Welcome to Over The Monster’s One Big Question series. For the next 40 (week)days, we will be trying to answer one important question for each player on the Red Sox 40-man roster. The goal is to find one interesting portion of each player’s game to watch for, whether that be in spring training or the early regular season. We’ll be going straight down the list on the team’s roster page, meaning we’ll be going in alphabetical order through each position group, starting with the pitchers. Today, we’re highlighting Mookie Betts.
The Question: Has Mookie Betts peaked?
In 2016, a new Boston superstar was born. Mookie Betts, in the blink of an eye, went from unknown minor-leaguer to potential breakout prospect to actual breakout prospect to good major leaguer to legitimate superstar. It’s one of the most incredible career trajectories we’ve seen and to be honest it’s all we should ever talk about. Last season was the cherry on top of his meteoric rise, as he was good at literally everything and became clearly the best player on a team that won the American League East. On top of everything else that is crazy about all of this is the fact that Betts is still only going to be 24 in this upcoming season. Which begs the question: Can he really get any better?
This past season was an absurdly good one for Betts, and one that no one would complain about if it was the best of his career. In his 730 plate appearances, he hit .318/.363/.534, good for a 135 wRC+, to go with good base running and Gold Glove caliber defense in right field. If counting numbers are more your thing, he smashed 31 home runs with 26 stolen bases, 122 runs scored and 113 RBI. That’s how you finish runner-up in the MVP voting. Let’s take a look at every facet of his game and see if there’s a realistic chance for improvement.
We’ll start with the power, because that was the standout part of Betts’ 2016 campaign. No one ever really expected what he did last season, as his 31 homers put him in the top-30 in all of baseball and he paired it with an impressive .216 Isolated Power. Unfortunately, I don’t see him topping that moving forward. The indicators don’t really back up his home run explosion. Among the 30 players with at least 31 homers, just seven had a higher ground ball rate, just one had a lower hard-hit rate (per Fangraphs), and no one had a lower home run to fly ball ratio.
That last one could show that he’s not looking at much regression, but it also shows that he doesn’t have the same kind of raw power as others on this list. This is backed up by the fact that he was merely in the middle of the pack in terms of average fly ball distance as well as the fact that, according to ESPN’s home run tracker, 20 of his 31 dingers were counted as either “lucky” or “just enough.”
None of this is to say that Betts doesn’t have power. I watched enough Red Sox baseball last year to know that’s not the case. It’s just to say that, in this particular area, he probably has peaked. He makes more than enough contact, and puts the ball in the air enough, to survive on his relatively low HR/FB ratio, but overall he’s more likely to settle in as a 20-25 home run hitter. Of course, some of those lost home runs will turn into doubles and triples, so he can very easily still hang around a .200 ISO. Even if he’s peaked here, we’re not looking at a huge decline.
As far as the rest of his offensive profile, I do not believe he’s peaked yet. In 2016, he posted a .322 batting average on balls in play that, while good, can get better. Betts specializes in solid contact and does a good job of spraying the ball all over the field. Combined with his athleticism there’s no reason he can’t put up a huge BABIP one season with a little luck.
On the plate discipline side of things, we can see some real improvement. For as great as he’s been in his short major-league career, we haven’t really seen Betts put up big walk numbers. In fact, last season he walked under seven percent of the time. This is not due to him being a poor judge of the strike zone. He drew plenty of walks in the minors, and scouts expected him to do so in the majors. However, he saw a ton of strikes last year, likely because he was hitting in front of David Ortiz. He certainly doesn’t chase bad pitches, as he’s been in the bottom half of the league in this regard according to Baseball Prospectus. If pitchers are more scared of him this year — which would be understandable — one could see Betts pair his typically-low strikeout rate with an above-average walk rate. This is the one area on offense where Betts can improve in a significant way, and it’s entirely possible that it happens.
In terms of base running and defense, there’s no reason to expect anything different heading into 2017. With the glove, Betts has taken to the outfield in superhumanly quick fashion and was named the best defensive player in baseball last season. Whether or not a corner outfielder ever deserves that distinction is a different discussion. Betts is phenomenal in right field, and should continue to be for the foreseeable future. He’s also a smart base runner who isn’t losing his speed any time soon. The Red Sox could be more aggressive on the base paths this season, which would only serve to enhance Betts’ value.
I’m not sure we’re ever going to see the 2016 version of Mookie Betts again, but that doesn’t mean we’ve seen the best of him. Even if he loses some of that power, he can make up for it and then some with a big jump in walks and marginal gains on the base paths. If he has the lucky BABIP year he may be due for, everyone should look out. We’re watching a superstar, and the sky is the limit. Or, at least being the consensus second-best player in baseball is the limit. In other words, Mookie hasn’t even begun to peak.