The Red Sox are clearly and undeniably in a rut. As much as I don’t think it’s time to hit the panic button — bad stretches happen to the best teams; that’s just baseball — that is not the same as saying there are no concerns. Boston is coming off a series in which they were bad in just about every facet of the game. We can’t pin that all on one person, or even just one portion of the roster. That being said, it was the offense’s lack of performance that stood out the most. This group has been dominant all year long, and they aren’t missing a Chris Sale and an Eduardo Rodriguez. They just struggled, and as I said above you can’t pin it all on one guy. Pretty much everyone looks bad right now, perhaps save for Xander Bogaerts. Still, watching these games there is one player’s struggles that stand out the most: Mookie Betts.
Now, the biggest reason his slump stands out so much is that it is so unexpected. The Red Sox star has been an absolute monster all year long and it didn’t look like he’d ever show signs of slowing down. It seems like he’s been a different guy in the second half, and while that’s technically true it doesn’t mean he’s been bad by a long shot. This was somewhat surprising to me, but Betts is still hitting .285/.361/.489 for a 125 wRC+. Obviously, that’s a major step back but for a slump that’s pretty good. What was even more surprising is that most of those struggles came in late-July, as he’s hitting .326/.419/.551 in August. Clearly, that production is from the beginning of the month, but even with his latest struggles factored in he has a 157 wRC+.
If you’re going to worry about Betts, it’s going to be because of what you’ve seen over the last ten games. Since the start of the last Tampa Bay series on August 17, the Red Sox star is hitting just .175/.227/.225 while striking out in 23 percent of his plate appearances. He just hasn’t looked the same. Now, a ten-game sample is never one based on which we should make any strong conclusions. It’s a tiny sample. However, there have been some issues here, and given how important Betts is as the ignitor of this offense, they have stood out tremendously.
The strikeouts going up are certainly a concern, and we’ll get there, but the biggest difference for Betts of late has been what happens when he does put the ball in play. One of the catalysts for his big season has been putting the ball in the air more often, obviously giving him an opportunity to do more damage. Betts has never been a big groundball hitter, but in the first half he got his groundball rate down from 40 percent to 32 percent. In the second half, that number is up to 38 percent, and over the last ten games it’s about the same. Again, this isn’t a catastrophic increase, but he’s going in the wrong direction. The graph below shows every ten-game stretch from Betts’ 2018 in terms of groundball rate, with the dotted line representing a league-average. As you can see, his line is above the average a lot more lately.
It’s not just the grounders, either. When you watch Betts while he’s at his best, the thing that stands out the most are his quick hands. The man can turn any pitch around and do damage. It’s almost unbelievable. Because of these hands, he can do a tremendous amount of damage when he turns the ball around and smacks it into left field. When he’s at his best, he’s hitting the ball in the air to his pull-side. We know the grounders are trending up, but the pull-rate is trending in the wrong direction too. After pulling the ball 52 percent of the time in the first half, that rate is all the way down to 41 percent in the second half and 36 percent over the last ten games. Below is another graph showing every ten-game stretch of Betts’ season, this time displaying his pull-rate.
So, the batted ball data isn’t showing Betts at his best, and while with the data that stands out the most, it’s been the approach at the plate that has stood out the most to me. It seems, anecdotally, that he has been more passive at the plate, though on the surface that doesn’t play out. He’s swinging just about as often right now as he has been all year. That’s a bit misleading, however. Below, we have yet another graph showing his ten-game stretches from 2018. This time, we’re showing his swing rate along with his swing rates on pitches in the zone (Z-Swing) and out of the zone (O-Swing). As you’ll be able to see, he’s swinging more at pitches out of the zone and fewer pitches in the zone.
This is a bit startling to see from someone like Betts, who has always shown off some of the best zone recognition of anyone in baseball. Digging a little deeper, it makes sense. Although Betts hasn’t been more passive in general, he has been less aggressive early in counts. Below you can see Betts’ zone plots, the first from his entire season before this rough stretch, and the second from this rough stretch. The plots show the number of pitches Betts has swung at when he is in a zero-strike count.
Now, not too long ago I wrote about how Betts can afford to get deep into counts because of his tremendous ability to make contact. I stand by that, but that doesn’t mean he shouldn’t be aggressive early. Those pitches in the middle-third of the zone (both vertically and horizontally) need to be attacked more regardless of count. It becomes even more true when he’s struggling, as he’s clearly pressing a bit and later in counts he’s struggling to lay off tough pitches. It’s a perfect storm of issues right now.
So, with all of this, the key question remains: Should we worry? I’m going to go with an emphatic no. There are real issues with Betts right now, but they are mostly with things that he’s been so good at for his entire career. Not being aggressive early in counts has gotten him in trouble in the past, but he’s put that behind him this year with a new coaching staff. One would imagine they can get him out of that funk. If he can get back to that old approach, we should start to see more line drives and fly balls into left field, and we should stop seeing him have to chase bad pitches later in counts. There’s never any guarantees in this game, but Betts being fine at the plate is about as close as one can get. The Red Sox have to be hoping so, at least, because they need the offense to get back in gear and getting Betts back on track atop the lineup will be the easiest way to do so.