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Mookie Betts is the best hitter in baseball with his back against the wall

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It may be his best quality. Or not. He’s good at a lot of things!

Boston Red Sox v Baltimore Orioles Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images

I’m not breaking any news here, but the Red Sox are an incredible team and to this point this has been the most amazing regular season I have ever watched. They are obviously a very well-rounded club — you don’t win this many games without being well-rounded — but the offense has carried the roster more often than any other portion. It’s a special group of hitters, and the star power in particular has been an absolute joy to witness. J.D. Martinez is obviously one of the biggest stars and the difference from last year. He is going to get MVP consideration, and deservedly so. Still, he’s not close to the biggest star on the team. In fact, there is no close number two. Mookie Betts is the Red Sox, insofar as any one player can be the focal point on such a talented roster.

Really, there aren’t many more way we can say that Betts is so good. We’ve witnessed it for a few years now and he’s on track to be considered one of, if not the, best players in franchise history. That’s a conversation for down the road, though. For now, we can just appreciate how good he is at everything. Seriously, the man dominates baseball in all facets in a way that is unmatched by all but one or two players in the game. Every time I watch Betts do his thing, there’s a new favorite thing about watching him. For a while, it was how quick his hands are. Then, it was how much ground he covers in the outfield. There was a time it was his arm. His baserunning also carried the mantle, though.

Right now, there’s a new favorite thing I love about Betts. To be clear, this is not a new skill for the superstar. It’s something he’s been great at his entire career, but it’s something that becomes more and more impressive the more you see it. Betts is absolutely incredible with his back against the wall. In fact, there is no one better in baseball when he and/or his team is on the brink of ending an at bat or an inning. To put it more succinctly, he’s amazing when he has two strikes and also when he is up with two outs on the board.

New York Yankees v Boston Red Sox Photo by Adam Glanzman/Getty Images

Not that this really matters to anyone reading this, but when I first set forth on this post is was going to be about the team as a whole being really good in these situations. It’s true, too! However, as I started to do more and more research on the matter, it became clear to me that it was all about Betts. There were some others who were pretty good in these situations — Andrew Benintendi has also been a good two-strike hitter, for example — but Betts was the best of the best in all of these categories.

Let’s just take a quick look at how Betts has hit with his back against the wall at the plate.

  • With two strikes, Betts is hitting .303/.374/.569 with a 258 sOPS+ (in other words, it’s relative to the league’s OPS in this category). That’s second in baseball among 413 players with at least 50 plate appearances in these situations. Only Tyler White ranks ahead of him, and Betts has four times the number of plate appearances.
  • After the count reaches 0-2, Betts is hitting .278/.337/.582 with a 298 sOPS+. That leads all of the 271 hitters with at least 50 plate appearances in such situations, just barely edging out Jesus Aguilar. He’s been the best power hitter in baseball in these situations with a .304 ISO while also possessing the 12th best strikeout rate (25.6 K%) and 26th in walk rate (7%).
  • With two outs, Betts is hitting .394/.484/.734 with a 240 sOPS+, which ranks second in baseball among the 352 players with at least 50 two-out plate appearances. Only Mike Trout has hit better. If you’re second to only Mike Trout in anything, chances are you’re doing pretty damn well.

So, yeah. Betts is amazing. Part of this obviously comes down to him simply being a great hitter, and great hitters are great hitters regardless of the situation. However, Betts takes things to a new level, and things are truly never over when he is at the plate. Some of this is clearly small sample size noise — no split like this can really tell a story over a full season — but at the same time he has always been great with two strikes.

There’s a few side effects from this. For one thing, pitchers have to know about this, and it has to be in their heads. As much as they try not to think about these things, knowing that Betts is still a superstar even after you take an 0-2 lead in the count has to be frustrating.

In addition to the pitchers sweating a little more, it allows Betts to be more selective. Now, I know the Red Sox have been preaching aggressiveness — to great results, I should add — all year, and I’m here for it. However, for someone like Betts that means being aggressive on fat pitches. Since he’s so good at hitting with two strikes and fighting off pitches until he gets a good one or pitchers lose the zone, he can afford to let hard-to-hit strikes go by. Guys with longer swings don’t have that much leeway, but it’s part of the reason Betts squares up so many pitches: He doesn’t have to swing at the bad ones.

As for the two outs thing, well, that’s probably more small sample noise than the two strikes portion of this. Last season, Betts was actually a bit below average with two outs, though he was elite in 2016 as well. Either way, whether it’s true talent or not it’s a big deal. The bottom of the Red Sox lineup has been inconsistent this year, so as the leadoff hitter Betts has come up with two outs plenty of times this year. That he is able to get on base and give the mashers behind him chances with runners on has been a major factor for the Red Sox in 2018.

Mookie is amazing at so many different things, and there are new portions of his game at which to marvel on any given day. Next time you sit down to watch a game, though, keep an eye on how he approaches things. Betts never panics and he’s always in complete control of the situation. That’s true of all stars, but I’ve never seen someone so clearly in control even when the pitcher is dominating the at bat. Just add this to the list of reasons why Betts is the MVP favorite at this point in the year.