Mike Trout is a generational star, the complete package in a way we haven’t seen in a while. He hits, he hits for power, he’s an excellent baserunner, and a superb defender at a premium defensive position. And now he’s the AL MVP, an award he won, as he should have, over the Red Sox’s own Mookie Betts.
I won’t make Trout’s case over Mookie — that’s been made by better and more illustrious writers than I elsewhere on the internet — except to say comparing anyone to Mike Trout is a fool’s errand. It’s baseball’s version of trying to make someone look bad by comparing them to Adolph Hitler. Problem is, nothing is as bad as Hitler. He’s the absolute worst, so anytime you bring him up you diminish your argument as well as make yourself look like an insensitive jerk. In his own way, Trout serves that purpose on the opposite end of the positive/negative spectrum. He is so, so good, and so, so young, and despite getting jobbed repeatedly by the baseball writers, he’s still got two MVP awards by age 25.
If you’re a player, you can’t be Mike Trout, and if you’re a fan you can’t get Mike Trout. As great as it would be to see Trout in a Red Sox uniform, no silly trade proposal we can concoct on the internet is going to get it done. But we Red Sox fans have the next best thing. Literally the next best thing, as it turns out: Mookie Betts. Betts isn’t Trout, a point I hope I’ve driven home like who ever hits behind Mike Trout driving in Mike Trout. But like Trout, broadly speaking, Betts is very young, and very good at many different parts of his game. Even if he’ll never be Trout, that’s a good start.
One part though that stands out as a red flag in the argument against Mookie Betts as AL MVP (other than the really big red flag that reads “Mike Trout”) is found in Betts’ slash line. Let’s see if we can find it. In 2016 Betts hit .316/.363/.534. Each of those numbers is very good or better and when you put them together like Betts did they become all the more impressive, but the one that stands out as non-elite is the on-base percentage. When you pull up the leaderboards you find Mookie tied for 10th in the AL in that category. That might not be elite, but any time a player finishes in the top 10 of anything, that’s pretty good. Trout finished with .441 OBP, but considering I spent three paragraphs saying don’t comp anyone to Mike Trout, let’s looks at Josh Donaldson, who finished second with an OBP of .404. Only three AL players had OBPs over .400, and only four NL players managed to do it, but that’s seven guys who beat Betts by about 40 points of OBP. I’d argue that a .400 OBP is the dividing line between good and elite, and for all the good he did, Betts finished well below that line.
There’s nothing that says a guy like Betts can’t improve, though, nothing that says he can’t reach that elite level. Betts just turned 24. His birthday is October 7, so he’ll be 24 all next season. Most 24-year-olds aren’t coming off a second place finish for AL MVP, so there’s that. But more than that, if there’s one thing we’ve seen from Mookie during the course of his short career, it’s an ability to improve, to learn, to adjust, to get better. He’s done it offensively, he’s done it on the bases, and maybe most impressively, he’s done it by going from a shortstop when drafted, to a second baseman in the upper minors, to a Gold Glove-winning right fielder in the major leagues. Some players move positions, but it’s usually because they couldn’t handle the old one. Betts moved because the team needed him to, and got better.
Secondly, he came up through the Red Sox system with a reputation as a very patient hitter. We’ve seen Betts post some inhuman on-base percentages before in the minor leagues. In Single-A Greenville back in 2013, Betts posted a .418 OBP in 76 games. He was called up to High-A Salem and put up a .414 OBP in 51 games. Next season, in 54 games for Double-A Portland, his OBP was .443 and in 45 games for Pawtucket it was .417. Between 2012, his first full season in the minors and 2014 when he played 52 games for Boston (with a .368 OBP), Betts played for seven different teams. Only twice did he strike out more than he walked. Once was for Pawtucket in 2014 (30 strikeouts and 26 walks in 45 games) and the other came in 2013 for the Surprise Saguaros of the Arizona Fall League (nine walks and 10 strikeouts in 16 games).
Point is, walks are a strength of Mookie Betts’ game! He’s always been a patient hitter, he’s always controlled the strike zone, and those two aspects in a players game are going to lead to walks. And those walks, plus Betts’ speed and ability to barrel up the ball, are going to lead to a big on-base percentage. Major League pitchers are a different animal of course, and that’s partly why Betts has changed his habits a bit since his time in Greenville and Portland. Perhaps those changes mean the Minor League version of Betts isn’t coming back. There’s a reason after all why Betts made the majors so quickly. He was much better than those minor league pitchers could handle, so perhaps, when faced with him, they tried to get him to chase and when he didn’t they’d just put him on. Walking him was preferable to giving up an extra base hit. That’s not the case in the majors where walking Betts meant facing David Ortiz with a fast runner on base. It makes sense that pitchers would be more willing to challenge Betts and considering their improved talent versus that of minor league pitchers, they’d have more success doing it.
Mookie is still evolving as a hitter. Later in the season it seemed pitchers were less willing to challenge him with fastballs on the inside, where his power is, and more apt to throw him soft stuff on the outside, content to have him try to slap the ball the other way. Perhaps this represents another step in the evolving Book On Stopping Mookie. One thing about having six years in the majors, the book has already been written and studied. Betts’ has a bit over two years experience. Pitchers may still be getting used to him. He may need to continue adjusting in response.
If part of pitchers’ response is to bust him away and outside the zone with breaking stuff to reduce his power, it says here and in the preceding paragraphs that the man will take those pitches, and happily trot down to first. That doesn’t mean the power numbers will drop either, it just means Mookie’s game is still being formed. And that’s a good thing. The elite OBP may yet be in there. So even if he’s not Mike Trout, there could be yet another gear to explore, and that’s an impressive thing considering we’re talking about the runner up for AL MVP.
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