The general feeling around this Red Sox team, as we pretty much all know, has been mostly negative this season. Things have been much better of late, but it’s likely been too little too late and the negative feelings remain for valid reasons that I am not going to get into in this space. We know them and don’t need them rehashed. All of that said, as Michelle wrote last week there have been positives in this down year as well.
If we were to rank the positive developments in 2019 — something I certainly have no interest in doing right now — I would probably be hard-pressed to think of anything to top Rafael Devers emerging as one of the league’s best hitters at such a young age. That has overwhelmingly been the most startling and exciting development in 2019, and among the many feats for Devers is his pursuit of rare company with his number of doubles and extra-base hits. He is pushing for records or near-records both within franchise constraints and compared to any major-leaguer at his age in history. He’s also not the only Red Sox hitter having a historically significant season.
The perception around Mookie Betts this season has been a little strange. Coming off an all-time great all-around season and an MVP award in 2018, the standards were set impossibly high for any player whose last name is not a fish. As many could have predicted, Betts hasn’t quite lived up to those lofty standards. Largely due to this fact, the superstar is having a down year. It’s all led to some uncomfortable (and frustrating, in my opinion) conversation around Betts with respect to his contract situation over the next 14 months.
Now, it’s not really unfair to call this a down season for Betts considering he’s had two all-world, MVP caliber seasons in recent memory. For him, it is not the best he can do. However, compared to your typical major-league baseball player, the Red Sox’ best player has still been spectacular. Betts is hitting .285/.387/.501 for a 128 wRC+ this year. In other words, he has been 28 percent better than the league-average hitter while still providing his typical all-world defense and base running.
By Fangraphs WAR, he has a good chance of picking up his third career six-win season. Baseball-Reference has always been even higher on Betts, and this year should continue his run of finishing with six-win seasons every year of his career. (He finished with 5.9 WAR in 2015, but a tenth of a win is a rounding error.) In terms of league context, Betts is 33rd in baseball in wRC+, right between Austin Meadows and Matt Chapman. In fWAR, he is twelfth in the game between Chapman and Michael Brantley.
So, in terms of the more sophisticated measuring tools we have, Betts has still been very good even if he hasn’t been as great as he has the potential to be. Those are generally the tools we use at this site, but the most ridiculous part of Betts’ season actually related to a stat that is best reserved at this point for fantasy purposes. He is putting up unreal runs scored numbers this season.
Through Sunday’s action in San Diego, the 2018 MVP has scored a ridiculous 118 runs this season. That would be a tremendous number over the course of an entire season, and he’s reached it with a week left in August. Last season, those 118 runs would have tied for fourth in all of baseball. Again, there is a week left in August. If Betts plays the rest of the year — he’s not going to play every day, but hear me out — he is on pace for 145 runs. ONE HUNDRED FORTY FIVE RUNS. Going back to 1900, 26 players have ever scored more runs than that in a single season, one of which (Ted Williams in 1949, who scored 150 runs) was with the Red Sox. Going back 50 years, four players — Jeff Bagwell in 2000, Sammy Sosa in 2001, Ricky Henderson in 1985 and Craig Biggio in 1997 — have beat that 145 mark.
In other words, this is a nearly unprecedented pace in modern baseball. Obviously, with a stat like runs scored there’s a whole lot of context that needs to be added to all of this. Betts scoring all of these runs certainly reflects well on him, and we’ll get to that in a second, but there are a lot of outside factors here as well. The run environment is probably the most important, as you can see from the other seasons with this kind of run total. Other than Henderson’s season, the other three seasons with over 145 runs were in the heart of the steroid era. We are now in another unprecedented era of offense, which obviously boosts these kinds of counting stats. Beyond that, Betts has gotten a lot of help from his teammates, a necessary boost if you’re going to score a lot of runs. He’s not crossing the plate this often if not for the prowess of Devers, Xander Bogaerts and J.D. Martinez, not to mention the other hitters lower in the lineup. The Red Sox offense has been potent for so much of this year, and Betts has benefitted.
That’s not to say he hasn’t played any sort of role in this, though. First and foremost, it’s really hard to score runs if you’re not getting on base, and Betts has done plenty of that. He is walking over 14 percent of the time this year, a career-high, and has a .387 on-base percentage. Among qualified hitters, only 13 are getting on base at a higher clip than Betts. Once he gets on base, he is also one of the best baserunners in baseball. He’s extremely athletic, which certainly helps, and he’s also among the best in the game at taking the extra bases. By Fangraphs’ baserunning metric, he’s been the 15th most valuable baserunner in the game this season. The run environment and his lineup has certainly boosted Betts’ totals, but he’s done plenty of the work itself.
At the end of the day, we’re talking about a counting statistic that is generally hand-waved due to how tied to contextual factors it is. Runs scored obviously isn’t a great measure of a player’s talent. We all know this. That is, however, not the same as saying this kind of pursuit is not incredibly impressive for Betts. He has a chance to become a franchise record holder and put himself near the top of a modern leaderboard. There’s not a ton of hope for the Red Sox making the playoffs, but this chase from Betts is one example of why it’s worth continuing to watch this team the rest of the year.