Baseball people are a tough bunch to move. With so much history — of both the anecdotal and numerical varieties — to go on, almost every player can be cataloged from the moment they’re drafted. From there, they get moved around based on development, but for the most part the top picks — big, loud tools emanating from big, loud physiques — are cast as stars and surprise 5th-rounders are billed as role-5 bit players. Major leaguers, valuable people to have around, but minor characters.
More often than not, the taxonomy proves useful.
Then there are the ones for whom conservative old scouting reports, noting the lack of a carrying tool or below-average projected power at maturity, simply become pieces of an origin story — like falling in a well or being bitten by a spider, just with more jargon and less human resonance.
For Mookie Betts, that portion of the story is over.
Our (baseball) hero’s next act is just about to begin. From the sport’s meticulously recorded history, we can be sure that Betts’ exceptional performance has won him daunting new obstacles. Front offices will scour videos of the American League’s second-best player for flaws, weaknesses. Pitchers — disinclined, as they are, to believe a stove is hot until they have a scar of their own as evidence — have already been burned enough to start changing how they pitch the 5-foot-9 flash of wiry muscle and joints who knocked 31 of their offerings over fences in 2016.
In 2017, Betts will face down the first significant conflict of his stardom, taking the league’s best shot as many others have done before him.
Looking back on their trials, troubles, and triumphs, we can glimpse the fates that may lie ahead.
We are each many people, as the multiple leads in any exhaustive biopic or superhero movie would attest. Baseball players are no different. They just have their transformations, and the resulting reactions of those around them, recorded more carefully.
Early Mookie will always look like this.
Breakout Mookie, like this.
The same player might cut five different figures within the game. Some do this by literally changing their figure (Sammy Sosa’s rookie weight — eternally preserved on Baseball-Reference — virtually matched Mookie’s). But the more common ways are through dominance and failure, and adaptations to both.
They often end up reshaped themselves, eventually finding an orbit that strikes a balance between the gravitational pull of their superstar status and the collective force of the league against them.
The first prescription for pushing back on a newly discovered offensive star is usually something like this:
- Throw fewer strikes.
- Take special care to avoid a star’s wheelhouse.
- Cut fastball usage.
It’s pretty straightforward. Theoretically, it makes the hitter in question work harder, or at least wait longer, to do significant damage. At FanGraphs, Dave Cameron already documented the collective pitching world’s rather slow internalizing of Betts’ strengths, as midway through 2016 these changes were not very visible. Then, a short time later, Jeff Sullivan noted that they had begun to take hold.
While we could air theories about why Betts’ abilities took longer to recognize — his size, his short incubation time as a hyped prospect, and his place in the batting order all seem like reasonable places to start — the more pressing matter is discerning who he’s likely to be as a marked man.
First, some paths that probably won’t be taken: Betts probably won’t blow up like a balloon animal and swing harder in an attempt to go full slugger. And he certainly won’t be identified as a swing-and-miss guy who can be pitched more carefully but still aggressively (at which point he will not make a mechanical adjustment — a la Kris Bryant in 2016 — cut his strikeout rate and swinging-strike rate, and bash the league’s brains in).
Betts is a combination of several things that make the league’s go-to tactic unlikely to succeed in dampening his overall production.
He chooses pitches selectively, but works to avoid excessive patience. In other words, he carefully picks his pitch, yet he typically won’t let a plate appearance go by without swinging. This goes toward explaining a 6.7 percent 2016 walk rate that doesn’t jump off the page, but could stand to increase if pitchers fear his power.
It remains possible that his low walk rate was a byproduct of his place atop a powerful lineup. Maybe, when batting leadoff, Betts was seeing better late-count pitches than most hitters of his type. Once he moved to the cleanup spot, he walked 10 percent of the time. But that hypothesis is impossible to assess at this point, as it was 159 plate appearances, mostly during a hot streak.
He just doesn’t swing and miss. Thus far, Betts has produced minuscule swinging-strike rates, that, when paired with power, are usually found only in Albert Pujols-style monsters who hit everything they deign to swing at, or aggressive contact masters like prime Robinson Cano or 2016 Daniel Murphy.
