Red Sox: Introducing the new and improved Mookie Betts

BOSTON, MA - APRIL 05: Mookie Betts
BOSTON, MA - APRIL 05: Mookie Betts /

Gone are the days of Mookie Betts, the leadoff hitter with sneaky power. We are now entering the era of the Red sox right fielder being a bona fide slugger.

The Boston Red Sox have absolutely torn through their competition in the first 19 games of this season. The team is an MLB best 17-2 and already holds a 4.0 game lead on the Toronto Blue Jays and a 7.5 game lead over the preseason division favorite New York Yankees. There are many contributors to this team’s astonishing early season success, but the team’s most valuable player has undoubtedly been Mookie Betts.

This isn’t a huge surprise. Last season was a down year for Betts, but even though he failed to replicate his MVP level production from 2016, Betts still led all Red Sox position players in fWAR. Through 153 games, the 24-year old superstar accrued 4.8 wins above replacement by hitting .264/.344/.459 with 24 homers and 26 steals and defending right field better than any player in baseball.

Betts has taken that production to a whole new level this year. Through 18 games, the 25-year-old outfielder is hitting .382/.469/.785 with 6 homers. He has tapped into his power in a way we’ve never seen before with a mind-boggling .382 ISO, but he has not sacrificed his approach to do it. In fact, Betts has walked 12.3% of the time while only striking out 9.9% of the time; both improvements on last season’s plate discipline numbers.

So what’s behind this new and improved Mookie Betts? It starts with the Red Sox’s new hitting philosophy. Even back in February, we heard that the Red Sox planned to swing at more pitches this season. This represented a step away from the successful Red Sox teams of years past whose strategy was almost always to wear opposing pitchers down by making them throw lots of pitches and get to the bullpen as quickly as possible. But after watching the Red Sox haplessly waste offensive opportunities time and time again last season, this new approach sounded refreshing.

It hasn’t taken long for Mookie to buy in. Take a look at the swing percentage heatmap for Betts in 2017 and compare it to this one from 2018.

In 2017, Mookie swung at less than 60% of pitches in every part of the zone; this season, he’s hacking between 60% and 80% of the time on almost the entire inner half of the plate. One would think that swinging at more pitches, especially because he’s swinging at more pitches below the strike zone than he did last season, would lead to lower contact rates. To the contrary, however, Betts has increased his contact percentage from 85.8% to 88.1% on all pitches. On pitches in the zone, Betts has whiffed just 3.7% of the time in 2018.

One would have to suspend belief to conclude that swinging at more pitches has suddenly transformed Betts into baseball’s most dangerous hitter. To get a better grasp of the changes Betts has made to his approach, let’s look at his batted ball data. Last year, Betts had a .268 BABIP; an unusually low number for a player with his speed and hard contact rates. Thus, the sabermetric-savvy fans may have seen a Betts resurgence coming this season. But no one could have predicted this power surge.

This season, Betts has overhauled his identity as a hitter; at least in terms of his batted ball profile. In 2017, Mookie put the ball on the ground over 40% of the time and pulled the ball 44.4% of the time. This season, Mookie has lowered his ground ball rate below 30% while pulling the ball in 57.4% of at-bats. That looks a lot more like the approach you’d see from Jose Bautista than a leadoff hitter.

Statcast provides more data on this front. Statcast gives us more information on hitters than we’ve ever had before. We can now see exactly how hard balls were hit and at what angle they left the bat. This has, of course, led to the recent launch angle revolution around baseball and this year’s data implies that Mookie has bought in.

The optimal launch angle is generally considered to be around 25° to 30° and most of the game’s premier hitters usually average a launch angle in the mid-teens. Though launch angles aren’t the full story, higher launch angles, up to about 30°, generally lead to balls going further. According to xStats, a website that aggregates Statcast data, Mookie has increased his launch angle from 14.1° in 2017 to 20.8° so far this season. Add in the fact that Mookie’s average exit velocity has jumped from around 88 mph to over 92 mph and you start to see the profile of a very dangerous presence in the middle of Boston’s lineup.

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Another new Statcast statistic, courtesy of Tom Tango, provides perhaps the most startling measure of Mookie’s success. Barrels are roughly defined as balls that were hit over 98 mph off the bat at launch angles between 25° and 31°. Betts is tied for second in major league baseball, behind only fellow teammate J.D. Martinez, with 13 barrels already this year. He’s barreled the ball up in an insane 16% of his plate appearances. This is in contrast with a barrel rate of 3.5% and a total of 25 barrels over all of last season.

In just 81 plate appearances, Betts has already hit over half as many baseballs on the nose this season as he did in 712 plate appearances in 2017. To give more context, since the stats inception, Giancarlo Stanton holds the single-season high-water mark with barrels in 14.2% of his plate appearances in 2015.

Can Betts hit the ball perfectly 16% over the course of the entire season? Almost certainly not. He also won’t finish the season with an ISO higher than most leadoff hitters’ OBP. But the Mookie we have seen this season is a different player than the one we saw last year. He’s more aggressive in the zone, but he still doesn’t strike out. He pulls the ball more, but without sacrificing his approach. He’s hitting the ball harder than he ever has before and he’s hitting the ball at a launch angle that screams power hitter.

We are less than 20 games into this season and maybe this sample is too small to extract meaningful conclusions. Maybe this is just an extended hot streak from a player who has already put up MVP caliber numbers earlier in his career. But watching Betts hit this season feels different. It seems like every time he steps up he’s going to pull the ball somewhere hard.

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After watching the Red Sox lack any sort of power last season, the Mookie laser show is a welcome surprise. Betts was already a very good hitter and the adjustments he’s made so far this season may allow him to become an elite one.