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 wrap up their season in a sentence, look at the positives of their 2018, the negatives, review their One Big Question from the preseason and look ahead to what’s on the table for 2019. Today, we discuss Mookie Betts.
The Season in a Sentence
Mookie Betts had one of the best all-around seasons in team history, solidified his status as a legitimate star in this league and is almost certainly going to be rewarded with an MVP award.
Can we just say everything and call it a day? Seriously, it’s weirdly difficult to write about players who are this good, which is part of the reason I think it always seems like the media is taking a negative view. When someone or some team is firing on all cylinders like Betts was for all of 2018, it can be tough to articulate consistently. There are only so many ways to say “this guy was real good at the baseball thing,” ya know? But that does Betts, and all of us, a disservice. We should be constantly talking about how good Betts is at the baseball thing. And he was pretty damn good this past year. Over 614 plate appearances in 2018, the Red Sox superstar hit .346/.438/.640 for a 185 wRC+. Only Mike Trout was better in terms of wRC+, and that 185 mark is tied with 2002 Manny Ramirez for the best by any Red Sox player since the turn of the century. The last time a Red Sox player beat that mark was Carl Yastrzemski in 1967.
This is normally the point at which I look at the individual areas of the game in which the player in question succeeded, but again, that’s pretty much everything for Betts. Name an area, and he was great. Plate discipline? One of the best in baseball. I get more in depth on his patience a little later, but he walked at a career-high rate while striking out just 15 percent of the time. Now, that strikeout rate is actually a career high by a fairly significant margin, but that says a lot more about how ridiculous Betts is as a hitter than anything else. The league-average hitter, for context, strikes out a little more than 22 percent of the time, and Betts ranked in the top 30 among qualified hitters. And that’s a bad year for him in terms of strikeouts. Okay, sure.
The plate discipline was great, and Betts also took up residence in bananaland in terms of quality of contact. When you combine his low strikeout rates and consistently quality contact, you get that .346 batting average in an era where .300 hitters are as rare as ever. Betts hit the ball hard 44.5 percent of the time, per Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics, a mark that was beaten by only 15 qualified hitters this year. Perhaps more importantly, he hit the ball soft just a little more than 12 percent of the time, a rate that was lower than all but 12 qualified hitters. Throw in a career-high line drive rate and you get a .368 batting average on balls in play that doesn’t seem that unsustainable. I suspect he’ll settle in more in the .325-.340 range, but it’s just further confirmation that his .268 BABIP in 2017 was the anomaly.
Then, there’s the power. Oh boy was there some power. We all know by this point that Betts’s stature does not properly represent the thump he is liable to bring to the plate, a characteristic that seems to be more and more common around the league in recent years. Betts took things to a new level in 2018, though. He hit a career-high 32 homers, and also posted a career-high with a .294 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG). Players with higher ISO’s last year? Mike Trout, J.D. Martinez and Khris Davis. The biggest reason for the improvement for Betts goes back to that plate discipline and also to the biggest criticism for Betts in 2017. Simply put, he was way more aggressive. There were some lapses through the year, but for the most part he was much more aggressive on pitches in the zone while being more selective on pitches that missed the zone. If you do that, you’re going to get your contact on more hittable pitchers over the course of a season. And when you combine that with Betts’ lightning-quick hands you abuse that Green Monster on a consistent basis. In addition to the 32 homers, Betts hit 47 doubles. He’s now hit at least 40 doubles in every full season of his career, he was tied for third in all of baseball in doubles and he was one of just six players with at least 40 doubles and 30 homers. He’s good!
On top of all of this, Betts was phenomenal at the non-hitting parts of baseball as well, which is why he’s arguably the second-best player in the game. In terms of baserunning, I don’t know that he is the best in the game, but he’s at least in the conversation. More importantly, I think he might be the most fun. Betts certainly isn’t the fastest — he’s plenty fast, of course, but Billy Hamilton is still a baseball player who exists — but he’s incredibly smart on the base paths and makes defenses pay for the smallest mistakes. Watching him take those unexpected extra bases is the most exhilarating part of every baseball season. Then, on defense, he may be in a corner spot but Betts is no corner outfielder. He’s one of the great defensive outfielders in the game and plays Fenway’s absurd right field like it’s absolutely nothing. He’s a treasure.
We have to stretch here a little bit, because there’s really no negatives here. One was that Betts missed more games than any other year in his career. This wasn’t entirely his fault — well, it wasn’t his fault at all if you don’t want to hold injuries against a player, which is fair — because some of it was Alex Cora’s rest strategy. He did hit the disabled list with an oblique injury in the summer, though, marking his first stint on the DL in his career. For most players, a short DL stint wouldn’t even be mentioned.
The other negative, and one that was a little more frustrating, was his performance in the playoffs. Obviously, this doesn’t matter as much in hindsight because the Red Sox won the World Series (had you heard?), but it was disappointing that Betts didn’t take over the postseason like we all know he’s capable of. Overall, the star hit just .210/.300/.323 over 70 postseason plate appearances. This has become a bit of a theme over the last few years, and while I certainly don’t think this is anything to worry about with Betts, I’d like things to turn around so it doesn’t turn into A Capital-T Thing. One more poor postseason might lead to that happening.
The Big Question
In the sub-headline on the linked post, I wrote that if Betts could keep his walk-rate gains from 2017, may God have mercy on our souls. Well, I hope God has some mercy. Betts didn’t only keep his walk-rate gains from 2017, when he posted an above-average rate for the first time in his career. He improved upon it. Between 2017 and 2018, his walk rate jumped from 11 percent to a little more than 13 percent, tying for the 18th-best rate in all of baseball. It is, frankly, absurd, and it was the last part of the puzzle for Betts. As I said above, he was incredibly selective on pitches out of the zone, and he’s also a great two-strike hitter. Even if pitchers get ahead, Betts will foul off pitch after pitch, and a lot of times that leads to a pitcher losing the zone and ending up with a walk.
The Year Ahead
There’s really not too much to say here. The biggest question about the year ahead is whether or not Betts will be willing to sign an extension. Other than that, we know what to expect. He’ll be in right field for the Red Sox, and he’ll be hitting leadoff pretty much every day. There’s no reason to expect anything other than another MVP-caliber season from one of the best players in the game.