Seasons in Boston: 2014-2019
Honors: 2018 American League MVP, World Series Champ, 4x All-Star, 2018 American League Batting Title, 4x Gold Glove. 3x Silver Slugger, 2016 Wilson Defensive Player of the Year Award, 2018 The Sporting News Player of the Year
Red Sox Numbers: .301/.374/.519, 139 HR, 613 R, 470 RBI, 126 SB, 135 wRC+, 37.2 fWAR
Signature Season: 2018 .346/.438/.640, 32 HR, 129 R, 80 RBI, 30 SB, 185 wRC+, 10.4 fWAR
The wounds are still fresh, so this is a tough one to write, but let there be no mistaking it: The Red Sox just traded the best right fielder in team history. It took a little less than five and a half years with the big league club for Betts to become the greatest to ever play the position at Fenway Park. Betts is a better hitter and fielder than Dwight Evans was. He’s a better base runner than Jackie Jensen. He’s a more complete player than Harry Hooper, Trot Nixon, or J.D. Drew. Betts’s best single season is lightyears ahead of anyone to ever play the position while wearing a Red Sox uniform.
Betts’s best season is, in fact, so good that Baseball Reference has it as the second most valuable season in Red Sox history, behind only Carl Yastrzemski’s 1967 Triple Crown/MVP season. While I certainly can’t deny Betts’s greatness in 2018 I much prefer where it ranks by FanGraphs WAR. FanGraphs has it as the seventh best Red Sox season at 10.4 wins above replacement vs 10.6 for Baseball Reference. That puts it behind four of Ted Williams’s best years, Tris Speaker’s 1912 MVP season, and the aforementioned Yastrzemski season. This feels right on. It was the first full season of Mike Trout’s career that he was not first or tied for first in FanGraphs WAR. Betts had a better year by this metric than Trout, who is already one of the greatest to ever play this game. Betts’s MVP was well earned.
If we take a closer look at the five full-seasons that Betts played with the Red Sox from ages 22-26, it’s easy to see why this team wouldn’t be complete without his inclusion. According to Baseball Reference, Betts has produced more WAR during those seasons than all but 11 players in baseball history. Every single player in front of Betts on that list and almost all of the 50 plus names that are behind him are in the Hall of Fame or will be in the Hall of Fame. The only player to out produce Betts during those seasons in Red Sox history was Speaker, although it is worth mentioning that Williams likely would have if he was not in the military for three of those five years.
During Betts’s short, but wildly successful, time with the Red Sox he won an MVP, finished second in MVP voting another season, and received MVP votes in every full season he played. After his age-26 season Betts already ranks 16th all-time in top 10 MVP vote shares among right fielders. Even more impressive than that, he already ranks 10th in top 10 WAR shares among all right fielders and 15th in WAR7 despite having not even played a seventh season yet. To put this in perspective, Evans, the team’s second greatest right fielder is substantially lower on all these metrics and it took him 20 years to receive MVP votes on five separate occasions.
When making this decision it really was only Evans who inserted himself into the discussion for best right fielder in team history. Jensen has the 1958 MVP and was very good, but his best seasons were not as good as those of Evans. If you value longevity over peak, then Evans is your guy. From 1972-1989 he played a fantastic right field and was an undervalued hitter. He carried a career wRC+ of 129, not too far off Betts’s mark, but never had a single superlative season. He may have been on his way to such a season in 1981, but weird things can happen in strike shortened years. His high watermark for MVP votes was third during that shortened season which also happened to be his career high in FanGraphs WAR at 6.6. Betts has already had three seasons at 6.6 or above.
We will never know what could’ve been with Betts if he and the Red Sox had been able to come to an agreement on a contract extension. It sure looked like he was on his way to being a top five player in team history. His 37.2 FanGraphs WAR already ranks him as the seventh best outfielder in team history. He ranks second in team history behind only Speaker through age 26. Betts is one of just two Red Sox ever, along with Jacoby Ellsbury, to achieve a 30/30 season. Betts’s 185 wRC+ from 2018 ranks as the fifth best single-season mark in team history behind only Williams (who hit that mark twice), Babe Ruth, and Speaker. His slugging percentage for that same season is fourth best in team history while his on-base percentage and batting average rank eighth and ninth, respectively.
Watching Betts over these past five and a half years, what stood out to me was his understanding of the strike zone, his lightning quick bat, his stellar defense, and his base running. All five of Betts’s full seasons rank in the top ten of FanGraphs BsR metric in Red Sox history. Overall he is already the leader in team history with the most value produced on the bases. Defensively Betts ranks first in team history among right fielders in Def and the amazing plays we’ve seen from him over the years back that up. Base running and defense are typically the first to fade as players age so who knows where Betts will end up by the end of his career. What I do know is that by trading Betts the Red Sox shipped out the best five-tool player in team history and we’ll almost certainly have to watch his greatness unfold in some other uniform.