How Mookie Betts is living up to the hype
First calendar year has been worth nearly five Wins Above Replacement
Mookie Betts' season bottomed out on June 12.
With just five hits in his first 35 plate appearances of the month, Betts took a .234/.293/.366 line -- his worst since the first week of the season -- into the first game of a homestand against Toronto. The Red Sox had just been swept in Baltimore, kicking off a stretch where they'd lose eight of nine and drop to a season-worst 11 games under .500. Although Betts would homer off Drew Hutchison in the first inning of what would become a 13-10 Boston loss, his first in 33 games, he'd also leave an inning later after running into Fenway Park's center-field wall.
Betts sat out the next two games with a sore lower back and returned on June 15 to collect three hits. The next day, he'd get three more, including a double and a triple. The next day kicked off a five-game road trip through Atlanta and Kansas City; Betts would reach base 13 times and add two more homers. He hasn't stopped hitting since, raising his OPS over 100 points since he ran into the wall and more than quieting the early-season concerns that the hype placed upon him had been unwarranted.
Now, it seems that the question isn't whether Betts was overrated, especially because the Red Sox had refused to move him in a deal for a badly needed starting pitcher. It's how underrated he might be. In 578 career plate appearances over 135 games, or just under a normal full season of playing time, he's been worth nearly five Wins Above Replacement, a mark only 25 hitters reached in 2014, and he's not even 23 until October. His 2015 line is similar to that of teammate Brock Holt, and Holt just made the All-Star team. Both players will be ready to take on the Yankees in an MLB Network Showcase game featuring Statcast™ technology on Friday at 7:10 p.m. ET.
So what changed on that day that turned Betts' season around? Well, there's two answers to that question. The first is that despite the underwhelming stat line, it was easy to see that even if nothing had changed, Betts' line was going to look better. Using Statcast™, we can see that it wasn't about a lack of solid contact, because Betts had an average exit velocity of 91.01 mph before he hit the wall, about the same as J.D. Martinez and Nolan Arenado, who'd been putting up big numbers. Unfortunately for Betts, he'd been rewarded with a mere .250 BABIP, a number that indicates unfortunate luck and was never going to stay that low for a player with his speed and contact skills.
The second reason, however, is that Betts really did change his approach, crediting the time off with allowing him to take a step back and return with "a new attitude." While that makes for great narrative, the truth is that the new Mookie became far more aggressive, putting into practice an approach that would benefit most hitters -- not letting hittable pitches go by.
Swings at first two pitches of a plate appearance
Through June 12: 9.7 percent
Since June 13: 14.9 percent
This has allowed Betts to avoid getting into a two-strike count, because like most hitters, he struggles when down two strikes (.236/.295/.332). Over his short career, he's been especially successful swinging at the first pitch (.412/.400/.735), which intuitively makes sense, since pitchers are conditioned to simply get the ball over and get that first-pitch strike. A more aggressive Betts is a more effective one.
Of course, Betts' contributions haven't only been limited to offense. In his first season as the regular Boston center fielder, he ranks third among all outfielders with 13 Defensive Runs Saved, behind only Tampa Bay's Kevin Kiermaier and Toronto's Kevin Pillar. According to the Statcast™ leaderboards, he's No. 1 among the 80 outfielders who have made at least 30 plays in average distance covered, at 60.02 feet per play. (Odubel Herrera and Kiermaier are close behind; Melky Cabrera and Carlos Beltran bring up the rear.)
Betts isn't just a product of Boston hype, and he's not going anywhere for Cole Hamels, Johnny Cueto or anyone else. His first full calendar year in the big leagues (he arrived on June 29, 2014) has been nothing short of a massive success -- and he's a big part of why the Red Sox, thought to be taking on water after a rough start, have won 10 of their last 14 games to crawl back into contention in the AL East.