Unless you've been living under a rock, you've probably noticed that Mookie Betts is doing some pretty remarkable things for the Red Sox this season.
Already the center of attention after a dynamic spring, Betts basically won the Red Sox the game after just two innings in Monday's Opening Day contest against the Nationals. Robbing a home run, stealing two bases in one play and going yard over the monster is a good day at the office for just about anyone, much less a 22-year-old. Performances like that exemplify why Betts continues to draw praise from just about anyone who watches him play.
Perhaps the most impressive part of Mookie's early-season heroics has been his ability to punish inside fastballs. His three-run bomb off Jordan Zimmermann on Monday served as a prime example of Betts' extraordinary bat speed and quick hands:
Of course, this wasn't the first time we've seen Mookie turn on an inside fastball and send it sailing into the stands this season. He pounced on a Cole Hamels mistake back on Opening Day in Philadelphia and just missed a home run against Nathan Eovaldi during last Friday's marathon contest in the Bronx, settling for a double instead.
The numbers bear out his success on inside pitches as well. As this zone chart of Betts' slugging percentage from Brooks Baseball shows, the young center fielder is making pitchers pay for challenging him inside, even in just a small sample of plate appearances:
That's been the case throughout Betts' short major league career, with the youngster routinely feasting on pitches in the inner half and top portion of the strike zone.
The same can be said of his performance against fastballs overall, with Betts posting a .389 ISO against hard offerings through eight games this season, per Brooks Baseball. Of course that mark is unsustainable, and you can probably say that about Betts' production on inside pitches in general.
Any pitching staff with a decent enough scouting report on Betts will look to avoid challenging him inside moving forward. It's a safe bet that Zimmermann would attack Betts far differently if he had the chance to face him again.
All of which gets to the difficulty in succeeding as a young hitter in the major leagues. Pitchers will soon adjust to Betts after seeing him demolish any inside fastball he sees. They too have zone charts of Betts' performance on pitches in specific locations, and that doesn't take into account all the video at each team's disposal.
Given his production thus far, Betts is likely to see more and more pitches on the outer part of the zone. As with any young hitter, you can also bet opposing hurlers will begin attacking Betts with breaking balls, which are the type of offerings he has not yet shown the ability to thrive against. According to Brooks Baseball, Betts has a career .211 batting average and .228 slugging percentage against breaking pitches compared with a .336 average and .548 slugging mark on fastballs.
The struggles of Xander Bogaerts last summer are a cautionary tale for anyone wanting to already carve out a Hall of Fame plaque in Betts' honor. In 2014, Bogaerts looked the part of an All-Star for two months before scuffling through a prolonged slump. The culprit, for the most part, was Bogaerts' inability to find success against offspeed pitches, with opposing hurlers continually getting him out with an assortment of breaking balls down and away. Betts will soon face a similar challenge.
Finding ways to adapt to opponents' adjustments is the hardest part of succeeding in the majors, after all. Maintaining one's production at the plate when pitchers begin pitching you differently is no easy task, but it's something Bogaerts and Betts (and any young player) must do to find sustained success in the big leagues.
The big positive for Betts is that he has shown a preternatural ability to excel against increasingly tougher opposition. You don't bat .346/.431/.529 in the upper minors at the age of 21 without incredible talent and instincts, and that's exactly what Betts showed in Monday's performance. However, the important thing to remember is that Betts will also take his lumps and need to alter his approach when pitchers start attacking him differently.
None of this should change our view of Betts' ultimate potential. He is an incredible talent, and the type of player who can impact the game in a number of different ways. Youngsters with five tools don't grow on trees.
But we also need to realize the need for adjustments will arrive soon, and with it, the potential for growing pains. Mookie has already taken our breathe away at times this season. Just don't expect everything to always come so easily.