I came into this season with huge expectations for Mookie Betts. I had seen enough from his first season and change of major-league experience to believe that he was going to be one of the better players in this league and he would start showing signs of that this season. Somehow, Betts has found a way to exceed my expectations, which seemed unlikely if not impossible at the time.
With just about a month left in the season, Betts is a legitimate MVP candidate even if he probably doesn’t deserve to be right up there with the likes of Mike Trout. Still, we’re talking about a guy who’s been worth 7.1 wins above replacement on Baseball-Reference, 6.2 on Fangraphs and 5.9 on Baseball Prospectus. That would be outstanding if the season ended to day; the fact that a month remains boggles the mind. Betts is a budding superstar, if he hasn’t already reached that status. And the scariest part of the rest of the league: There’s still room for him to get better.
The obvious way to go with this would be on the defensive side of things, as he’s still a relatively unexperienced outfielder. However, he’s already turned into an outstanding player in right field, and it’s really hard to put tangible changes on his defense with the lackluster metrics currently available in that area of the game.
No, the biggest negative of Betts’ career that is likely to improve over the next couple of seasons is his patience. Now, I’m not going to say that the 23 year old has poor plate discipline -- even saying he has a lack of patience is probably inaccurate — because he does show a clear knowledge of the strike zone. I mean, we’re talking about a guy who is in the top-third of the league according to Baseball Prospectus’ O_Swing_RT, which measures how often a batter swings at pitches out of the zone. With that being said, he hasn’t been able to draw many walks early in his career. This season, he’s down to a 6.1 percent walk rate, which is why he has just a .355 OBP despite a .314 AVG.
Obviously, this hasn’t been an issue for him, as he’s still putting up monster numbers at the plate and certainly doesn’t look uncomfortable when he’s at bat. More walks would be great, but it’s hard to do that when pitches are still challenging him with pitches in the zone. Despite his huge numbers this year, Betts is in the 14th percentile in terms of seeing strikes. He’s been effectively aggressive because of his opponents’ approach, swinging early in the count at hittable pitches. Of his 28 home runs this year, half of them have come on the first or second pitch of the at bat. If you extend that to three pitches, we’d be talking about 20 of his 28.
Again, there is nothing wrong with this approach from Betts. You have to take what the pitcher is giving you, and right now they are not treating him like the great hitter he’s proven himself to be. With that being said, things are going to change soon. Eventually, pitchers will recognize the errors in their ways and start to treat him more like a traditional star. He’ll see fewer fastballs that can be hit — particularly early in counts — and will start to see pitchers pitch around him more. This is where he can take advantage. When this shift starts to come to fruition, he’ll have every opportunity to show off the patience that carried him through the minors when he boasted a double-digit walk rate on a consistent basis. If he can lay off the early breaking balls that will start to come his way, he’ll be able to both punish fastballs later in the count as well as draw more walks.
In fact, the change from the pitchers has already started. It’s kind of incredible it’s taken as long as it did, but opponents aren’t throwing Betts nearly as many fastballs as they have in the past. As you can see in the linked graphic, a clear shift came after the month of June. However, he’s still seeing quite a few fastballs and one would have to imagine that number will continue to drop as he continues to show off his quick hands. Expect to see more and more early-count breaking balls and changeups to Betts down the stretch.
Using that same end-of-June arbitrary endpoint, we can also see a shift in how pitchers are treating Betts in terms of where they’re throwing the ball.
The following picture shows where in the zone Betts has seen pitches, with the left plot representing April-June, and the plot on the right representing post-June. There are a few key differences here. The most noticeable, though, is that pitchers seem to be concentrating even more on keeping the ball down. Surprisingly, he’s still seeing quite a few pitches on the inner part of the plate, where he has proven he can crush pitches. One would have to think that change will be coming soon, and that will give him a chance to show off the rest of his game.
Mookie Betts is already among the very best players in baseball, coming through with a breakout 2016 that has put him right in the thick of the MVP conversation. He’s exceeded plenty of high expectations coming into the year, particularly on the power side of things. Eventually, pitchers are going to stop being so aggressive with him, treating the outfielder like the budding star that he is. Luckily, when they do that, he’s shown the patience to continue to excel. His Isolated Power might fall closer to .200 when pitchers stop being so aggressive, but the expected change in OBP would more than cancel that out. Be afraid, rest of baseball.