Red Sox 2017 Report Cards: Right fielder Mookie Betts

BALTIMORE, MD - JUNE 03: Mookie Betts
BALTIMORE, MD - JUNE 03: Mookie Betts /

Our annual Report Card series evaluates and grades the 2017 season of each member of the Boston Red Sox. Up next – right fielder Mookie Betts.

Can a player regress significantly in several aspects of the game yet still remain among the top handful of players in the league? That essentially sums up the 2017 season for Boston Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts.

The production at the plate took a nosedive from the MVP runner-up campaign that Betts displayed the previous season. He hit .264/.344/.459 this season, down from the stellar .318/.363/.534 line he produced in 2016.

While he led the Red Sox in home runs, that’s not saying much for a team that ranked dead last in the league in that category. 24 homers is nothing to scoff at but it seems miles away from the 31 he smashed a year ago given that he’s hitting in the middle of a lineup starved for power.

The advanced hitting stats weren’t promising either. His 108 OPS+, 108 wRC+ and .339 wOBA were all steep falls from last year and well below his career averages. Betts was still an above-average hitter but not a superstar at the plate.

Yet despite all that he still produced a 6.2 WAR that ranked fifth among American League position players. How is that?

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For starters, Betts provides plenty of value with his glove. His 31 defensive runs saved were the most among major league outfielders and second most at any position. He led the majors with a 20.5 UZR and his eight outfield assists were tied for eighth in the AL. He’s a lock to bring home his second straight Gold Glove award for outstanding defense that makes him an asset even when he’s struggling at the plate.

The 26 bases that Betts stole this season matched the career-high he set last season but he was slightly more efficient with one fewer caught stealing on his resume this year. He was one of only nine major league players to hit 20+ homers and collect 20+ steals this season. Betts was also second in the league with 9.2 BsR (Fangraphs’ all encompassing base running statistic).

While we’ve established how a five-tool player like Betts can provide value without a bat in his hands, we should note that his demise at the plate may be greatly exaggerated.

Betts owned an astonishingly low .268 BABIP, suggesting that his low batting average was heavily influenced by bad luck. That figure is well below his career rate and league-average, with only a dozen AL hitters producing a lower BABIP this year.

A low BABIP can at times be the fault of the hitter, although there’s little to suggest that was the case with Betts. His .194 ISO isn’t much lower than last year and he made hard contact a career-high 35.7 percent of the time. Betts was driving the ball with authority, the ball simply wasn’t falling in for a hit as often as we should expect.

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There are other positives to take away from his offensive production as well. Betts drew a career-high 77 walks and just missed the cut for the top-20 in the league with a 10.1 BB%. He nearly accomplished the rare feat of walking more times than he struck out (79)  and his 11.1 K% was fourth lowest in the league.

Betts was one of only eight major league hitters to score 100+ runs and drive in 100+ RBI. His totals were down a bit from last year but that has a lot to do with the Red Sox lineup being weaker than it was a year ago. Betts was fourth in the AL with a .355 batting average with runners in scoring position, proving he’s still worthy of his spot in the middle of the lineup even in what we consider a down year for the young All-Star.

All this points to Betts rebounding at the plate next year. If his offensive production catches back up to his elite defense and base running then he’ll once again find himself in the MVP conversation.

Betts can expect a significant bump in salary through the arbitration process, assuming the Red Sox don’t lock him up to a long-term deal instead. He won’t be eligible for free agency until 2021 so there’s no need for either side to rush into an extension.

Mookie Betts. B+. . Right Field.

Next: Candidates to replace Farrell

We’ll see Betts patrolling right field at Fenway Park again in 2018. A bounce-back campaign should be expected, with Betts making a third consecutive All-Star appearance and re-establishing himself as one of the premier players in baseball.