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2019 in Review: Mookie Betts

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The down year that wasn’t.

Baltimore Orioles v Boston Red Sox Photo by Maddie Meyer/Getty Images

Welcome to our 2019 Red Sox in Review series. This is, as you can probably guess, where we will be reviewing all of the players who made at least a modest impact on the Red Sox in 2019. Every week day (minus a week in October where I’ll be mostly off) we’ll deep diving into one player every day. For each edition we’ll describe the season in a sentence, look at the positives from the year as well as the negatives, look back at our one big question from the season preview and look ahead to the 2020 season. We’ll be going in alphabetical order of the players on this list. You can look over that list, too, and drop a name in the comments if you think I left anyone out who should be mentioned here. Got it? Good. Today we focus on Mookie Betts.

2019 in one sentence

In what was often referred to as a down year, Betts was once again an all-around force with a well above-average batting line, great defense and elite baserunning that made him the ninth most valuable position player in baseball by fWAR.

The Positives

I’ll start this off by saying it is weirdly more difficult talking about positives for a player like Mookie Betts. When we take positives and negatives for an individual player, we are inherently basing them off our preconceived notion of what the performance should look like. So, when someone has sky-high expectations like Betts, it is a lot harder to clear that bar and have any part of his game stand out.

That being said, there were still a few things at which Betts was elite. As always, his control of the strike zone was impeccable. The 2018 MVP consistently does a good job of controlling the strike zone, but he took things to another level this past year. After not really walking much his first couple of seasons in the majors, Betts has steadily improved there each season while also cutting down on his strikeout rate. He hasn’t walked more than he struck out yet in his career, but he is getting close. Among qualified hitters, only Alex Bregman and Carlos Santana had better K/BB ratios than Betts.

There was also, as always, his defense and baserunning. As we all know, he is one of the five-ish best all-around players in the game (to put it loosely), and that showed once again this year. He wasn’t quite as aggressive on the bases this year in terms of steals, only taking 16 bags. Still, he was very effective when he did choose to go, getting caught only three times. He also graded quite highly in all of the overall baserunning stats as well as the overall defensive metrics. It goes without saying that the eye test wholeheartedly agreed with those numbers as well.

Betts was also a machine against fastballs, which has been the case for his entire career. People often talk about how quick his hands are, and it is for good reason. It’s a bit absurd how quickly he gets his hands through the zone, particularly on fastballs on the inner half. Those pitches just can’t sneak by him, and that was the case in 2019 as well. According to Baseball Savant, Betts actually saw fastballs at a higher rate than the year before, presumably due to the development of guys like Xander Bogaerts and Rafael Devers. Betts jumped all over those fastballs, too, with an expected wOBA (remember, wOBA is on the scale of OBP) of .438. That is actually a 41 point dropoff from last year, but that is much more to do with him being on a different plane of existence in 2018 than being bad by any stretch in 2019.

The Negatives

As I mentioned at the top, this was perceived as something of a down year for Betts. Granted, a lot of that came during the first half when he was more very good than great, but even so it does speak to the high expectations we all have for the superstar. There were some big dropoffs from 2018, though, and one of the most startling was his performance against offspeed pitches. Again this data comes to us from Baseball Savant, who had Betts’ wOBA and expected wOBA both a .325 for the year, a very mediocre mark. Compare them to 2018 when he had marks of .452 and .392, respectively. It wasn’t an issue of contact as his whiff rate remained about the same, but he was more likely to chase bad offspeed pitches out of the zone while also having a greater tendency to pop them up.

Along the same lines of what we talked about with Benintendi on Tuesday, with him having a similar issue against offspeed pitches, Betts struggled when he had the platoon advantage. In his MVP season, this was one of the great separators for Betts as he posted an absurd 212 wRC+ against left-handed pitching. This past year, he hit just .271/.381/.458 against lefties for a 116 wRC+. Obviously, those are far from terrible numbers and his walk and strikeout numbers (15 percent and 11 percent, respectively) were tremendous. That said, he couldn’t quite get the same quality of contact and most notably was not pulling the ball as much as he was against righties. As we know, Betts is at his best, particularly as a power hitter, when he is ripping balls out to left field. It’s also worth noting this was all over 166 plate appearances and small sample size noise certainly played a role in this as well. I’d expect him to go back to being better hitter against lefties than righties again in 2020.

Power in general was a bit of an issue for Betts in 2019, even if the final numbers still look good. By the end of the year, he had hit 29 homers with 40 doubles and five triples for an Isolated Power of .229. Those are all very good, especially considering everything else he brings to the table. They are also, however, steps back from 2019 when he finished the year with a .294 ISO. It’s a more significant step back than it seems on the surface, too, given the surge in power across baseball this year. Again, I think a good chunk of this has to do with luck as his batted ball profile hasn’t changed much from 2018. The big difference was his pulling the ball, where much of the downturn came against lefties. As I said above, This seems like something that will even out over time.

The Big Question

Is there anything Mookie Betts can’t do?

Not really? I mean, he didn’t have another MVP-caliber season, but only one player in the game truly does that every single year. Betts was in the next tier down this year, though, and he’s been among the top two tiers every season since 2016 because he is so good at everything. Even if something takes a step back, like his power this past year, the rest of his game is good enough to make up for it. So, no, Mookie can’t be an MVP every year, but I’m willing to live with that shortcoming.

2020 Vision

We all know the questions around Betts’ status for 2020. This is going to be a long winter of contract rumors and, if an extension doesn’t come to fruition, trade rumors. My stance on this is known — do not trade him you dum dums — but I have a feeling my opinion is not the most valued in the Red Sox front office. Just a hunch. Ultimately I would still be surprised if he is dealt this winter, which could just be wishful thinking or a survival mechanism. For the time being at least, I am still of the mind that he is going to be back in right field at Fenway in 2020, hitting at the top of the order and putting up MVP-type numbers.