Welcome to Over the Monster’s One Big Question series. For those unfamiliar, this is something of a season roster preview where over the next 40(ish) (week)days we’ll be taking a look at each player on the 40-man roster prior to the season. If changes are made to the roster between now and Opening Day, we’ll cover the newly added players. Rather than previewing what to expect in a general sense, the goal of this series is to find one overarching question for each player heading into the coming season. We’ll go one-by-one alphabetically straight down the roster, and today we talk about Mookie Betts.
The Question: Is there anything Mookie Betts can’t do?
Okay, so I’ll be honest and say this one feels like a bit of a copout. When I’m preparing for these and trying to figure out the base question, it’s not a difficult process. Generally speaking, you just look for a flaw or anything that can improve in a player’s game and frame the question around that. That works for mere mortals, but Mookie Betts is no mere mortal. Looking at his 2018, is there really anything that needs to be improved? Better yet, is there any obvious spot where regression will take place?
I don’t think it’s unfair to say there is a very good chance his performance will take a turn for the worse relative to his 2018, but that’s simply because there really isn’t anywhere to go but down. Give me any player in baseball (even Mike Trout) and I’ll take the under on him being worth ten wins above replacement like Betts was a year ago. There really isn’t one area where he was clearly playing above his head, though. After last season, I don’t really see any specific area where he doesn’t excel. Mookie Betts is real life, and it’s fantastic.
Let’s just go through the different areas of the game and see if there’s any where Betts really did play over his head, shall we? The area of most improvement for the 2018 AL MVP was certainly the power. It’s not that he had ever shown any pop before — he had hit at least 24 homers in the previous two years as well — but his 32 home runs was a career-high, and he only played in 136 games. Unsurprisingly, he also posted a career-high .294 Isolated Power (SLG - AVG).
This wasn’t just a fluke as there were some real changes in Betts’ approach that led to these big numbers. Most notably, he is launching the ball more than ever, and according to Fangraphs he hit ground balls just 34 percent of the time. That was a career-low by a significant margin and a six percentage-point drop from the previous season. The one argument for regression here would be that he posted a career-high HR/FB ratio, but it was only a marginal increase and it corresponded with career-bests in hard-hit rate and soft-hit rate. Again, it’s reasonable to expect a bit of a downturn just because it’s hard to repeat this, but there’s no obvious reason to expect a significant regression.
Betts’ power was wildly impressive and a massive point of value for both him and the Red Sox in 2018, but it’s not even the best part of his offensive skillset. Last year around this time for this same feature, the question for Betts was whether or not he could maintain his gains with his walk rate. You see, the Red Sox outfielder had always carried low strikeout rates, but he didn’t really walk all that much to go along with it. It wasn’t a problem, but it was something that could improve. Anyway, after the question I added “May God have mercy on our souls” if he did maintain those gains. Guess what? He improved significantly on those gains, walking 13 percent of the time compared to under 11 percent in 2017, and God did not have mercy on our souls. It took Betts to another level, and while he did increase his strikeout rate a bit too, it was only to a bit under 15 percent. In today’s game, that is still elite. Among the 29 qualified hitters with strikeout rates of 15 percent or lower, Betts was one of just seven that also carried a double-digit walk rate. Considering he’s only getting better at attacking strikes and laying off balls, there’s no reason to expect anything less than elite plate discipline moving forward as well.
If you’re looking for one part of his game that has the potential for real regression, it would be on balls in play. Betts smashed his career-high in batting average on balls in play in 2018, finishing the year with a .368 mark that ranked third in all of baseball among qualified hitters. Now, Betts had regularly posted BABIPs over .300 prior to this year — .300 is seen as a rough estimate of average from year-to-year, and anything far above or below that number is seen as good or bad luck for all but the extreme hitters — but the .368 was 46 points higher than his previous career-high. It was all luck, right? Well, that’s an obvious oversimplification. Betts has the speed to beat out more ground balls than your average hitter, and more importantly he hits the ball hard on a consistent basis. He has the tools to carry an above-average BABIP year after year. The best-case scenario for his true-talent is probably something in the .330-range, so again regression is likely coming. Still, we’re talking about taking his wRC+ from 185 to, say, 170-175. The horror!
All of this is without even mentioning that Betts is elite in both baserunning and defense, too. In fact, there is room for improvement with both as he could steal more than 30 bases if he was more aggressive and his defense could feasibly be even better at a more valuable position in center field.
To get back to the question at the top of this post: Is there anything Betts can’t do? Well, no, not really. Not unless you really want to stretch, at least. He was a below-average hitter when going the other way and became more pull-happy in general in 2018, but I don’t think anyone is complaining about those results. Expectations are going to be through the roof for Betts heading into 2019, and while expecting an exact repeat of 2018 is probably unfair there really isn’t any specific area where he is going to get worse. There isn’t another Trout in baseball, but Betts has a very solid chance to separate himself from the rest of the pack in the race for second-best in the game.