I often find that I’m overly cynical about many things that we all know are great. I’ve been like this for a while, always trying to bring down things that everyone agrees is fantastic. I realize it’s not the best look, and even when I believe something is overhyped, it’s better to just keep my mouth shut. A prime example of this is with Mookie Betts.
Now, don’t get me wrong, I understand that he’s likely the best player on the Red Sox and is overall a very good baseball player. At the same time, the hype around him has gotten out of control at times in the past, and it still happens at times now. For some reason, I’ve felt the need to try to slow down that hype train. I’m sick of it. Betts is very good at baseball and as fun to watch as any Red Sox player in recent memory. I want to be part of the fun.
After shooting through the minors, the now-23-year-old has already accrued 867 plate appearances and has produced a .291/.348/.471 line, good for a 120 OPS+. He’s one of just 31 players in the expansion era (since 1961) to start his career with at least 750 plate appearances through his age-22 season and put up at least a 120 OPS+. He also had a top-50 age-22 season in that same span by OPS+, and the 17th best age-22 season by Baseball-Reference’s WAR. Clearly, he’s a very special player is what I’m trying to say.
Obviously, him being good isn’t news to anyone, but it’s kind of jarring to see how rare this kind of start to a career has been in the history of the game. There’s a lot of reasons for it, but one in particular stands out. Betts is incredible at making a lot of contact, and having that be good contact more often than not. It sounds simple -- and really when you break down hitting to its simplest elements that’s the whole point of the game -- but his ability to do so is almost unmatched in the league. This is even more incredible when you consider that he was basically a non-prospect just three-and-a-half years ago. Really, all the proof you need is the fact that he has hit .291 in both of his major-league seasons at a time when league-average players are hitting in the low-.250’s. But, of course there’s more to it than just the strong batting average.
The best way to illustrate his extreme skills in this department is to put him into context with the rest of the league. Looking at his plate discipline profile for 2015 at Baseball Prospectus, he had an elite mixture of contact frequency and success. To wit, he made more contact than all but 25 of the 213 players in the league who saw at least 1500 pitches, putting him in the top 12 percent. Intuitively, it makes sense that many of the players who rank so highly also make a lot of bad contact. And it’s true! Of the 25 players who were ahead of Betts in contact rate, only Michael Brantley, Joe Panik, Ben Zobrist, Buster Posey and Dee Gordon ranked higher in BP’s True Average.
But that’s not all! Moving over the Fangraphs’ leaderboards, I also looked at how rare Betts’ combination of quality contact and low strikeout rate was. It turns out, he was one of just 19 qualified players with a K-rate below 15 percent and a batting average on balls in play of at least .300. On top of that, Betts was one of 16 with a K-rate below 15 percent and an Isolated Power over .150. You can follow those links to look at his company yourself, but be assured that it is some quality company of some of the best hitters in the league in 2015.
Betts’ ability to turn batted balls into line drives is the reason he’s one of the most exciting young players in the league. He can turn any hittable pitch in any location into a line drive, and does so at a rate high.
Obviously, most major-league pitchers can turn pitches in the zone into line drives, but it’s rare to see a player do it at as high of a rate as Betts.
The craziest thing about all of this is the fact that there is still room for improvement. I wrote about this during the season, and the fact remains today. For all of his success, Betts has been far too patient at times in his career. For all of his success on pitches in the zone, he doesn’t swing nearly enough. Among the same 213 players who saw at least 1500 pitches from above, all but eight of them swung at pitches in the zone more often. If he starts swinging at more of those pitches, he can easily put up a .300 season.
Some people are looking at Betts as a possible MVP candidate in 2016. I’m still not sure if he’s quite at that level. I worry about the glove a bit, and I’m not sure he has the kind of power profile that typically appeals to those voters. With that being said, he’s an incredible player, and that’s more important than an arbitrary MVP expectation. Betts is one of the elites in the game at one of the most important skills a hitter can have, and that’s going to make him a key cog in Red Sox lineups for years to come. And I can’t wait to sit back and enjoy it.