The Red Sox lineup already looks better than it did for most of 2017, and I feel comfortable saying that despite the fact that we are only eleven games into the season and that the lineup didn’t do all that much for the first handful of those eleven games. Even during those rough stretches in the early going, it seemed more likely they were going to snap out of things than it ever really did last year. Hanley Ramirez and Xander Bogaerts have been hitting all year after suffering through down years in 2017. Rafael Devers hasn’t really been standing out for whatever reason, but he’s been producing at a solid level since Opening Day. J.D. Martinez and Andrew Benintendi have had slow starts, but it’s always been clear that they’d turn it around and they appear to be on that path. Then, there’s Mookie Betts. Oh my lord is there ever Mookie Betts. The best player on the Red Sox has been just that to start this season, and he’s been everything they could have asked for and more out of the leadoff spot.
Only eleven games into the year (I may have mentioned that already), we’re still at a point in the season in which any numbers are going to be a little wonky. Things will start to stabilize soon — or at least reach a point where stat lines no longer look completely silly — but we’re not quite there. That being said, Betts is hitting .405/.500/.690 so far this year for a 231 wRC+. Through this point in the year, only Didi Gregorius and Bryce Harper have been better at the plate by wRC+. I’m confident in saying Betts isn’t going to be a .400/.500/.600 hitter even if I want it more than I’ve ever wanted anything in my life. Getting that caveat out of the way, Betts looks like he’s combining the best parts of his 2016 and 2017, and if that can more or less continue moving forward the rest of the league better be very, very afraid.
There’s a lot to like about Betts’ performance at the plate — like, literally everything — but any discussion of his hitting needs to start with his plate discipline. There were reasonable complaints last year about his passivity, but even with those issues it was hard not to marvel at how he approaches every trip to the plate. The superstar has a tremendous understanding of the strike zone to go with absurd hand-eye coordination that leads to almost unfathomable contact rates. Last season, he almost walked more than he struck out. This season, he is walking more than he is striking out with rates of 12 and eight percent, respectively. Although he still isn’t swinging at a ton of strikes — his swing rate on pitches in the zone is up only three percentage points from last year — he is swinging more at pitches right down the heart of the zone, and he’s doing damage. According to Brooks Baseball, he swung at middle-middle pitches just 56 percent of the time last year (that’s called a bad take) and that rate is up to 83 percent early on this year. On top of that, Betts is somehow making even more contact than he ever has, swinging and missing on just two percent of pitches so far this year. That is wild, even if it’s going to come up at some point.
So, yeah. Betts’ approach at the plate is always going to be what carries his performance there and it gives him a high floor year in and year out, but when he’s going well his bat-to-ball skills are arguably as or more impressive. Last year, whether it was due to bad luck or poor contact or some combination of the two, he struggled a bit when it came to doing damage on balls in play. This year, Betts is making a ton of contact, as mentioned above, and that contact has almost always been strong. It’s too early for batted ball metrics to be used as a predictive metric, but as a descriptive metric let me tell you something. They describe Betts’ contact as sexy. He is currently hitting the ball hard 52 percent of the time (per Fangraphs’ batted ball metrics), he’s hitting the ball on the ground less than 30 percent of the time (he’s been over 40 percent the last two years), he’s pulling the ball over 60 percent of the time and he’s hitting it on a line 26 percent of the time. To put it simply, he’s been an absolute force just about every time he’s put his bat on the ball.
At some point, Betts is going to slow down a little bit, even if it doesn’t come in the form of a full-blown slump. If he doesn’t he’s be the best player in baseball and it’s not close. He’s still in that conversation (or, at least in the conversation for best non-Trout player), but no one is this good. That’s not to say he’s not going to be tremendous all year, though. The Steamer projection system, for example, projects him to hit .299/.374/.515 for the rest of the year, which is MVP-caliber performance given what he does with the glove and on the bases, and that’s just a projection. It’s perfectly reasonable to expect more than that. It’s not news that Betts is a great hitter, and it’s not surprising that he’s improving after a relatively down year in 2017. Whether it’s surprising or not doesn’t change the fact that it’s been a true pleasure to watch.