mookie betts is mostly fineBaseball 

Mookie Betts Is (Mostly) Fine

mookie betts is mostly fine
© Kamil Krzaczynski-USA TODAY Sports

When Mookie Betts scuffled through the first couple weeks of the 2022 season, the Dodgers and their fans had cause for concern. The 29-year-old right fielder was coming off the worst season of his eight-year major league career, one in which he was beset by injuries. With well over $300 million still coming his way over the next two decades (a good chunk of which is deferred), this seemed like an inopportune time for him to demonstrate that he was already well into his decline.

One four-week (and counting) hot streak later, it appears that reports of Betts’ demise have been greatly exaggerated. His overall numbers don’t jump off the page due to his slow start, but in this year’s difficult offensive environment, his .263/.354/.482 line is good for a 141 wRC+, which ranks 14th in the NL, and his 1.6 WAR is tied for sixth. He’s been particularly hot lately, hitting .360/.429/.840 with three doubles and three homers over his past six games.

Betts may have created some unrealistic expectations after being acquired by the Dodgers in a protracted five-player blockbuster in February 2020. He proceeded to ink a 12-year, $365 million deal in July, then help his new team win its first championship in 32 years — and his second in three. In the pandemic-shortened campaign, he hit .292/.366/.562 for a 147 wRC+, his highest mark aside from his 2018 AL MVP-winning campaign (185). His 2.9 WAR placed third in the league, he finished second in the NL MVP voting, and he put on a tour de force during the postseason, showing off his skills at the plate, on the bases, and in the field on a nightly basis, right up through the World Series-clinching Game 6 in which he set up the tying run with a scorching double that was just the Dodgers’ second hit of the night, sped home with the go-ahead run on an infield grounder, and added an insurance run via a late homer.

That season proved too tough an act to follow, particularly as Betts dealt with a variety of ailments — lower back stiffness, left shoulder soreness, an allergic reaction, a stomach bug — in the first half of 2021. “Mookie Betts Has Been in a Funk,” I wrote at a time the man was carrying a 131 wRC+, that while noting that the parched offensive environment meant that his struggles weren’t nearly as bad as they looked. Betts made the NL All-Star team; he withdrew due to his minor injuries, but bracketed the All-Star break with a 12-for-16 binge good for 25 total bases. He continued to battle his body, landing on the injured list in late July with inflammation in his right hip, and played just five games after returning in early August before going on the shelf again, this time with a definitive diagnosis: the recurring pain and inflammation in his hip was caused by a bone spur, though it wasn’t in the labrum area of the hip.

Thereafter, the Dodgers were able to help Betts manage the pain via cortisone shots, and he finished the year with a .264/.367/.487 line and, yes, the same funky 131 wRC+. His injury left its footprints, as he played in just 122 games, stole a full-season low 10 bases (he had the same total in 55 games the year before), and was below average by OAA (-2) for the first time.

Surprisingly, Betts did not require offseason surgery to remove the bone spur, and didn’t even require an additional MRI. Instead he was able to strengthen the area via rehab, and reported to camp in top shape. “I did some good work to get back healthy and I’m ready to go,” he told reporters.

While Betts doubled off the Rockies’ Kyle Freeland on Opening Day, he started the season in a 7-for-41 funk, adding just one additional extra-base hit in his first 11 games and not barreling a single ball. “It’s just me,” he said on April 22 when asked whether his problems were physical, and he admitted that the mental aspect of the slump had momentarily gotten the better of him:

“I can’t blame it on the hip, I can’t blame it on anything else. It’s all me. You have to take ownership for sucking…

…”It’s kind of tough to focus on one thing when a lot of things are kind of going wrong. You have to be mentally tough and, you know, I wasn’t. I was not mentally tough and my teammates stayed on me. … You just kinda let it get to you and then it just compounds. I take full ownership of letting it compound.”

Those words came after Betts homered twice against the Padres — one of them via his first barrel of the season — while getting on base five times, building on a two-hit game two days earlier. Since that 7-for-41 start, he’s batting .302/.387/.594 (178 wRC+) with eight homers, a 9.8% barrel rate, and a 48.8% hard-hit rate. Even then, however, he’s averaging only 89.8 mph in terms of exit velocity.

