Mookie Betts’ Waning Aggression

To be quite honest, I’m getting tired of trying to come up with new witty quips about how boring this offseason has been. Since late December I’ve been starting Roster Recaps with a variety of overplayed jokes, the majority of which probably missed the mark, and it’s taken it’s toll.  Mookie Betts winning his arbitration case, while not insignificant, can’t be the most exciting news of the offseason. I don’t know how I’m going to spend the next month waiting to make presumptive claims that, hey, Rusney Castillo actually looks really good in early March. SOMETHING HAPPEN. PLEASE.

The assumption this offseason has been that the Red Sox are going to add a big bat. The offense was D.O.A. just a bit too often last summer for Dave Dombrowski, and the J.D. Martinez match just fits too well.

*knocks on wood until his knuckles bleed*

All the “_____ needs to be better” noise seems to start and end with Mookie.

The team seems to be out of the Eric Hosmer Sweepstakes™, so at this point it seems like it’s JD Martinez or bust. The notion that the Red Sox could benefit purely from internal improvement isn’t one that the team disagrees with, as Dombrowski threw some players under the bus  mentioned earlier in the offseason that they were counting on offensive improvements across the board.

All the “_____ needs to be better” noise seems to start and end with Mookie. While it’s not entirely fair — Betts was still an above-average offensive player last season — it’s easy to understand why some might have been underwhelmed by his production. He was a 7-8 win player (depending on where you look) in 2016, but came up short of repeating that in 2017. After slashing .318/.363/.534 in 2016, Betts hit .264/.344/.459 last year, prompting many to fire up their hottest takes and yell endlessly into the void.

Let me stress again that Betts was good — very good, even — last year. He’s still one of the premier young players in baseball, and the 10.5 million dollars that an independent arbiter awarded him proves that. The first thing that sticks out when you look and see what went “wrong” last year is Betts’ aggression at the plate. Here, courtesy of Brooks Baseball, are Betts’ swinging percentages from 2016 and 2017:

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Also worth noting: Betts’ walk rate rose over four percentage points between 2016 and 2017, the largest jump of his young career. Betts was clearly more selective at the dish, and I can’t help but wonder how much being more selective hurt his overall offensive profile. Drawing more walks is by no means a bad thing, but Betts wasn’t just laying off bad pitches — he also took strikes at a higher rate than either of his previous two years, and the most since his first season in the bigs. This team isn’t going to live or die by Betts taking marginally more walks, but there were more than a few at-bats last season where it seemed like he was taking pitches that he could have done a lot of damage with.

I don’t think it’s entirely coincidental that Mookie’s best offensive year also came when he was most aggressive at the plate. We already know he has a great eye, as made evident by the consistently-low strikeout rate he’s kept over his three full seasons. I’m of the opinion that the best version of Mookie Betts is a bit more of a free-swinger than he was last season, and Alex Cora’s look-for-early-strikes methodology seems to say the team agrees.

In the end, learning how to better draw walks was probably a good thing for Betts’ career. Especially considering that Betts will be the leadoff hitter heading into spring, it’s nice to know that he’s learning how to work a count. With that said, I selfishly want to see him swing the bat more, because days like this make him so damn fun to watch:

Photo by Wendell Cruz — USA TODAY Sports

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