Mookie Betts had huge expectations coming into the season, for good reason. He proved in 2016 that he is one of the best players in all of baseball, and he likely would have been the favorite to win MVP in this season in a world in which Mike Trout does not exist. Now, with Trout on the shelf for a couple of months, Betts could possibly be in line for an MVP win this season. Once again, he is thriving as an all-around player in 2017 as the best player on the Red Sox. His defense has been stellar in right field and he is one of the most valuable and electric baserunners in all of baseball.
If he’s going to catapult himself atop the MVP discussion, though, he’s going to need to pick it up at the plate. He certainly hasn’t been a bad hitter this season, but he hasn’t been the stellar performer offensively that we were expecting and that we saw in 2016. Over his first 242 plate appearances, the 24-year-old is hitting .264/.343/.468, good for a 112 wRC+. Last year, for context, he put up a 135 wRC+. He’s been slumping over the last three weeks, in particular. (ARBITRARY ENDPOINTS ALERT) Since May 12, he’s hitting just .200/.273/.389. To put it simply, things aren’t going so well for Betts right now.
The good news is all signs are pointing to him righting the ship at some point soon and really starting to go on a hot streak. The most important part here is that his peripheral plate discipline stats are looking as good as ever. Over the course of the entire season, he is walking just over ten percent of the time while striking out just under ten percent of the time. Both of those are well-above-average rates, with the low strikeout rate coming in as elite. Instead, the struggles have been all about batting average on balls in play.
Betts, of course, is an extremely athletic player who hits the ball hard and on a line on a regular basis. Everything points to him being a true-talent high-BABIP player. However, to start this season he has posted a BABIP of just .261, sixty points lower than what he posted a year ago. Despite that, he is actually hitting the ball harder on a more regular basis this year than he did in 2017, per Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics. Although he is pulling the ball a little more, it really shouldn’t have a big effect on his BABIP as defenses don’t seem to be playing any sort of shifts against him at this point. As long as they are not shifting him, his balls in play should be finding grass much more often than they are even if he isn’t using the whole field to quite the same extent.
In addition to all of that, his batted ball profile is roughly the same as it was last year. His line drive rate has fallen off by a percentage point, which isn’t great but also not really a huge deal. His ground ball and fly ball rates have stayed essentially the same. The one portion of his profile that has seen a significant change is the number of pop ups Betts is hitting this season. So far this season, he is popping the ball up a little over 17 percent of the time he is putting the ball in play this season, the 14th highest rate among the 172 qualified hitters around the league. Pop ups, of course, are just about as bad as a strikeout as they are almost guaranteed to end in an out. This is surely part of the reason his BABIP is so low, and this portion of his issues aren’t due to luck.
Looking at his profile on Brooks Baseball, the problem is clearly coming on two pitches: Changeups and sliders. After popping those pitches up a little over two percent of the time last year, the rates have jumped up to around five percent in 2017. They are the only two pitches to see such a significant jump. The good news is we are obviously dealing with a small sample. Offspeed and breaking pitches are usually where hitters struggle when they are in the midst of a slump, and Betts is no difference. However, he’s shown an ability to hit these pitches solidly before and there’s little doubt he’ll be able to do so again.
So far this season, Betts has been a really good player, but his performance at the plate has held him back from being a great one. To take the leap to the level he reached last season, he’s going to have to do better on balls in play. Fortunately, he’s hitting the ball hard at a high rate and everything is pointing to him breaking out of his slump soon enough. Between the coming positive regression and the expected adjustment he’ll make against sliders and changeups, we’re about to see a major hot streak from Mookie Betts. I hope you’re ready.