The Red Sox are, undoubtedly, an outstanding baseball team. You don’t make it this far into the season with this much of a lead in the American League East by pure luck. It can at times come as a surprise that they are playing so well when you watch them on an everyday basis, mostly because it’s not the kind of Red Sox team we’re used to. They don’t have the big bats in the middle of the lineup, but rather rely heavily on their pitching, defense and baserunning. Obviously, some of those strategies backfire at times, but they’ve helped get the team to this point.
That being said, the Red Sox need some of their hitters to step up. They’ve gotten hot streaks from various members of their lineup to get the team to this point, but as they get ready for the season’s final month and plan on playing in the postseason, they need their best hitters to step up. Going by preseason expectations, that includes Mookie Betts. The young right fielder came into the year with massive expectations. Many believed he’d finish the year near or at the top of the MVP discussion, though Mike Trout’s existence always throws a wrench in that. Either way, he hasn’t lived up to the production many of us were looking for heading into the year.
Now, this isn’t to say Betts has been a bad player. In fact, he’s probably been the best overall position player on the Red Sox roster. However, that’s built mostly on him still being an outstanding right fielder and one of the very best baserunners in all of baseball. With that skillset, he has a tremendously high floor. At the plate, though, he’s merely been average. Through his first 599 plate appearances, Betts is hitting just .263/.341/.437 for a 101 wRC+, an essentially league-average mark.
There’s a lot going into these numbers, and it’s really a bit strange that it’s even gotten to this point. For one thing, his batting average seems far too low, particularly for a player who makes as much contact as him. On the one hand, his .267 batting average on balls in play seems awfully low for a player who has made solid contact throughout his career and one who is among the most athletic in the game. On the other hand, we’ve seen plenty of weak contact from Betts this season, particularly in terms of his career-high pop-up rate nearing 15 percent. I would say luck certainly plays a factor here, but there’s more at play.
To really understand Betts’ struggles, you have to look at how he’s played since the All-Star break. In the first half of the year, he was still mildly disappointing, but that was a mostly unfair characterization. His 118 wRC+ made him a productive player in this lineup. In the second half, that number has dropped all the way down to 69, and that comes despite his BABIP rising by 18 points. So, what’s the deal?
Using that ol’ eye test that I really try to avoid as much as possible, it certainly does seem like Betts’ approach at the plate seems just a little bit off. It’s really, really hard for me to come down on this side, as Betts has gotten to the point he’s at because of his approach. His understanding of the strike zone is unrivaled by the majority of the league and he’s consistently avoided strikeouts while drawing enough walks. However, his passivity has taken a jump this season, and it appears things are starting to catch up with him as the year goes on.
Based on Fangraphs’ plate discipline numbers, Betts has been one of the most patient hitters in baseball, with only three qualified hitters swinging less than the Red Sox outfielder. For much of the year, this made sense. Betts is seeing fewer pitches in the zone than any other point in his career, so it would only make sense that he swings less. This is likely the result of him becoming the focal point of the opponents’ game plan with David Ortiz gone. However, he’s also swinging less at pitches in the zone. This has become a bigger problem of late, as he’s been seeing more pitches in the zone over the last couple weeks but hasn’t made the adjustment. Below is a graph, via Fangraphs, that shows every ten-game stretch of the season and compares the number of strikes he’s seen to the rate at which he’s swinging.
Looking at this from a different angle, we can hop over to Brooks Baseball to look at the locations in the strike zone where Betts is swinging and compare that to last year’s zone. Here is that comparison below, with 2016 being on the left (top on mobile) and 2017 on the right (bottom on mobile).
There are two things that stand out to me here, one involving pitches in the zone and one involving those out of it. On pitches in the zone, Betts hasn’t been pulling the trigger nearly as much on those pitches in the center column of the strike zone. In other words, the pitches over the heart of the plate. That’s obviously where a lot of strong contact would come from. On top of that, he’s been laying off pitches off the plate on the inner-half (left side of the plots above). That seems good at first — they’re balls, after all — but he crushed those pitches last year. If you’ll recall, a big part Betts’ 2016 was his quick hands turning around inside fastballs and pulling them over the fence for a home run. We haven’t seen that this year, and it’s certainly concerning.
In the end, even with all the evidence, I still have a really hard time saying Betts needs to adjust his approach. As I said above, this is his calling card at the plate, and it’s hard to grapple with the idea that he’s lost that ability. That being said, all signs point towards a tweak being needed. It’s hard to imagine those quick hands have suddenly gone away, just as it’s hard to imagine his ability to smash pitches over the middle of the plate has left. Pitchers are approaching Betts differently this year, and his approach in the first half reflected that. Now, though, he’s taking it to an unnecessary extreme as he’s seeing more strikes, and he just needs to be slightly less selective to get himself back ahead in counts and more importantly, back on track for a strong finish.