With the exception of 2018 — a season during which the Red Sox were found to have illegally stolen signs, albeit not to the extent that the Astros did — Betts’ batted balls have rarely lit up Statcast. That season aside, his highest average exit velo, barrel rate, hard-hit rate, and Statcast expected stats came in 2019:

Mookie Betts by Statcast
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

Circa 2019, Betts’ average exit velo placed in the 82nd percentile, and his barrel rate (92nd), hard-hit rate (90th), and xwOBA (98th) were even higher, more or less elite. Those standings all fell in 2020 and again in ’21, but not uniformly; last year his exit velo, barrel, and xwOBA ranged from the 67th percentile to the 72nd, but his hard-hit rate was down at the 48th percentile. In this young season — where he does have 112 batted ball events, well past the point where exit velo, barrel, and hard-hit rates stabilize) — that exit velo is just in the 49th percentile but his barrel and hard-hit rates are in the 66th and 67th, respectively, and his xwOBA in the 79th.

You’ll notice the yellow cell in the table above. Statcast tracks weak contact, which is any batted ball under 60 mph, regardless of launch angle, and includes bunts; you can disregard those, however, as Betts hasn’t even attempted a bunt since 2016. His weak contact rate is nearly triple last year’s rate, and almost as high as his barrel rate! That’s something you don’t see every day.

On the other hand, consider Betts’ xSLG. I didn’t track his pattern above, but he’s currently in the 81st percentile, his highest placement of any of this year’s Statcast figures I’ve cited, and his highest in that area since 2019, when home run rates were at an all-time high. By xSLG, his rolling rate is, if not at its peak, then in a range that outside of 2018-19 he has only fleetingly attained:

mookie betts is mostly fine

All of which is a long-winded way of saying that while his performance to this point has been uneven, Betts appears to be fine when it comes to making contact, particularly in a year when offense is down.

That said, lurking in Betts pitch-type splits is something that may be cause for concern: He’s having trouble with four-seam fastballs:

Mookie Betts vs. Four-Seam Fastballs
SOURCE: Baseball Savant

On his Statcast page, Betts’ problem is obscured by the inclusion of sinkers and cutters — both of which he generally mashes to one degree or another – in the “fastball” grouping; by those measures his xSLG has fallen from last year’s .552 to .488 and his xwOBA from .394 to .372. Drops, to be sure, but not a big deal when the sample size is considered, and more than offset by his greater success against breaking and offspeed pitches. The problem shows up in even more stark terms using a 95-mph cutoff:

Mookie Betts vs. Four-Seam Fastballs 95 mph or Higher

I should point out that despite these meager performances, Betts isn’t whiffing on the heaters. His swinging strike rate on all four-seamers has ranged from 4.2% to 5.2% in four years out of the past five (his 2020 rate of 2.4% being the outlier); this year, it’s at 4.6%. He’s whiffed on just four fastballs 95 mph or higher this season, less than one per week. That’s not his problem — quality of contact on those fastballs is. He hasn’t barreled a four-seamer of any velocity this year, and while only one such ball classifies as weak contact, his x-stats suggest he’s producing a lot of routine outs.

Given that, it shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that Betts is struggling with elevated four-seamers:

Mookie Betts vs. Four-Seam Fastballs High in the Zone
SOURCE: Baseball Savant
Includes Gameday Zones 1,2,3, 11, and 12.

The latter-day Betts generally hasn’t produced high batting averages against such pitches, but he usually does manage some power — but not this year, at least not yet.

The samples obviously aren’t large, but I think it’s fair to say that Betts’ deteriorating performance against four-seamers is a cause for concern, even while he’s generally performing at a high level, remaining an exceptionally disciplined hitter who produces high contact rates (though his 16.5% strikeout rate is a career high) and power. His speed seems to have taken a hit amid last year’s injuries; he placed in the 72nd to 76th percentiles from 2016-19, was up to the 87th percentile in the shortened ’20 season — he didn’t have a whole season to wear down — but down to the 53rd last year and the 48th this year. I can tell you from gazing at his Statcast page for the past few days (a totally normal thing to do, why do you ask?) that he was in the 39th percentile earlier this week, so that’s on the rise. Likewise for his outfield jumps, which place him in the 69th percentile, up from the 61st last year and right around where he was in 2018-19. By the small-sample metrics (2 DRS, 2.0 UZR, 1 OAA) or the eye test, his outfield defense is looking pretty good:

Particularly given that he’s no longer calling Fenway Park home, that he’s hitting a deadened ball, and that — like the rest of us — he’s aging, the Betts that we saw in 2018 probably isn’t coming back. Still, the one that the Dodgers have, the one whose rest-of-season projection would leave him with a 145 wRC+ and 6.8 WAR, appears to be just fine.

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