Welcome to the Red Sox Review series. It’s a fairly standard feature in which we will review the year that was for every player who made a decently large impact on the Red Sox this year. How do I come up with that definition? Completely arbitrarily, of course! The list of players I’m using can be seen here, and if I am missing anyone please let me know in the comments. Anyway, for the players who are included we will look at the positives of their 2017, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2018. Today, we discuss Mookie Betts.
The perception around Betts’ 2017 season, fairly or unfairly, is that the right fielder was a disappointment. He was, after all, a legitimate MVP candidate in 2016 who is still in the early parts of his career. The sky's the limit for the young right fielder. It’s fair to call his year a disappointment, but it’s unfair to call it bad. There were a ton of positives for Betts in this 2017 season, and they were led by his contributions without the bat in his hand. For the second consecutive season, Betts was the best right fielder in the game (it’d be a shock if he didn’t win the Gold Glove) and arguably one of the very best defensive players in baseball. He covers an absurd amount of ground in Fenway’s vast right field, gets great reads and jumps on balls and has an incredible throwing arm. This is all the more impressive when you remember he didn’t move to the outfield until the end of his minor-league career.
In addition to the defense, Betts is also one of the very best baserunners in the game. He doesn’t have the pure speed of someone like Billy Hamilton, but he’s pretty damn fast in his own right and combines that with unparalleled smarts on the basepaths. Fangraphs’ baserunning metric had Betts as the third-best runner in the league while Baseball Prospectus rated him as the sixth-best runner.
While Betts’ baserunning and defense are his best overall qualities — and those being underappreciated skills in general certainly play to the perception that his year was disappointing and maybe even bad — he did have some positives with the bat in his hand as well. As has become a staple for Betts’ offensive game, he showed off tremendous plate discipline in 2017. At a time when strikeouts are at an all-time high, Betts continued to put the ball in play at a high rate, striking out just 11 percent of the time. Meanwhile, he worked a walk-rate almost as high and improved that rate by four percentage points from 2016. He was also particularly strong with two strikes, ranking 21st in AVG and 30th in OPS with two strikes among the 361 players with at least 100 plate appearances in such situations.
Finally, in a sort of surprising turn of events, Betts’ end-of-year power numbers were essentially where you want him to be. He didn’t quite reach the heights he did in 2016, but most of us acknowledged that those numbers were a bit of an aberration. He did, however, finish 2017 with an Isolated Power of .194, only 20 points below his 2016 total. Betts also hit 24 home runs and 46 doubles. There was a lack of consistency that we’ll get to soon, but at the end of the day he provided more power than just about anyone else in this lineup.
Although there were a lot of positives in Betts’ year and he was better than some are giving him credit for, he certainly didn’t have a season that was above criticism. Chief of the concerns for the star outfielder this past year was his inability to turn balls in play into hits. Everything about Betts indicates that he should be a high-BABIP player. He makes a ton of contact, and it’s often very good. Plus, he’s a fast and smart baserunner. That didn’t work out this year, as his batting average on balls in play was just .268 on the season, a 54-point drop from 2016. A lot of that was seemingly due to luck, but Betts also had some stretches where he couldn’t hit anything hard. Most notable was the period of the season when he was hitting pop ups in seemingly every game.
Along those same lines, Betts was too inconsistent this year. The expectations are higher for him and he’s now the focal point of Boston’s offense in the post-David Ortiz era. He’s the best player on the team and they need him to be on his game just about all the time. That was not the case in 2017, and he went through a horrible stretch for most of the second half. From the day after the All-Star break through September 4, he hit just .236/.315/.323. He’d turn it back on to end the season, but Betts is way too good to struggle for that long, and the Red Sox can’t afford that kind of stretch from him anymore.
In addition to these negatives, there were a few other concerns with Betts’ season. For one thing, he got a little too patient at times throughout the year, which could help explain some of his lack of hard contact at certain points. I went into detail on this front here. Additionally, Betts got a little too pull happy this year, which would tie into him trying to do too much damage, which is another reason he could hit so many pop ups. Finally, he was merely average against righties. While he’ll always do a large chunk of his damage against lefties, the Red Sox need him to be more forceful against righties if he’s going to get back to being a star hitter along with being a star in the other aspects of the game.
The Big Question
This one is kind of hard to answer at this point, but my best response right now would be: Possibly. Betts was really incredible in 2016 and firing on all cylinders, and we saw in 2017 that there was room to fall. I fully believe Betts is going to be a great player for a long time, but the eight-win season he posted in 2016 could be his peak. That being said, it’s also not super hard to imagine him finding a way to top that campaign at some point.
Looking ahead to 2018
The Red Sox are looking for a much-improved offense next year, and Betts is one of the players they’ll be looking for a bounce-back from. As I stated above, power wasn’t really the issue for him. There’s a little more room for growth there, but if he puts up the same home run and doubles totals next year, nobody will be too upset. Instead, the Red Sox simply need some of those outs to turn into singles. If Betts can get his BABIP up to even .300 — and he has the potential to get it so much higher — then he will be back in the discussion as one of the best overall players in the game. Betts’ floor is crazy high, which is why he is so valuable, but with as much room for growth he has from this year, the ceiling is plenty high in its own right.