There’s a scene in Bojack Horseman in which one of the characters is talking about her wedding day. She says that it was a great day and that “she got the happy ending, but every happy ending has the day after the happy ending, and the day after that.” Then she says, “It was the happiest day of my life, but ya know, what does that say about the days I have left?” I’ve been thinking about that quote a lot with respect to the Red Sox and their World Series last year. Given how historically excellent they were in 2018, a letdown was inevitable, but the start to 2019 has been to such an extreme. Of course none of this means it’s fair or right to hold anything that happens this year against last year’s team. That still happened. It’s just, now we’re living in the days after the happiest day of the Red Sox life, so to speak. It’s unfair, but Diane (the character mentioned above) is a cynical character, it’s hard to not to be cynical about the Red Sox in this moment. Everything to this point has been an utter disaster, with Boston sporting the worst record and run differential in the American League, fresh off a two-game sweep at the hands of the depleted Yankees.
Like I said, everything has been a disaster to this point. It’s still early, but at a certain point the division is out of reach even in April and the Red Sox are staring down that point way earlier than any preseason contender should. There have been a few bright spots here and there — J.D. Martinez is still a machine specially made for hitting, Matt Barnes has been great, some of the starters are beginning to turn things around — but for the most part it’s been a disaster from top to bottom. To put the blame on just one guy or even just one positional group would be a fundamental misunderstanding of what’s happened over the first 19 games of the season. That being said, there has been a face to the struggles, which is of course a most undefinable quality. Still, if there was one player I could choose whose performance and disappointment has most represented the terrible and inexplicable performance to this point in the year, it would be Mookie Betts.
Quite frankly, it has been brutal watching the 2018 American League MVP to start this season. He’s had some good swings, of course, but for the most part he’s been a total non-factor. Through 19 games and 82 plate appearances, Betts is hitting just .200/.305/.371 for a 78 wRC+. In other words, through the 12 percent of the year he’s been the equivalent of 2018 Eduardo Núñez at the plate. Anyone who watched last year knows that’s not the most flattering comparison.
It’s not even just the numbers that are disappointing for Betts. At this point in the year, with the small samples being dealt with, numbers can be extremely misleading. It wouldn’t be out of the question that he’d have a 78 wRC+ largely thanks to some well-hit balls being hit directly at the defense. That’s not happening here, and anyone watching these games know this isn’t simply a matter of a superstar running into some bad luck. To put it simply, Betts looks lost every time he’s come to the plate right now.
This is far from an original and novel point, but the biggest issue here for Betts so far is his approach at the plate. Even in 2018 he wasn’t the most aggressive hitter, but he was much more aggressive than he had been in the past. So far in 2019, he’s trending back in the wrong direction and allowing hittable pitches go by. According to Baseball Prospectus, 193 players have seen at least 200 pitches in 2019 (Betts has seen 344). Of those hitters, only seven have swung the bat at a lower rate than Betts. Furthermore, only nine have swung at a lower rate on pitches in the zone. Obviously not every pitch in the zone is created equally, but this is certainly not a good sign.
If you’ve been watching him, you know that he’s been essentially inviting pitchers to throw free strikes on the first pitch, particularly early in games. He’s taking all the way on these pitches, which has led to too many 0-1 counts. He’s had an 0-1 count in about 40 percent of his at bats and he’s put up a .238 OPS in those situations. Compare that to last year when he put up a whopping 1.040 OPS after being down 0-1.
Additionally, he’s just not jumping on fastballs, as pitchers are throwing more fastballs to Betts than any year since his first in the majors but he’s swinging at them at the lowest rate of his career. We know these are the pitches he’s taken advantage of over his entire career. It’s jarring to see him struggle so much with them right now. This gets back to the issue of the first pitch, too, because 68 percent of the first pitches he’s seen have been either four-seam or two-seam fastballs. He is swinging at just 11 percent of these first pitches he’s seeing, and to this point he has yet to put any of them in the air in fair territory. Betts doesn’t have to be doing damage on every first pitch, obviously, but these numbers indicate it’s not even a possibility right now.
With the way things have gone so far, Betts simply looks like a guy who is out of rhythm and losing confidence. This isn’t the quietly cocky player we saw all of last year who just exuded confidence that he was going to do damage every time he came to the plate. The fix to that is, well, it’s above my pay grade. It feels like a situation where the guy just needs to back into a big game and really find something to build off. Betts is too talented to stay down for too long, but right now he’s brutal to watch. Just like the team as a whole.