Two notable trends in Mookie Betts’s swing have made the Red Sox star right fielder the early favorite for AL MVP.
Mookie Betts has a lot to smile about.
Not only is his Red Sox winning approximately two out of every three games, but he is also having a career-year a quarter of the way through the season. Consider the fact that through the first 45 games the Red Sox have played, Betts lead the entire league in 20 categories:
Admittedly, it cannot be expected that Betts keeps his torrid pace up throughout the grind of a 162-game season. However, he is putting the league on notice and making many begin to doubt Mike Trout’s legitimacy for the American League MVP award this year.
Ever since Trout emerged in 2012, he has consistently been a top candidate for American League MVP. In 2018, he consistently remains atop the American League leaderboard for many of the major offensive and defensive statistics. Trout’s overall value to the Angels definitely should not be discredited. He is on pace for a 14.1 WAR season in 2018, which would tie the all-time record set by Babe Ruth in 1923.
Despite all of that, Trout remains the second-best overall player in the American League this year. Mookie Betts is thus far well-deserving of the honor of not only being the best player in the American League but in the entire MLB.
Let’s first consider the defensive value Betts brings to the Red Sox. Like Trout, he is deployed in the outfield. As the Red Sox’s primary right fielder, Betts has amassed the best fWAR and Fielding% of any player in the league.
In regards to offensive performance, Betts bests Trout in every major batting category:
Betts has also so far outperformed Trout in offensive output as well:
Mookie Betts has quieted down critics from 2017, who noted his poor BABIP percentage (.268) and mediocre wRC+ (108). Over the course of 2017, Betts, despite his down offensive year, still managed to be a 5.4 WAR player. In 2018 however, Betts is already a 3.6 WAR player and it is barely one-fourth of the way through the season.
Clearly, there has been a change in Betts’ hitting from 2017 to 2018. A player does not nearly double his wRC+ only through a higher batting average. Since wRC+ measures runs per plate appearance, Betts’ higher offensive value is the result of him producing more runs on average. As a result, what needs to be examined is what is causing Betts to become a more formidable run producer.
Through the first quarter of the season, two trends have emerged that may explain why Betts is a more dangerous hitter: he has bought into the launch angle phenomenon and is pulling the ball more.
MLB analysts have noted the launch angle phenomenon over the past few seasons. The increased focus on launch angles has led to a steady increase in home runs and strikeouts while generating a noticeable decrease in on-base percentage. Successful hitters who buy into this phenomenon tend to produce more fly balls since they achieve more lift on the ball, which increases their chances of hitting a home run or a double off the wall.
Out of all hitters over the past season, Betts has increased his launch angle the most. Consider the graph below with Betts’ launch angle represented by the yellow dot:
The chart shows that from 2017 to 2018, Betts has been one of the most improved hitters in regards to lifting the ball. This may explain why Betts’ FB% (fly ball percentage) has jumped from 42.6% in 2017 to 46.8% in 2018.
However, Betts’ launch angle does not tell the entire story. Many hitters have high launch angles that do not particularly generate a high batting average or wRC+. Joey Gallo is a perfect example. He has an impressive launch angle but is only batting .201 with a 95 wRC+. Some of these hitters, like Gallo, are susceptible to hitting more pop-ups to the opposite field (30.4% of fly balls have went to the opposite field). Not Betts though. Betts’ launch angle increase has coincided with his increased rate of pulling batted balls.
Like his launch angle, pulling baseballs is an area that Betts has showed a significant jump in compared to the first few year of his career. Consider his pulled batted ball percentages over the past few years:
In 2018, Betts has significantly pulled the ball more frequently to left field, which plays well into Fenway Park’s field dimensions. As the spray chart below shows, Betts has taken advantage of the short left field in Fenway.
Therefore, it cannot be denied that Betts playing half of his games at Fenway Park has contributed positively to Betts’ offensive value. At 310 feet from home plate, Boston’s left field wall (known as the Green Monster) is the closest to home plate out of all thirty ballparks. Fenway Park is well-known for being a right-handed hitter’s best friend (one reason why J.D. Martinez made so much sense for the Red Sox this past offseason).
Thanks to its short distance from home plate along with the tall Green Monster, it is incredibly easy for right-handed power hitters to consistently hit doubles and home runs down the left field line.
As a result, Fenway Park has seen numerous masterful performances from Betts thus far in 2018. One of these impressive offensive performances was against the Royals earlier this month. In the game, Betts went 4-for-4, including three home runs. As the video below shows, all of Betts’ home runs went over the left field fence, showcasing Betts’ ability to pull the ball.
Mookie Betts’ success at Fenway Park cannot be understated. In 2018, he is hitting a potent .417 (30-for-83) with 19 of those 30 hits being for extra bases. However, Betts has still hit extremely well on the road, batting .333 through May 23rd with 17 extra base hits. His home-road splits indicate that while Fenway Park has helped Betts’ numbers, his offensive success can be seen as legitimate due to his overall success on the road. Like at home, Betts has hit more extra base hits than singles on the road.
Due to him thriving in the lead-off spot, Betts can be expected to remain there for the foreseeable future. His ability to get on base plus provide power makes him the perfect lead-off candidate in this saber metric era of baseball analytics. As long as Betts continues to provide the offense that the Red Sox have come to expect from him this season, he should be the AL MVP for 2018.
With all due to respect to Mike Trout, Mookie Betts has been the American League’s best player this year.
(All statistics and information came from Baseball-Reference.com, FanGraphs.com, or ESPN.com, unless otherwise noted).
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