Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts battling BABIP


There may not be a more exciting player in the Boston Red Sox lineup than Mookie Betts. The 22-year old is the total package, with blossoming power and the speed to provide a spark at the top of the order. He has the tools to develop into a star, but a slow start to the season has left a glaring question lingering over this lineup.

What’s up with Mookie?

Betts has a .291 OBP this season that is unbecoming of a lead-off hitter. He has produced an above-average walk rate of 8.1%, but his unappealing .227 batting average is dragging him down. Strikeouts haven’t been the culprit, as his 13.3 percent K% ties him for the 22nd best in the league. He has proven capable of hitting the ball to all fields and his .162 ISO Power fares well compared to his peers at his position. Based on these factors, Betts does not profile as a hitter that should be struggling this much to produce hits.

Batting average tends to be the statistic that the casual fan turns to in order to determine how successfully a hitter has been at the plate, but it can also be misleading. In this case, Betts’ low average may at least in part be influenced by a bit of bad luck.

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Sporting a .233 BABIP, Betts currently ranks 81st out of 93 qualified hitters in the American League. This has been the primary factor for his low batting average, as once the ball is put in play there is very little that the hitter can do to prevent it from being an out. Sometimes you make solid contact and the ball happens to be hit right at a defender. Other times the defense may make a great play to rob you of what seemed like a surefire hit. That’s the part of it that boils down to luck, which thus far has been working against Betts this season.

There are other factors that can influence BABIP that extend beyond merely chalking it up to bad luck. Solid contact that results in sharp line drives are more likely to fall in for hits because the defense has less time to react to where it’s going. This is relevant for Betts since his 15.7 percent LD% is the second lowest among qualified AL center fielders.

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Betts may not be hitting line drives, but he is putting the ball in the air with a whopping 47 percent FB% that is the 8th highest in the league. The optimistic take is that his power is still developing (remember, he’s still one of the youngest players in the league), so eventually we will see many of those fly balls pulled to left field put dents in the wall, if not soaring over it. The counter argument is that Betts has one of the league’s highest infield fly ball rates (15.9%). This could be due to a mechanical flaw in his swing that has thrown off his timing, resulting in more weak pop-ups. If that’s the case, it’s something that should be easily corrected once it’s properly identified.

When Betts raced through the system to force his way on to the major league roster last season these flaws weren’t an issue. In his brief tenure last season he had a much less troubling 11.5 percent IFFB% and he produced a more respectable 20.9 percent LD%. While the sample size was limited due to his mid-season call-up, this season’s sample is even smaller so far. His track record in the minors, along with what we saw late last season, suggests these rates will eventually start to trend in the right direction.

We have already seen that Betts has showcased great plate discipline, so making contact has not been a problem. He will find more of those balls put in play falling in for hits once his luck takes a turn for the better, but once he starts consistently making hard contact to drive the ball with authority, that’s when he’ll reach is star potential.