He is extremely dangerous on the base paths. By FanGraphs’ base-running metric, he has been the most valuable player on the bases in each of the past two seasons — which owes to his stolen-base totals but also instinctive aggression on balls in play.
Finding players of recent vintage who shared even two of those qualities is tricky, but their models of success are not uninformative.
The popular comp that morphed from ridiculous optimism to “uh, wow, OK, that works,” McCutchen, like Betts, achieved his power breakout by curtailing some of his patience and swinging more.
But, in the process, it appears McCutchen also began swinging harder, or at least in a way that watered down his previously stellar contact abilities. And when his power declined a bit in 2015 and a much bigger bit in 2016, pitchers came back into the zone to find McCutchen’s swinging-strike rate remained right around the elevated, if still league-average, level he adopted in 2012.
Betts, on the other hand, saw no change in his elite swinging-strike rate in 2016. He also muscled up without nearly as dramatic an increase in swing rate — perhaps a sign of some different level of selectivity, or a different facility with off-speed pitches.
If we are to project Betts to walk and perhaps strike out a bit more as he sees fewer pitches worthy of his swing, we might find a kindred spirit in Troy Tulowitzki.
(The mind-bending 2011 version of Jacoby Ellsbury fit here, too, but can be quickly dismissed, as his career-low ground-ball rate is higher than Betts’ career-high. Ellsbury’s 2011 power spike left little behind when it disappeared, other than a somewhat elevated pull percentage, and longing gazes from fans in the protruding right field stands of both parks he has called home.)
The expected drop in zone percentage did indeed occur during and after Tulowitzki’s 2009 power breakout, but following a 2010 campaign (injury-shortened, of course) during which he maintained his approach and just hit even better, pitchers relented and threw him the league-average proportion of strikes, or more. He may have also owed some portion of his approach to the fear of the lineup (and ballpark) surrounding him.
Running, though, was never a particularly threatening part of Tulo’s game.
Betts sometimes draws comparisons to his teammate and one-time big-league barrier Dustin Pedroia, predominantly for their superior ability to handle inside fastballs — a certain hand-eye coordination competence that, combined with their size, looks almost comical when they turn on power pitches up and in. Pedroia, however, has never produced a power season to match the one Betts just had.
Chase Utley got a later start to his career, playing his first full season at age 26. Despite more meager stolen base totals and an untold deficit in explosiveness, Utley was a premier baserunner, and a mental terror for pitchers. Refining his approach in that first full season, he struck a balance much like Betts did in 2016 and McCutchen did in 2012.
The league’s average zone rate was different then (over 50 percent), but through some combination of his unassuming nature and selectivity, Utley sailed through most of his late 20s without ever seeing many fewer strikes than league average. He proceeded to jack about 30 of them out of the park each year.
In 2009, pitchers wised up, dipping way below the sinking average zone rate and shaving some points off his SLG. He responded by becoming even more selective, allowing his OBP and baserunning acumen to make up for the diminished power.
If Betts continues to display the type of controlled aggression that carried him through last summer, “Utley plus more speed” isn’t a strange thing to say. Betts could swing less, walk more, and make similar contact. In other words, his OBP might rise above .400, while his SLG dips a little, regressing alongside home-run rates, perhaps. But he will be one of the most potent offensive players in the sport.
All of this said, we have no real idea what will happen if pitchers figure out a way to go whole plate appearances without either putting Betts on base or serving up a fastball in the zone. It could be he’s susceptible to something we aren’t aware of yet. It could also be that he corrects that hypothetical thing expediently once it’s pointed out.
We are bad at predicting the future. We are bad at remembering how the past became the present. We are bad at looking at two different people and seeing their similarities instead of their differences. Hell, we’re bad at looking at the same person, five years apart, and doing the same.
So prognostications like these are futile, just as likely to be washed away tomorrow. But sometimes you see an expression, a mannerism, a habit.
And you can’t help but wonder where you’ve seen it before.
. . .
Zach Crizer is a featured writer at Beyond the Box Score. You can follow him on Twitter at @zcrizer.