The first time I made chocolate chip cookies they were fantastic. They were lightly crunchy on the outside, but soft and chewy in the middle, with a depth of flavor and a sweetness that was enjoyable but not overwhelming at the same time. Just wonderful. The second time I made them, they were nowhere near that good. I’m not sure what I did wrong but there was a massive difference between the two batches. The first time was amazing, the second time was just eh, but – and this is key – I still ate all of them because they were chocolate chip cookies and even mediocre chocolate chip cookies are delicious.
I made up that dumb story to illustrate how awesome Mookie Betts is. His first year was amazing. He was a revelation in right field, got on base, and hit for a shocking amount of power. He darn near won the AL MVP! In 2017 though, things were different. His defense was still great, and so was his base running, but his power and on-base dipped. He finished sixth in the MVP vote. But even so, he was still awesome because, as foretold by the stupid cookie thing, even lesser Mookie Betts is still Mookie Betts.
What Went Right In 2017
To reiterate, in 2017 Mookie Betts was Mookie Betts. Dude hit, played amazing defense, and ran the bases with abandon. He hit 24 homers, stole 26 bases, and walked almost as much as he struck out. Also, Betts’ ability to take ball four took a big leap forward in 2017, going from walking in 6.7 percent of his plate appearances to 10.8 percent. This is the kind of thing that A) sounds good, B) is good in a vacuum, and C) we’ll touch on more later. Continuing down the list, Betts’ defense was incredible to the point where he won a Gold Glove. Not that Gold Gloves have much to do with actual defense as much as perceived defense, but hey, a little recognition isn’t wrong.
Betts was the Red Sox best hitter, base runner, and fielder on a team that won 93 games and a division title. So sure, poke holes in that, Mr. Smart Baseball Guy. Poke all the holes in it you want, but keep in mind this is still one of the best hitters, best fielders, and best base runners in baseball. Still.
What Went Wrong In 2017
Betts popped up a lot more balls in 2017 than he had in previous seasons, which perhaps came from him becoming pull-happy, especially later in the year. This could have been an approach problem, but more likely it was just an offensive rut, as far as these things go if you’re Mookie Betts.
So remember that part about walking more from a few paragraphs ago? There’s a reason that it’s maybe not the best. In 2016 Betts swung at pitches 41 percent of the time. In 2017, it dropped to 36 percent. That’s not bad if he’s not swinging at balls, and that was partially the case (you can see the results in Betts’ walk rate) but really what happened is Betts took a far more passive approach in 2017 than he did in 2016. In 2016 Betts swung at pitches in the strike zone somewhere around 57 percent of the time (depending on which data you’re looking at) but in 2016 he swung at five-to-six percent fewer of those strikes. That lead to fewer hits and fewer hits for power.
The good news there is Betts was ahead and behind in the count at very similar rates in both seasons, so the approach seems more like a choice than anything else, and choices are easily changed. In fact, this might be exactly the type of thing Alex Cora was talking about correcting when he addressed the Red Sox passive approach in his opening press conference.
What To Expect In 2018
Mookie Betts will be all of 25 years old next season so it’s fair to say we’ve seen the best of him. He’ll probably be terrible in 2018 and the Red Sox will finish last.
I kid, I kid. Betts is on the young side of the aging curve, not even to his peak seasons yet, so it wouldn’t be outlandish to expect a few modest improvements in overall production over the next few seasons. Maybe the power Betts showed in 2016 won’t return in full. That honestly wouldn’t be too terribly surprising. The approach should improve though, and if it does the power could come back, if not in homers than in doubles and triples. Betts might be the kind of hitter who is better served hunting for pitches to barrel up, rather than showing a more passive approach in attempt to boost his on-base percentage. The thing about Mookie Betts though is, no matter which version we get in 2018, he’ll still be Mookie Betts. So really, any way you slice it, he’s very good.
Photo by David Kohl – USA TODAY Sports