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Mookie Betts and the problems(?) of patience

Mookie Betts was unabashedly patient at the plate this year. How, if at all, did it cause his comparatively poor year?

MLB: ALDS-Houston Astros at Boston Red Sox Bob DeChiara-USA TODAY Sports

It’s hard to call a 6+ WAR season a disappointment, but it’s plain you’re a great player when that’s the case. In this case, it’s Mookie Betts. Coming off an MVP-caliber 2016, Betts saw his OPS plummet by nearly 100 points, as both his slugging percentage (.534 in 2016, .459 this year) and on-base percentage (19 point drop to .344 this year) took a hit. He had a career-low .264 BABIP, which could explain some of the falloff, but somehow, in this hyper-powered atmosphere and playing in some of the most bandboxy parks in the game, he was barely above average offensively.

Amid his myriad outliers in 2017, one aspect spoke volumes. Betts was more patient at the plate than he’d ever been.

For his career, Betts has been one of the less swing-prone players in baseball. In 2017, though, things took a decided spike. (This is all drawn from the perhaps-too-granular advanced stats that Baseball Reference tracks, because baseball is the best at granularity.) Take a look:

Mookie Betts’ patience by the numbers

Statistic 2017 2016 Career
Statistic 2017 2016 Career
BB% 10.8 6.7 8.4
Strike% 58.9 63.5 62.2
Strike Looking% 39.7 34.9 37.8
1st Pitch Swing % 11.9 17.4 14.4
Strikeout Looking% 24.1 21.3 22.8

Walking more is always good, and it helped save Betts’ season. If he’d maintained the same walk rate as a year ago, he’d be something resembling a less strikeout-prone Maikel Franco offensively. But this patience to work the walk seems to have come at the cost of his broader production. Or, at lesat, he didn't maintain what he'd been doing in terms of results.

A couple big things changed for and around Betts in 2017. First, the retirement of David Ortiz meant the Sox were counting considerably more on the young outfielder to produce at the plate and help lift the offense. He was excellent last year, so that shouldn't have been a problem. As the year wore on, that became even more vital, as Dustin Pedroia kept battling injury, Hanley Ramirez and Mitch Moreland were variously holes in the offense, and other young players like Xander Boegarts were less effective than expected.

As the newly christened offensive centerpiece, Betts found himself batting leadoff only 81 games, a career low. Yes, you only lead a game off once. After that, it’s all just hitting. But in 2016 Betts feasted on leadoff at-bats, and it really helped his overall numbers.

Mookie Bett numbers leading off the game

Year PA HR OPS tOPS+
Year PA HR OPS tOPS+
2016 109 6 1.019 127
2017 81 3 .650 61

While it would be easy to wave this away as small-sample BS, 109 plate appearances is a months’ worth of baseball, and 81 is large enough to judge something.

So why was Betts so much worse in that spot this year? Bad luck? Perhaps, and obviously pitchers knew his tendencies more and were more careful with him. That’s where some of the walks and assorted other patience could have come from, too. At the same time, he wasn’t swinging at first-pitch strikes as much, whether hitting third, fourth or first. He wasn’t ambushing pitchers, and in the leadoff position in particular you have a great chance of getting a first-pitch fastball because the pitcher still needs to get into his own groove. By the time he’s into the third or fourth person in the order more has been mixed in, he’s gotten into early game sequences and is much harder to judge. The ambushing tactic is much less effective.

Thanks to the madmen at Baseball Savant, we can see what Betts saw on the first pitches of at-bats in the first inning. Since he did bat fourth a bit, it’s not every at-bat this year, but it’s most of them. Perhaps there’s something to be gleaned from his inaction early (and often) in at-bats. In 2016 the breakdown of pitches seen on 0-0 counts was this:

Baseball Savant

And in 2017, there’s a change:

Baseball Savant

Last year the four most common pitches he saw to open at-bats were four-seams, sliders, two-seamers and cutters, in that order. Basically, all fastball variants, with the slider being the only true breaking pitch. This year, it’s four-seam, two-seam, sinker and slider. More notable is a drop in the percentage of fastballs he saw. Even if it’s still a lot of fastball-y pitches, it’s less straight stuff.

It’s hard to think that four percent fewer four-seamers really can cause that much of a change in performance. And again,we’re talking about barely more five percent of the total pitches he saw all year, in both cases. But he was seeing different movements and pitches his first time to the plate. Probably a combination of general respect due to his golden 2016, and that pitchers had more chances to work in different offerings. Whichever it was, it made life harder on Betts, and could be why he laid off some to start at-bats.

I don’t expect him to continue struggling. Despite having his worst offensive season to date, Betts boosted his fly ball rate, and his average exit velocity rose from 86.7 mph last year to 87.9 this season. Between an unlucky BABIP season and these positive changes, 2018 might be a frightful time for other teams’ pitching.

And again, he gets to hit in Fenway half the year and go to Toronto, New York, Baltimore and Tampa. That's a lot of places that really love giving up home runs. (Baltimore's pitching in particular really obliges visiting hitters.) Assuming the offensive atmosphere stays the same, a 35 or so home run season isn’t out of the question. Francisco Lindor hit 31 this season for goodness’ sakes. Betts can do that.

The Red Sox are supposed to contend with their rotation and positional talent, even if it is young a lot of places. We’ve seen a changing of the guard over the last few years, and with Pedroia playing only 105 games in 2017, a new face was needed to lead the charge day in and day out. That had to be Betts. He was an MVP candidate last year, and behind Ortiz their best hitter. That’s also lot of pressure for a guy in his third full season.

Had he been 2016 Betts, there’s no problem, very little to complain about. But stagnation leads to death. He made plans to be great, not just real good. Despite his struggles, Boston still won the division. He made a change, and got better on the periphery. We'll see if things look different in 2018, but positive regression looms. All we need is a little patience.

Merritt Rohlfing writes about all things baseball here at Beyond the Box Score, and Cleveland Indians-specific stuff at Let’s Go Tribe. Follow him on Twitter @merrittrohlfing. You might not regret it.