better,” Bogaerts recalls. “If you’re at third base you can tend to be a little bit more bulky. But obviously, you gotta keep up with your conditioning more at shortstop. Be in the weight room a little more. Work on your flexibility a lot more. Because you are gonna be diving and then you have to bounce up quicker than at third base, where you just dive and you have time to get up. Shortstop is tougher.”
Bogaerts has managed to remain at shortstop ever since and is a success story in that regard, given the long list of successful players including Miguel Cabrera, Chipper Jones and Paul Molitor who’ve had to move away at a young age. Bogaerts’s story might even offer a precedent for Bichette’s future.
“If you take a guy like Bo, who has obvious offensive gifts and has always been a good hitter, and you combine that with really making improvements in the way his body is moving, well, then that may give him an opportunity now to play shortstop,” says Cherington. “Where 30 years ago, the same kid maybe can hit, but the gains aren’t there in how his body is moving and maybe he has to move to third base or second or somewhere else.”
Rivera started playing shortstop in the majors more than three decades ago, mostly as a defence-first, part-time player. The expectations for shortstops were different in those days, he says: As long as you were a consistent fielder and hit .230, that was enough. Rivera also notes that big-leaguers were very much on their own when it came to off-season conditioning and that there wasn’t as much emphasis on it. Nowadays, however, players take a short period to rest when their season concludes before ramping up training with the help of team-facilitated programs.
“Technology is changing the way guys take care of their bodies and the way baseball is right now,” says Rivera. “The technology and exercises they use in the weight room are different, too. Those guys are big boys now. Strong guys. It’s tough for a guy now that is not as big to come to the big leagues and play every day at shortstop.”
When looking at Bichette, Rivera sees someone who has dramatically improved his body — and for that reason, belongs at his position for the time being.
“My opinion is when a guy is playing shortstop, you have to stay with him for as long as he shows you he can no longer play there,” Rivera says. “He’s still young. His body looks great now. I think he’s going to be fine at shortstop.”