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How can Mookie Betts improve at the plate?

Mookie Betts has shown amazing flashes, but his overall batting line is disappointing. What can he do to improve?

Gregory Fisher-USA TODAY Sports

Coming into the season, the expectations for Mookie Betts were through the roof. Although he only had 213 major league plate appearances under his belt coming into 2015, he was still expected to be one of the premier players on this roster in all aspects of the game. To be fair to those heaping these expectations, Betts had shown nothing to make us expect anything but the best. With that being said, playing major league baseball is super hard, and expecting any kind of young player to excel right away is a fool’s errand. As one may expect, he hasn’t lived up to those sky-high expectations through the first two months of the season.

Through his first 50 games and 225 plate appearances of 2015, Betts has hit an underwhelming batting line of .246/.304/.389 giving him a below-average 89 wRC+, a mark that puts him next to Brandon Phillips and Jace Peterson on the leaderboards. That’s a little disappointing considering what was expected of him, to say the least.

This early in the season, however, large amounts of luck can be built in to just about everything. The accepted thought has been the Betts has been affected by a tremendous amount of bad luck. Think about all the hard-hit outs he’s had! The thing about luck is it can sometimes be a crutch to lean on. It can make you miss what really has been going on. So, is that what’s happening with Betts, or has he really angered the baseball gods? More generally, why has his bat been so underwhelming?

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

Jim Cowsert-USA TODAY Sports

One thing that he has been killed on has been balls in play, something that is often highly associated with luck. To wit, he’s currently batting .259 on balls in play, the 137th worst BABIP among the 168 qualified batters in baseball. For someone with his speed, there’s certainly a decent amount of bad luck mixed in there. The only question is how much.

This season, with the additional data we’ve gotten from the implementation of Statcast in every major-league park, we’ve been able to look at how hard players are hitting the ball. It’s just another piece of the puzzle we’re desperate to complete. The conventional wisdom is that if you hit the ball harder, more of your batted balls will fall in for hits. Makes sense! Well, using Fangraphs’ new Inside Edge data, Betts has a 30 percent hard-hit rate. This puts him almost exactly in the middle of the pack on the leaderboards. Going by the data on Baseball Savant, Betts has the 64th highest exit velocity among players with at least 20 balls hit in play this season. That doesn’t take into account what kind of ball in play we’re dealing with, though. A hard-hit line drive is going to be a lot better than a hard-hit ground ball. The following table will show how he’s hitting his hard-hit balls.

Batted Ball Type Exit Velocity Rank
All 91.35 64
Grounders 94.45 1
Non-Grounders 89.70 169
Line Drive 92.32 105
Fly Balls 89.03 74

So, as you can see, Betts has been making his best contact when he hits the ball on the ground. One would think this would lead to a high BABIP in this area, and one would be sort of correct. Currently, the Red Sox center fielder has a .265 BABIP on grounders. At first glance, this seems incredibly low, but times are changing in baseball and it’s harder than ever to get hits on the ground due to increasingly sophisticated defenses. The league-average BABIP on ground balls this season is all the way down to .234. So, while it’s fair to expect his .265 mark to increase to an extent due to his sky-high exit velocity on these balls, it won’t increase enough to completely overhaul his batting line.

What Betts really needs to do is make better contact on balls he hits in the air. He’s had a lot of trouble there, and that is taking away hits at least as much as bad luck has. Although he was never supposed to be a power hitter, he’s failed to put much charge into fly balls at all. Among the 218 qualified players, Betts’ average fly ball distance ranks 147th.

To fix this issue, I would like to suggest something that’s a bit counterintuitive to the approach that’s gotten him to this point. While he’s shown excellent patience throughout his career, he’s walking just 7.6 percent of the time in 2015. It’s expected that rookies will be fooled a bit more by out-of-the-zone breaking balls from major-league pitching, so I figured I'd see Betts biting more on pitches that miss the strike zone. However, that hasn’t been the case.

Instead, pitchers have been able to use Betts’ patience against him. They’ve thrown him a ton of strikes this season knowing that he’ll take them early in the count. He has gotten himself into 23 0-2 counts this season, more than all but 17 of the 569 players who have gotten into at least one such count. Furthermore, only Chris Carter has gotten into more two-strike counts, and only 27 players have fallen behind in the count more often than Betts.

To counteract this phenomenon, he has to be a little more aggressive early in counts. He’s swinging just 40 percent of the time this season — seven percentage points below the league-average — despite pitchers throwing him strikes 52 percent of the time, or six percentage points above league-average. If he starts swinging earlier at these pitches, he should be able to make better contact by not being forced into a defensive position that comes with a two-strike count. Once that happens, pitchers will stop being so willing to challenge him and he’ll start to draw the walk totals he drew in the minors.

Betts has been unable to live up to the expectations that were set for him early in the year, but there is still plenty of time for him to turn it around. While some of his issues can be explained away by bad luck, there are other issues at hand as well. While his contact has been generally good, most of it is coming when he hits balls on the ground. He needs to start getting more loft on the ball. That can be at least partially fixed by being more aggressive early in counts to prevent falling behind so often. Struggles are expected from all young players, and great players make adjustments when they struggle. Now is the time for Betts to make these adjustments.