In 2016, Mookie Betts was objectively one of the best baseball players in the world. He flashed power at the plate, got on base plenty and played incredible defense in one of the most difficult right fields in the majors. He didn’t win the MVP — that he plays at the same time as Mike Trout is kind of a bummer — but he had arrived as a truly elite baseball player at the ripe age of 23.
Heading into this season, it was easy to expect more of the same from Betts. Like I said, he was young in that incredible 2016 campaign so it’s not as if age-related decline was on the table. His power probably wouldn’t stay the same, and maybe he wouldn’t be quite as good in the field, but all in all we expected Betts to remain among the top five or so players in the American League. Somehow, through the first six-ish weeks of the season, he has gotten even better. I am here to tell you (and I’m sure I’m the first) that Mookie Betts is a stupidly talented baseball player, and what he’s doing to start this season is bananas.
Last season, Betts’ plate discipline certainly wasn’t bad. The outfielder only struck out 11 percent of the time, which is elite in an era when seemingly every reliever is equipped with a 98 mph fastball and more than a handful of starters can reach back for triple digits. To be one of the focal points of the offense and only strike out at this low a rate was an incredible feat. On the other hand, he only walked in 6.7 percent of his plate appearances. That was a below-average rate, and while it certainly didn’t affect the rest of his game it was lower than anyone expected given his minor-league track record.
This season, the plate discipline has taken a step forward in both regards. Most remarkably, he’s somehow gotten even better in terms of avoiding strikeouts. He has just 10 strikeouts in his first 138 plate appearances for a rate of 7.2 percent. Over the last three years only two qualified batters have finished with a strikeout rate this low. Betts has been able to take this step forward by recognizing the strike zone more effectively. While he’s as aggressive as ever on pitches in the zone, he’s laying off more pitches out of the zone. Additionally, he has been able to make more contact on those pitches that are out of the zone. As we all know, simply making contact is almost always preferable to a strikeout. Another side effect of his newfound ability to lay off pitches out of the strike zone is a rising walk rate. In 2017, Betts has walked in just under ten percent of his plate appearances.
Betts improving his plate discipline — specifically his walk rate — wasn’t all that hard to see coming, though. As I alluded to above, he walked a ton in the minors and clearly had the patience to draw more walks. Many of us assumed, however, that he’d lose a little power and possibly strikeout a little more. We know the latter isn’t happening to this point, and it’s also true that his power hasn’t decreased.
In 2016, Betts somehow managed to hit 31 home runs with a .216 Isolated Power. It made him one of the better power hitters in all of baseball even in a season that saw increased power across the league. Given his stature and minor-league track record, some regression in this area was reasonable expected. Guess what? It hasn’t come.
To this point, Betts already has five home runs on the season to go with a .221 ISO. He isn’t hitting many line drives, per Fangraphs, but he is keeping the ball off the ground and has a higher hard-hit rate than he did last season with roughly the same low soft-hit rate. Despite this, he somehow has a below-average home-run-to-flyball-ratio that could very well come up and add even more power to his game.
This all-around game from Betts is almost unheard of. Over the last ten years, only ten players have gone full seasons with an ISO of at least .220 and a strikeout rate under ten percent. Daniel Murphy did it last season, and the last player to do it before him was Victor Martinez in 2014. The only player to do it multiple times is Albert Pujols, who has done it eight times in his career. If you want to add in the added feature of walking at least ten percent of the time, it’s only been done seven times. If, instead, you want to add in the caveat that the player must provide positive value with the glove, it’s only been done twice. Whichever way you slice it, there aren’t a lot of players like Betts.
After last season, a mild decline or even stagnation would not have been a disappointment for Mookie Betts. He was already one of the very best players in the world, and had some room to slip while maintaining that status. Instead, he has somehow gotten better. This is, of course, going to lead to the comparisons with Trout, which will always be unfair. There’s no need to compare him to arguably the best young player we’ve ever seen. Betts is one of the best, most well-rounded and exciting players in all of baseball, and it’s incredible to watch.